When Kelly Muir was on the students’ union executive at Vancouver Island University (formerly Malaspina University-College) about six years ago, she got to know another executive member who is a lesbian.
Her friend spoke to her about challenges connecting with people on campus with similar experiences. She was also subjected to incorrect assumptions, such as that because she is a lesbian, she must be a ‘tomboy’.
Muir decided that as a student union representative, she was obligated to learn how to better help people from all backgrounds feel comfortable at VIU, so she took a Positive Space orientation, which was being offered by the university’s human rights office.
Positive Space is a campaign at VIU to visibly welcome students and employees who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.
“I wanted to make sure that I could provide a safe space for communication,” she said. “I walked away feeling empowered to be supportive and somebody who could have a positive impact on someone else’s life.”
Now as assistant manager of VIU’s student residences, Muir continues to place importance on inclusiveness – she recently had the 10 student leaders in the residences do the orientation.
Maria Gomes, VIU’s human rights advisor, decided there was a need for the Positive Space campaign about seven years ago when someone told her that most of the editions of a newspaper that focuses on the GLBT community were being thrown in the garbage.
She sent out an e-mail to students and faculty asking if anyone was interested in helping to make the campus more inclusive. More than a dozen people showed up to a meeting.
Out of that meeting formed the Positive Space Alliance, a group of staff and one student, which looked at what was being done on other campuses to encourage an inclusive environment.
The group developed an orientation program for VIU students and employees and created a symbol – the rainbow flag, the pink triangle and the black triangle, which are symbols of the gay liberation movement – to put on stickers for distribution to orientation participants. Participants put the sticker on their door or living area to show support for an inclusive campus.
Several orientations are held each semester that attract about six to 10 people per session, said Gomes.
Many of the participants are heterosexual, but almost all have a friend or relative who is not.
“It’s rare for someone to come in saying, ‘I’ve never met a GLBT person,’” she said. “But you don’t necessarily have a sense of how that impacts a person’s life.”
The orientation provides some basic information about the different sexual orientations and issues faced by GLBT individuals.
On top of the orientation, the group hosts an educational event each year and encouraged the formation four years ago of the student club Out On Campus.
“It’s about finding where you belong and that’s one of the most important things university students need to do if they’re going to stick with it,” said Gomes.
Muir believes the campaign has made a difference on campus.
“There is an awareness that it is not tolerated to be exclusive,” she said.