Supporting LGBTQIA+ students and staff in higher education
Individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual and more (LGBTQIA+) can face exclusion and discrimination throughout higher education and into the workplace, often impacting their academic success and personal wellbeing.
Progress is being made across Australian universities to advance support and inclusion for students of diverse gender identities, and there is much to be learnt from established institution-led initiatives demonstrating outstanding practices in this area.
In this feature, we are very pleased to showcase two inspiring best practice case studies from leading institutions, Southern Cross University and Edith Cowan University. Thank you to our contributors for sharing their passion and experience to help other universities shape a better future for LGBTQIA+ students.
South Cross University
Victoria Drury and Jimzeena LeCerf, Equity and Inclusion, Southern Cross University
Southern Cross University (SCU) is a regional university with strong ties and identity, shaped by its surrounding communities. Spanning three main campuses and over five satellite locations, SCU takes a highly proactive approach to LGBTQIA+ inclusion. The university has been vocal and visible in its support of public issues, community-led events and capacity building for more informed LGBTQIA+ student support initiatives for many years.
Visibility and Executive Champion support are central to the SCU approach
Annual on campus LGBTQIA+ events have been a feature of SCU’s Diversity Calendar since 2015 and run in partnership with campus based LGBTQIA+ student groups, with community support from ACON and Police LGBTQIA+ Liaison Officers.
In 2017, SCU issued a strong, positive statement in support of marriage equality from its Chancellor at the time, Mr Nick Burton Taylor, stating, “At a time when there has been extensive public debate about same-sex marriage, organisations like ours have a responsibility to exercise leadership and stand up for the rights of all members of our university community”.
2019 saw SCU Ally Network members, with the support of the Vice-Chancellor, represent the University in one of the largest LGBTQIA+ events in the region and Australia: the Tropical Fruits parade in Lismore, home of the University’s founding campus, in the Rainbow Region of Northern NSW.
Launching a formal Ally Network and ongoing engagement
In 2019, the Ally Network was officially launched as a whole-of-university approach to supporting LGBTQIA+ students and identified as a safe place for advice, connection, visibility and belonging.
Ally Network members comprise both LGBTQIA+ identifying and non-identifying academic and professional staff, currently numbering 45 across all campus locations. Allies commit to raising awareness by making support for gender and sexuality diversity visible on campus, online and embedded within the student experience.
Allies undertake Understanding Gender and Sexuality Diversity training, are connected in a community of practice and regularly via newsletter. Training is offered to staff at all SCU locations via online sessions, allowing for a scalable and far-reaching approach. Led by the Equity and Inclusion team, in collaboration with LGBTQIA+ identifying colleagues and allies, the training uses a combination of real-life narratives and values-based activities to facilitate self-reflection and understanding of issues experienced by people of diverse sexuality and gender identities. It explores historical timelines, heteronormative assumptions, intersectionality, terminology, personal experiences and student case studies. The initiative has been highly commended for its impact, noted in 2021 by the Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor Students, Peter Cook:
Congratulations. I can honestly say this is one of the better workshops I have attended for a long time. The choices of materials, flowing structure, and presenters made for a genuinely informative and transformative workshop. I think that the conversations and honesty presented by the participants is testimony to your leadership in this space.
Eyes to the future
SCU is loud and proud in their commitment to visibility, inclusion, success and celebration of students of diverse gender identities and sexualities and is a place that students can be their most authentic self in pursuit of their goals. Ever evolving, the next focus for this initiative will incorporate student voice and participation in this established and growing network.
Edith Cowan University
Professor Braden Hill, Stevie Lane and Dr Fiona Navin, Edith Cowan University
Universities play a vital role in educating for social justice and leading societal change. Research consistently shows the negative impact of discrimination on the wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ people, and the need for inclusion initiatives to counter this, in workplaces, educational settings, and society more broadly.
Intentional consideration and action are required to foster an inclusive learning and professional environment. At Edith Cowan University (ECU), our work purposefully adopts an intersectional lens, guided by those with lived experience and work within the academic community (Andrews, Robinson, Dare & Costello, 2020; Mohammedali, Sudarto & Zaharin, 2022; Hill et al., 2021; Rhodes, 2017).
However, there are challenges in an evidence-informed approach to ‘missing’ student equity groups (Harvey, et al., 2016). Australian universities are not required to collect data on the number of LGBTQIA+ students enrolled, nor ask for feedback on their unique experiences. These gaps limit the voices that truly reflect our diverse student cohorts. While this issue is not limited to the tertiary sector, pointing to larger systemic concerns, this should not stop universities from being courageous and proactive.
So, what does LGBTQIA+ inclusion look like in the higher education sector?
Language is a powerful tool in developing and maintaining a welcoming and inclusive culture and environment where everyone feels they can fully participate in study, employment, and other opportunities. ECU’s Inclusive Language Guide explores not just examples of inclusive language, but the history and meaning behind them.
Inclusive data collection and systems changes
As our collective understanding of sex, gender and sexuality continues to evolve, it is important that data collection methods reflect and acknowledge the diversity that exists in our community. ECU has created an LGBTIQ Inclusive Data Collection Guide based on national best practice. There currently exist limitations on data collection, influenced by software and government reporting; however, we continue to refine how we capture and use information in ways that validates and affirms people’s identities.
Creating safe spaces
We want everyone to feel safe at our university but acknowledge that LGBTQIA+ people and other marginalised communities may not be able to without specialised support, processes, and physical spaces. Trans, Gender Diverse and Non-Binary (TGDNB) Support Guidelines help staff, students and alumni affirm their gender at ECU, Pride rooms available to queer students, an LGBTQIA+ Staff Network, and all gender bathrooms contribute to inclusion and safety. Consultation with TransFolk of WA is also guiding design aspects of ECU’s city campus opening in late 2025.
Intentional consideration and inclusion across curriculum and pedagogy
Professional development and our internal Inclusive Education Learning Community provide opportunities to develop and share best practice. In recognising that bodily diversity is often missed or forgotten when talking about LGBTQIA+ matters, we are currently working toward a focus on intersex inclusion in the context of the discipline area. A process of ‘queering the curriculum’ is an important component in not only ensuring that LGBTQIA+ students feel safe to learn, but also so that students are prepared when entering the workforce.
Broader view on equity
Universities often stick to the traditional Commonwealth equity indicators in terms of student information. However, at ECU, we are broadening our definition to include contemporary equity cohorts to allow for more nuanced insights into the diverse cohorts entering our university and to enable tailored and personalised support and communications.
Andrew, L., Robinson, K., Dare, J., & Costello, L. (2020). Widening the lens on capital: Conceptualising the university experiences of non-traditional women nurse students. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2020.1815663.
Harvey, A., Burnheim, C. & Brett, M. (Eds.). (2016). Student equity in Australian higher education: Twentyfive years of A Fair Chance for All. Singapore: Springer.
Hill, B., Uink, B., Dodd, J., Bonson, D., Eades, A. & S. Bennett (2021). Breaking the Silence: Insights from WA Services Working with Aboriginal/ LGBTIQ+ People, Organisations Summary Report 2021. Kurongkurl Katitjin, Edith Cowan University. Perth. WA.
Marziya Mohammedali, Budi Sudarto & Aisya Aymanee M. Zaharin (2022) Introduction. Multiple Invisibilities: Space, Resistance and LGBTIQA+ Muslim Perspectives, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 43:1, 88-97, DOI: 10.1080/07256868.2021.2024347.
Rhodes, D. (2017). Heterosexism: A pedagogy of homophobic oppression. In D. J. Rivers & K. Zotzmann (Eds.), Isms in language education: Oppression, intersectionality and emancipation (pp. 230-248). Germany: De Gruyter Mouton.
Editorial note: The initialism LGBTQIA+ has been applied across case studies for consistency.