*I have chosen to use the terms ‘LGBT+’ and ‘queer’ in this article, but I would like to acknowledge that this is not intended to overshadow all other preferred ways of referring to ones’ gender identity or sexual orientation, and certainly are not meant to be offensive or exclusionary.
**Names have been changed to protect their identities.
As a state school student from the North East of England, Cambridge was always going to be a difficult endeavour. I won’t hesitate to admit that, for me, it has been. For a myriad of reasons, I find Cambridge a deeply destabilising place and one where I struggled for a long time to find a sense of home. I’m not here to throw a self-pity party though, but actually to take a step towards making peace with the place. To dwell on a positive, let me turn now to the details of my experience as an LGBT+ person at Cambridge.
I was particularly lucky from the off as my ‘college Dad’ is gay and made up one-half of the two LGBT+ officers on my college’s committee. ‘College parents’ are the glorified version of the buddy system you had in primary school, they’re just your go-to people for advice, although some are certainly more dedicated than others. Principally though, this meant I had an in into all the LGBT+ college events which I might have been too nervous to attend otherwise. The adorably named ‘LGBTea and Cakes’ proved to be less than intimidating. However, which, in a place where most societies’ idea of fun is a debate with admission requiring fluency in six languages and Grade 8 in at least five instruments, is nothing short of remarkable. True to its name, this was a weekly chat in the common room supplied with the best of Sainsbury’s baked goods aisle. Often it was my only couple of hours of relief on a Sunday otherwise spent holed up in my room agonising over an essay…
Also, I went to a few LGBT+ meet-ups here and there which were, again, probably some of the most chilled out events I have been to throughout my time at Cambridge (however nice an intimate piano recital in the Master’s Lodge might be, sometimes you just want a pint and a chat). The diversity of what the Student’s Union arranges along these lines is really pretty admirable. I say pint and a chat because that’s my vibe, and I found several general LGBT+ pub meet-ups. However, if you were a quiet non-binary person, for example, you can be sure there would be a non-binary specific Waterstones’ coffee meet-up coming up. In an environment where you might feel palpable anxiety at being *the only (insert your own LGBT+ identification) one*, being able to drill down into a community of people similar to you becomes very valuable.
Fast forward through the first year and the final explosive queer event of the year was ‘Rainbow Ball’. In a week of different post-exam parties and balls, which are just so much less fancy than people think, this was really the stand-out for me. Instead of the typical black-tie, there was a completely gender-neutral dress code that brought out people’s brightly coloured suits, fishnets, leotards, and drag attire – it was incredibly refreshing. Also, I’m a bit of a hermit, the first time I was seeing such extraordinary student talent. A hilarious improv troop were featured, a string quartet played, and the Cambridge Dragtime society brought the house down with performers singing live.
One drag act in particular sticks in my mind, but my memory has failed me to the extent that I cannot remember their specific song. I have the vague idea that it was a David Bowie one (Heroes? Rebel Rebel? Starman?) but I will leave it up to the reader’s imagination to fill in my memory blank. Rather unconventionally, the performer – we’ll call her Sarah** – issued a disclaimer before she began. Having strutted onto the stage in a shiny silver get-up with a massive lightning bolt across the face, she graciously warned the crowd: “I’m not the best singer but this is my favourite song and it means a lot to me so I’m going to sing it anyway”. It was an objectively weak vocal performance, but it was performed with such spirit and liberated energy that I remember taking a split second to absorb how important it truly was. Now, I hear you, that’s an awfully dramatic retelling for what was basically just a mediocre take on Bowie, and this was the opinion a friend of mine couldn’t help but express: “the performances were amazing, apart from Sarah’s butchering of that Bowie song”. That just wasn’t the point though, Thomas**, that just wasn’t. the. point. You see after a year spent walking on eggshells as I tried to navigate my radical new social and academic environment, without underperforming or embarrassing myself (with little success), to see someone stand up and admit their own averageness was radical.
However, that’s Cambridge. Sometimes it feels like struggling is that taboo topic people do their best to avoid, myself included. I have realised, however, that being LGBT+ became a veritable privilege in that environment because I could join a community without ever needing to explain or justify myself in order to feel accepted. When I share my side of things, I cannot, of course, speak for every LGBT+ person at Cambridge and my partner who I met there would paint you a very different picture. I will tentatively suggest, however, that most people would agree with me. Take, as my last example, a conversation I had with a guy in my corridor kitchen where queer students were meeting for drinks ahead of the weekly LGBT+ club event. Having never met this guy before, we ended up in conversation and he freely discussed being trans and his transition story, as well as his boyfriend’s recent career change. For any queer individual, the natural ease of discussing queerness in queer spaces will not be a surprise. In Cambridge though, or indeed any university environment (where you are constantly playing the game of trying to find common ground with people) having that open line of belonging and commonality is invaluable.