My Experiences as a Gay Student at a University in England.
In the late 1980s, I was accepted unto a BA Industrial Design course at a University in the North of England. Before starting this course, I had spent a year studying an Art and Design Diploma in Manchester. During the middle to the late 1980s, Manchester was one of the UK’s most vibrant popular music centres. I first came out in Manchester. I still remember, with slight embarrassment, pacing up and down Canal Street with my heart in my throat. After what felt like an eternity, I finally found the courage to climb down the stairs into the basement where the gay friends’ event was taking place. Standing in front of the door, I froze; fortunately, a man opened the door. I stood petrified. He asked, “you are new here?” I said nothing. He then ask me to please come in. My legs leaden, I walked through the doors.
Manchester, as I later found out, was/is one of the most Gay-friendly city in the UK. The Gay scene in Manchester in the middle to the late 80s was vibrant. I had a wonderful time coming out in the city. I was out nearly every weekend dancing and socialising. I developed a friendship with the man who had greeted me at the door of the gay friends’ society. I became friends with him, his partner and his sixty years old mother. His mother would go out with her son and his partner every weekend. Everyone knew her; she would grace and stay on the dance floor for most of the evening. We danced to the songs of The Pointers Sisters; Automatic, to name a few. Those were the nights at the High Society night club.
I digress my experience in Manchester, gave me false expectations of the level of Gay friendliness of other large to medium towns in the UK.
During freshers week at ‘the’ University, I promptly made a beeline for the Gay Society stand. I soon found out that this town in comparison to Manchester was not as gay-friendly, nor did it have the same support networks.
One weekend, I decided to visit a gay pub located next to the University. I did my best to make sure that there was no one I knew around. However, a student attending the Art and Design campus saw me going into the pub.
Soon, the news spread to the halls of residence. In the morning, when I went into the communal male shower, as soon as I entered the room, everyone left.
Entering the design studios at the University, I turned and looked towards the whiteboard and was confronted by writing written in red marker, ‘Lucien are you gay’. I took no notice and walked towards my drawing board, there I was greeted with newspaper cuttings of stories on Aids, and pornographic pictures of male porn performers.
I swept the cuttings aside and proceeded to sit down. The tutor walked into the studio. She asked ‘who has written this’; She did this with a broad grin on her face. All, the predominately, male colleagues started laughing out loud. I assumed that this was going to be the end of the matter. However, I was soon to find out that this was just the beginning. I went to the canteen for lunch. I went to sit down at the table where some of my colleagues were sitting. I pulled out a chair. My colleagues promptly told me that the chair was reserved. I then went to sit at an empty table. I noticed that throughout the lunch break that the empty chairs, around the table, that my colleagues were sitting remained empty. At the same time, no one approached my table.
The next morning, I had the same experience at the hall of residence and the design studios. One morning, while walking into the University, my frustration and anxiety simmering, I told myself that I need to put an end to this. Entering the design studio, I was again confronted with the same text as before on the marker board. Taking a deep breath, I shouted out, “whoever is asking the question, not that it any of your business, the answer is yes.” Naively, I believed that this would bring an end of my torment. Boy, was I mistaken, the jibes, verbal abuse and isolation increased.
Eventually, out of despair, I communicated to the tutors, my distress and discomfort. To my surprise, they responded that boys would be boys and that this is just general banter. The tutor added that I was lucky because a second-year gay student had been locked up overnight in the model spray room by the students.
Despite the abuse, I, every day, attended the course. As the days went by, I found it harder to climb up the hill that led to the campus. Having to confront my colleagues’ abuse was, to me, far more bearable than the alternative, which was to leave the course and return to London.
One winter evening, the ground covered in packed snow, one of the students approached me, and I would say he was the last person I expected to talk to me. I was apprehensive and felt fear. He opened his mouth and said that he did not agree with the way the others were treating me. Those words were the last thing I expected to hear from him. He was the most masculine of all the students. He was not the archetypal art student. He rode a large motorbike and was always dressed in denim and a leather motorcycle jacket. He offered me a ride home. At first, I was hesitant and asked him if he was sure. He, however, would not take no for an answer. I had never ridden on a motorcycle before, and I was a bit scared. I climbed unto the back of the bike. He grabbed my hands, indicating that I should put them around his waist. He sensed my apprehension and told me that I could place my hands on the metal bar at the back of the seat. The worse experience of the ride was the motorcycle going around the corners. I was petrified. I did not know whether I should lean into the bends. I was relieved when we finally made it to the bottom of the hill.
On another occasion, he approached me in and asked me if I would like to go on a photoshoot with him. Again, I hesitated. He looked at me and said, “what are you afraid of?”. Without thinking, I responded by saying “okay”. He, subsequently informed me that the photoshoot would be in the countryside and he would like to photograph me on the motorbike. On the drive to the country, I on this occasion place my hands around his waist. He told me, “look the last time I offered you a ride, you made it very difficult to control the bike. I would, therefore, prefer it if you would hold me around my waist and follow my body movements”.
Again, I digress, the above experience was for me one of the most pleasant and surprising experiences at the University.
The situation at the Halls of Residence deteriorated. The student next door informed me that the students had told their parents that a gay student was living in the halls of residence. They had subsequently submitted a petition to the University. One weekend, one of the student’s mother knocked on the door of my room. I opened the door, and before I had time to say anything, she had pushed her way into the room. She then told me that they did not want my kind here.
One evening, returning to the Hall of Residence, I found a letter underneath the door of my room. I opened the letter, reading the typed print, the letter stated, that due to complaints by the students and their parents, I would have to vacate the room. It continued that the University had to consider the needs of the majority of the students. They further advised me to go to the accommodation services where they would be able to provide me with a list of private accommodations to rent. The letter then went on, stating that they could not reimburse me the fees that I had paid and that I should contact the department of social security for help with paying my rent. I was in a state of shock. I had run away from home to escape my abusive father. Now, The University was telling me that I had to leave the hall of residence.
The irony was that I had always practised safe sex, and I regularly had blood tests. Therefore, they were probably more likely to catch an STD from each other.
Luckily, I was dating another student who was studying a nursing degree. He offered for me to move in with him. After this, I settled down and got on with my studies. I managed to pass all the modules and exams. On the day of the presentation of the end of year grades, I excitedly walked into the design studios. It was a sunny and warm summer’s day. I arrived at the campus, expecting to find out that I had passed the year. The grades were published on a wall in the main corridor of the design school. Before reaching the place where the results were listed, one of my colleagues shook his head as he approached me. Before arriving at the location, one of the tutors called me and gestured that I should come into the office. I entered the office, and she asked me to sit down. The tutor then told me that she was sorry, but I would not be allowed to advance to the second year because I had failed the course. Time, at that moment stopped, I could not believe what I was hearing, an explosion ensued in my head, my skull unable to contain the pressure. She told me that the tutors thought that I had not advanced enough during the year. I told her that I did not understand. How can this be, I asked. I had passed all the modules. Her response to this was, yes, but the tutors felt that I had not made enough progress.
She, then, communicated to me that they had notified my local education authority that I had failed the year. (I was later to find out the significance of this, telling the education authority that I had failed the year meant that they could not reverse their decision). I left the office in a state of shock; my colleagues were staring at me as I walked down the corridor. My whole body was torqued. Reaching the bottom of the hill that leads to the college, I decided I needed to do something to take away the pain. I wanted to sleep and never to get up. I wanted the pressure in my head to subside, to go away. The thought that preoccupied my mind was having to return to London. Especially, having to return to my father as a failure. Where would I go, I could not go back. I could not go back to that paraffin infused room. I told myself that I am not going back to make jelly on the window sills on cold winter nights. I bought a bottle of vodka from the shop. I went into the bedroom and drank the bottle. I just wanted the pain to end. I wanted this gnawing ache to cease. I collapsed on the floor.
I was woken up by the voice of my boyfriend calling out my naming ‘Lucien, wake up’. I, at first, thought it was the morning. However, it was only 5 p.m. Slowly hulling myself off the floor, the tears streaming, I could not stop crying. He asked me what was wrong, and I explained to him that I had failed the course. He asked me, “how can this be?” If I have passed all the assignments and exams, how can I fail the course. He did not believe me and said it must be a mistake. I was beyond consolation. I could not stop crying. I felt my body suddenly tense up, and started shaking. My boyfriend asked his housemates to call an ambulance. The ambulance came, and the paramedics stated that I should rest and that my boyfriend should keep an eye on me.
My boyfriend’s housemates called him. He left the room to chat with them. He later returned to the bedroom looking glum. I asked him what was up? He informed me that his housemates had told him that they were not comfortable with me living in the house. He then proceeded to call the university health centre. They informed him that I could spend the weekend in the health centre clinic. There would be a nurse who would look after me. We called a taxi which took me to the clinic. My boyfriend left, and I was left alone in the centre. Being left alone, I soon got lost in my thoughts and started crying again.
Hearing me sobbing, the nurse entered the room; she asked me if I was okay. I was, however, beyond being consoled. The nurse then informed me that if I did not stop crying that she would have to send me to the hospital. I tried to hold back the tears, but the isolation and gravity of what had happened caused me to start crying again. I tried to sleep but could not sleep. I spent the night tossing and turning. In the morning, the tears started flowing. I could not do anything except lie in bed. I had no music to listen too nor a book to read. I then overheard the nurse talking on the phone. She was telling the person at the other end of the line that she could not cope. Around 30 minutes later, a paramedic walked into the room and informed me that I was being taken to the hospital. Little did I know what was going to transpire. The ambulance approached an old Victorian-looking building. The building looked like a prison. It was then I saw a sign stating that this was a mental hospital.
The ambulance stopped, and the paramedic guided me into the hospital. He then went to talk to someone. He returned and asked me to remain where I was. About 10 minutes later, a doctor approached me and took me into an interview room. I explained to him what had happened. He then told me that he was going to give me a sedative to calm me down. Further, he said to me that someone would take me to a bed.
I woke up in the middle of the night; I thought I was dreaming, I heard the voices of phantoms wailing, the sound of tortured souls, some crying let me out, saying that they should not be here, some howling for their mothers, others shouting incoherent chants. Haunted figures and shadows drifted through the dim light. I tried to shut it out. The tears returned, how, how did I end up in this place, I have only had glimpses of these places on the TV screens. How did I get from the rainforest to the bowels of hell? The morning light tore my skin and seared my eyes. I did not wish to see the day.
I was offered breakfast but refused. A nurse approached me and informed me that I would be seeing a psychiatrist later in the day. She offered me a pill, and a cup of water here “takes this it will help you relax”. She then asks, “how did a beautiful young man like you end up in this place?”
The day’s crawl mirrored the night’s, my mind numb, my brains crushed. A voice calls out that the psychiatrist is ready to see you. I enter the room, with all hope drained, the tears return. The psychiatrist instructed me to take my time. “Can you explain to me what has bought you here?” I somehow found the strength to explain to him how I ended up in this place. I thought that my words were incoherent. With all hope gone, the energy-draining from me, he explained to me that “You should not be in this place”. He added that he would release me on the condition that I had somewhere to go. I told him that I could not return to London. I called my boyfriend asked him if I could stay with him. He responded by saying that he would speak to his housemates. I later called him to hear of his flatmates’ responses. He informed me that they had agreed for me to temporarily stay at the house on the condition that my stay was no longer than a week.
Again, my dear friend, in disbelief at what was happening, offered to help me and with his aid, the University Chaplin and the student union we appealed. Thank you, Paul. Even then, they refused to change their minds. The excuse they gave was that they had already told the education authority that I had failed the year and they, therefore, could not go back and tell them that they had made a mistake.
The compromise that was proposed by the University, the Chaplin and the union was that I would take a year off. Subsequently, I would transfer to Teesside Polytechnic. I was left with no choice; I had to accept their offer. I could not bear considering the alternative, which was returning to London. I had wasted a year of my life. Having been cocooned from the real world, I was given a traumatic introduction to the real world. The England which I have envisioned as a child in the Caribbean had become a much harder and crueller placed.
I had by this time become reliant on Paul. I had before these events fallen in love with him. He was my first boyfriend. I still can recall the day I first lusted after him; it was a sunny autumnal afternoon. I was walking from the city to the University’s Art and Design campus. On my way, I came across Paul and his friend Richard. I had first met Paul at the gay stall at freshers week. I remember feeling extremely happy at seeing him again. I looked at him and thought that he was handsome.
I went to Middlesbrough Polytechnic determine to obtain a first-class honour degree. When not attending lectures and seminars, I spent most of my waking hours in the library, reading books and journals. The books and journals I read encompassed a diverse range of topics, from anthropology, sociology, science and technology, design, design studies, philosophy, art and aviation.
My relationship with Paul had developed. He had found employment at Lancaster University hospital. Once a forthright, I would travel to Lancaster to be with him. I fondly remember the journeys across the Yorkshire Moors, the three of us in a Fait Panda, Paul and me and our Dog Poogie.
Poogie was one of two pups; I had found abandoned outside our flat in Sheffield. Returning home one freezing winter’s evening, I came across a basket with two puppies wrapped in a blanket. I am not sure why something in me drove me to investigate the basket. My initial instinct was to question why someone would leave two pups, in the freezing cold, in the corridor of a block of council flats.
To make sure that the puppies were okay, before heading to bed, I went outside to investigate whether they were still there. To my horror, the puppies were still in the basket in the corridor and were shivering from the cold.
I took them into the flat. I discussed with Paul what we should do. We decided to keep the pups in the flat. We left a note in the corridor informing any potential owner that the puppies were in the flat. We fed the puppies some warm milk and went to bed.
To our surprise, no one came to claim the pups. Days went by, and still, no-one enquired about the animals. I wanted to keep the puppies, but Paul made me aware that it was against the council’s policy, and it was impractical to keep them in a flat. He decided to take the puppies to the RSPCA. At the RSPCA animal sanctuary, he was told that the most likely outcome was that the puppies would have to be humanely killed. The RSPCA informed him that there was little or no demand for mongrels. They stated that if he wanted he could keep one of the pups, this is how we came to have Poogie.
In the Fall of 1986, I left Lancaster to study at Teeside Polytechnic. I was extremely apprehensive at the idea of living in Middlesbrough. The town was very industrial and socially deprived. As one approached Middlesbrough, looking down from the Yorkshire moors, one was presented with the image of this bleak industrial landscape. In the distance horizon, along the shores of the North Sea, all one could see were chimneys belching out smoke and flames.
At the Polytechnic, I for two years managed to keep my relationship with Paul a secret. I had a close call at the Halls of Residence when I won a game of poker. Incredulous as it sounds, my ‘prize’ was to sleep with one of the girls. I initially assumed that the prize was a joke. However, to my shock and horror, the girl willing went along with it. I managed to talk myself out of this questionable prize. The girl was keen, but I had no desire to sleep with her.
Weeks later, one morning, sitting in the living room, one of my flatmates entered the room. He stood there with an erection projecting out of his pyjamas. I was shocked. However, what came after was even more surreal. He asked me if I wanted to suck his cock. I sat frozen in shock. I said nothing after a while; he started to laugh, saying that he was teasing me. The encounter with my flatmate was so unexpected because he was the last person I expected to ask something like this. I guess we all have our bias. My flat mate was a massive heavy metal fan, with posters of Iron Maiden, and satanic images plastered on his bedroom wall. He was the archetypal heavy metal fan, with long hair and tattoos. Looking back, we never saw him with a girl. I guess one assumed that was part of his grunge personality.
When Paul came to pick me up for my weekend breaks to Lancaster, we agreed that he should not enter the flat. Returning to the halls residence after the Christmas vacation, despite my reservations, he decided to help me carry my stuff into the flat. After he had left, my flatmate, the heavy metal student, asked me if Paul was my boyfriend. I pretended not to hear what he had said and tried to change the subject. He then told me that it was okay if I was gay. He added that he had suspected that I was from the incident when I refused to sleep with the female student. I still did not entertain his enquiries.
I had spent the Christmas holiday working on my history of art dissertation. By the end of the holiday, I had completed a draft of the thesis. I wanted to complete the dissertation ahead of schedule, because, I wanted to use the remaining two terms, to focus on my final year design project. I handed in a complete draft of the dissertation when the tutors were only expecting a title and synopsis. The tutors were shocked and surprised and informed me that most of the students had not even finalised the title of their dissertation.
I was extremely pleased with my efforts. Writing the dissertation was made more accessible and more pleasurable through the use of my Mac Classic. The ease of use of the Mac Operating system meant that I looked forward to writing the dissertation. The StyleWriter printer enabled me to print out copies, which I would then read and edit.
Despite my best efforts to hide my sexuality, somehow rumours started circulating that I was gay. I started being taunted with remarks from my colleagues stating that did you know that Lucien was gay. One student, in particular, the son of a prominent Dutch industrialist, started asking me did I enjoy giving oral sex to girls and did I know what pussy taste like. Again, I did not respond. I tried to keep to myself.
Having completed my dissertation ahead of schedule, I began to research my final year design project.
I drafted several design ideas. One of the design concepts was to develop an internet street booth for the Post Office, the rationale behind this was that with the advent of the internet people would no longer require to send letters, or it would reduce the volume of letters that people would post. My least favourite option was to redesign the rescue cage platform for the fire services.
Come the day for presenting and discussing our design proposals with our tutors; To my shock and horror, several of my ideas had already been selected by my colleagues.
My colleagues had again played me. They had approached me to ask about my ideas for my final year project. The reason they had approached me was because of the letter I had written for my application to the Royal College of Art. My tutors had asked me if they could copy my letter so that they could show it to my colleagues as an example of how a letter of application should be written. The subject of the letter of application was the impact of the environmental concerns on the future of product design.
I had no choice; I was the last one in to discuss his research project. Reluctantly, I decided to do the rescue cage platform project. The following weeks I formulated a design proposal and strategy. I decided to contact the fire services to conduct some user research. I was a bit hesitant, but the local fire services were willing to work with me and were very interested in the project. I conducted several user research interviews with them. I enquired about their experiences of using the rescue cage platform and also asked them about the features they would like to have, and those they would like to be replaced or changed.
After conducting the research, I drafted a design specification. I then set about building a design prototype. The first stage of the design involved creating a tape floor-plan of the design concept. To conduct ergonomic analysis, I constructed the taped floor plan of the design proposal. The floor plan was laid out on the floor of the design studio.
Entering the design workshop, one morning, I headed to the floor-plan. To my surprise, the design appeared to differ from the previous evening. I was perplexed. I could not comprehend what was in front of me. The floor-plan seemed much bigger than before. I took out the tape measure and measured the plan. It was indeed much bigger than my engineering drawing. I stood bewildered, not understanding how I could have made such a mistake. Upset and angry with myself, I pulled up the masking tapes from the floor and went about creating a new floor-plan.
The following morning I entered the design studio, and to my shock and horror, the floor-plan again did not look right. I stood, in a state of shock, almost at the point of crying. Again, I measured the floor-plan, and yet still there were significant discrepancies between it and the engineering drawing. On this occasion, I asked if anyone had altered the design. Everyone turned around and looked at me as if I was crazy. Later, that evening a student approached me and told me that he had something to say to me. He informed me that what he was about to reveal must be kept under the strictest confidence. He informed me that the technicians were altering my floor-plan.
Later, that evening I approached one of the technicians asking him for help. He looked at me with a broad smile on his face. He then told me he was not going to help any black queer and that there was nothing I could do about it. I stood there in a state of shock.
Eventually, I finalised the design and was ready to build a prototype. Health safety regulations meant for us to use the heavy machinery in the workshop, for example, the milling machines and lathes, we had to be supervised by a workshop technician. Also, because my prototype was constructed in metal, I had to use the metal welding equipment, which could only be used by the technicians.
Every morning, at least an hour before the workshop opened, I stood in the cold waiting for the doors to be opened. I was hoping that being the first student to enter the workshop that I would be the first to receive help from the technicians. As soon as the doors of the workshop were open, I approached the technicians to ask for their assistance. Morning after morning, I received the same response, they would help me as soon as they were able to. The minutes went by, so did the hours and days. Every time, I asked for help, I got the same response, that they were busy and that I would have to wait my turn.
Out of frustration, I attempted to use one of the milling machines. I was reprimanded by the technicians and informed that I would be banned from the workshops if I again tried to use the machines unsupervised; this ritual went on for weeks, out of frustration, I decided to approach my tutors to inform them of my experiences. Entering the tutors’ office, I burst into tears. I communicated to them my experiences. They sat staring at me in disbelief. Their immediate response to me describing my experiences in the workshop was that I was not forceful enough in my requests for the technicians to help me.
Eventually, one of the tutors told me that they were going to talk to the technicians. He subsequently conveyed to me that the technicians would assist me. Same, as every previous mornings, I was outside the workshop before it opened. On this occasion, the technicians stated that they would help me, hours went by, I approached them, they responded that they had other things to do and would help me as soon as they could. The other students came in, and they started to assist them.
One of the tutors approached me and asked me ‘how was it going’. I communicated to him that nothing had changed. Again, he made me feel that I was not forceful enough in asking the technicians to help me. Hearing what I said, he informed me that he was going to come to the workshop to help me with the welding.
The tutor kept his promise and came into the workshop. He proceeded to help me cut the pieces of metal for my design prototype. Without any warning, the power in the workshop went out; this was followed by a voice shouting “everybody stop working the workshop is closed”.
The tutor appeared shocked. He then proceeded to approach the technician. The technicians collectively informed him that they were downing tools. They stated that the tutor was going against union regulations in assisting me. He further added that the workshop was their domain and that the tutor has no legal right to be in the workshop helping me. The argument between the tutor and the head technician continued for several minutes. The tutor then approached me and politely told me that I had to leave because the technicians refused to switch the power back on if he continued to help me. He apologised, however, he had to consider the other students. He told me to leave it to him and that he was going to discuss this incident with his colleagues and the university chancellor.
A couple of days went by, before, the lecturer then again approached me. He informed me that he had spoken to the chancellor and the union. Subsequently, the union had agreed to him helping me, but the technicians would not be assisting me. The conditions they had decided was that he had to assist me when the technicians were not scheduled to help the other students; this meant that the only day he could assist me was on a Saturday. Again, he explained to me that he had to spend time with is family, and so could only spend the morning with me.
Come the Saturday morning; I got up early, and again, I was at the workshop before the door opened. After waiting for about 30 minutes, the lecturer arrived and opened the doors of the workshop. We set about constructing the prototype of my design concept. Unfortunately, when we tried to start the welding machine, it would not work. We tried for a few minutes, but the welder still would not work. The lecturer then proceeded to ask the technician for help. The technician responded that the agreement with the union was that they were not allowed to assist me. The lecturer responded by stating that they were helping him and not me. Eventually, one of the technicians decided to help the lecturer. We finally managed to weld the different components together. However, the quality of welding was uneven. The following day I came in to smooth out the welding joint. After this, I had to arrange my degree presentation. Again, because of the lack of time, the exhibition was not of the standard that I knew I was capable of doing.
I had not slept for three days. The thing that gave me the energy and strength to get through those sleepless nights was Kate Bush’s ‘The Sensual World’ album. I continuously played the album on my Walkman. The beauty of the music gave me the energy to carry on.
Come Monday morning, the day of the degree presentation, I did not want nor could I get out of bed. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Thinking back, I believed that I was depressed. I knew that my work was not of the quality that I had been aiming for. How could I defend my design and presentation, if, in my heart, I was not satisfied with the end results? I decided that I was not going to go to the design critic. After, about an hour, in a state of semiconscious, I heard someone knocking at the door of my room. I, at first, imagined that I was dreaming. I got out of bed. I opened the door to find Paul standing at the door. He asked me what was going on, and that the tutors had sent him to look for me. I told him that I did not wish to go to the presentation. He responded by saying that he had seen my presentation, and it was good. Eventually, he persuaded me to attend the presentation.
I arrived at the design studio to present my work; to be honest, I cannot recall the presentation. The external examiner was the tutor who had interviewed me at the Royal College of Art. I recollect that he was not very friendly.
The degree results were announced the following week. I wasn’t holding much hope. I was given a 2:2 grade and was congratulated and informed that my history of art dissertation saved me.
I had worked so hard to achieve a first-class honour degree, but again people and circumstances through their bigotry had conspired to stop this happening.