Before I went to university, I had never really dated anyone. I hung around being 'the funny one' while my small-town mates got off with one another in varying combinations of couples. I did manage to snog a girl from the year above around the back of Sainsbury’s (by the bins) but honestly, until I left for university, I had never really felt any comfort in my own skin. I think back now and realise it’s because I didn’t know anyone who saw the world like I did.
When I got to university, I ripped the plaster off quick. Within two days all my flatmates knew I was gay and I was ready to start colouring in the blank page in my life. It turned out that the blank page was more like a few blank pages. See, I thought I was just lacking in romantic relationships but that wasn't true.
It turned out that what I really needed at that point in my life was to find a community, not a girlfriend.
When I saw posters around campus for the LGBT Society, I can’t lie, I was truly desperate to walk into a room to see a load of women I fancied. At the first meeting, that didn’t happen and I left feeling frustrated. I already felt like I had missed out on the fun of being a reckless teenager and here we were, freshers, awkwardly sipping Diet Coke from plastic cups under the sterile lights of a lecture hall.
I stopped attending the meetings for a little while but soon the loneliness crept back in and so I forced myself to try again. This time, after we got past the terrible small talk, my world changed.
I made friends who had watched the same obscure TV series as me just to catch a 10-second, lacklustre gay kiss. I made friends who had just as much passion for fancy dress as I did because we were used to going to the club with no intention of making anyone fancy us. I made friends who fancied the same women as me and we talked about crushes like I’d heard my straight friends do. It turned out that what I really needed at that point in my life was to find a community, not a girlfriend. To have a group of people who 'got' it without me having to explain why. I needed a group of people who could understand how I was experiencing the world because they were experiencing it the same way. It’s not until you’re part of a crowd like this that you realise how tiring it is to be the odd one out.
The LGBT Society gave me a weekly appointment to check in on the part of my life that had been scrunched up like a piece of paper for 18 years and for many others at the meeting, I saw it was the same. After years of introverting ourselves in our small towns or less than understanding families for fear of standing out enough to be picked on, we could finally be free. And oh my goodness, did we celebrate that.
I'm so sad that there are freshers this year who aren't experiencing the same joyful liberation which so many of us felt back then. Being away from home for the first time, surrounded by people who don't know you, is perhaps one of the most powerful moments of self-realisation for anyone. Being stuck in student halls doing lectures over Zoom can't be quite the same thing.
We all feel like caged birds right now and you more than anyone know how it feels to have clipped wings.
That's not to say there isn't stuff going on worth seeking out. I still follow my old LGBT Society on Facebook and I'm so glad to see them reaching out to make contact with students in this particularly contactless time. This week they’re celebrating Black History Month with a movie night raising money for a Black LGBT charity. They spoke about Mental Health Awareness Day last week, reminding people to reach out to them. They have drop-ins and guest speakers and parties via Zoom and I’m so proud that they haven’t given up just because times are tough. If societies can be active during this time it will be a lifeline to many.
For any first-time university students reading this, if your experience so far has been seriously hampered by COVID-19, please make the time to reach out to your LGBTQIA+ society. We all feel like caged birds right now and you more than anyone know how it feels to have clipped wings. Your societies are the jumping off point for a vital part of your university experience; a chance to find a crowd to be a part of and to feel like you belong. Yes, Zoom meetings can be awkward but do not let COVID stop you from colouring in the pages of your life in the brightest, proudest colours. Once this is all over, you have so much more to look forward to.