Queer Orientation engages hundreds of students

First ever tri-campus event widely heralded as success
SDS director Brenda Cossman (left) at the launch party for the Sexual Diversity Studies centre. MAHSAL KHAN/THE VARSITY
SDS director Brenda Cossman (left) at the launch party for the Sexual Diversity Studies centre. MAHSAL KHAN/THE VARSITY

Over the past two weeks, students from all three University of Toronto campuses participated in the first ever Queer Orientation. With 16 organizations involved, hosting 39 events in total, Orientation reached hundreds of students. The University of Toronto Sexual & Gender Diversity Office (SGDO) played a lead role in the planning of the events, each of which highlighted a different angle of engaging with the university. Scott Clarke, program coordinator at the SGDO, explained how Queer Orientation was designed to help bring students who might not otherwise interact together. “The events are designed to bring first-year students, returning students, and grad students together,” he said.


Building community

LGBTQ and Allies in Science and Engineering (LGBTQASE) hosted their first event of the semester, an informal meet and greet during Queer Orientation in order to give students the opportunity to reconvene after the holidays. The mixer attracted around 20 people and included games, icebreakers, and refreshments. One participant, who requested anonymity, liked the “chilled out” atmosphere.

Teresa Hulinska, co-president of LGBTQASE, emphasized the importance of a more intimate space for queer and allied students to interact with each other, especially in comparison to the large number of students that participate in Frosh Week. “Providing a smaller space allows people who might feel uncomfortable in a large group to socialize with new people,” Hulinska said. The majority of attendees were first-years looking to become more involved in the queer community within the context of their academic interests.

Rainbow Trinity represents LGBTQ students in student government, and fosters community and discussion. It aims to create an open and equitable environment at Trinity College. It also organizes social events, the first of which was a barbeque last Monday, which approximately 90 students attended.

Although Rainbow Trinity has a barbeque every year, this is the first time that it has taken place under the banner of Queer Orientation. Rainwbow Trinity president Jordan May said that the aim of the casual social was “to create a welcoming atmosphere for all students, especially first-years. It’s a chance for them to get to know the upper-years, and to know that they can be comfortable with who they are and to express themselves.”


Facilitating discussion

Ally Night, organized by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), was run as an informal discussion. Approximately 40 people joined the group over the course of the evening. Yolen Bollo-Kamara, UTSU’s vice-president, equity, said that “Ally Night plays an important role in Queer Orientation by connecting LGBTQ students and those who would like to learn more about the role of an ally. It’s especially important for allies to be able to listen and learn from their peers about how best to support them.” Bollo-Kamara was pleased with the turnout and the talk. “We had a great conversation,” she said.

The SGDO also sought to initiate a dialogue through the event “Queer Women on Campus,” which focused on helping women and trans attendees to meet, share experiences, find resources, and network. A student said “it’s often difficult for me to find other queer women and events like this help get me connected.” Kathy Mac, who organized Queer Women on Campus, said that the event was also a chance for the SGDO to gather feedback from participants, some of whom wanted to have a board game night in the future. Mac plans for more meetings throughout the year, with the activities reflecting the interests of the group.


Promoting education

The University of Toronto Sexual Education Centre (SEC) conducted a presentation on how to have safer sex, as well as an introduction to the resources that SEC offers, which are available to any U of T student free of charge. Although the event was poorly attended, executive director Jordan Lavoie was “happy to be a part of [Queer Orientation].” One of SEC’s goals as an organization is to educate students and encourage safe sexual practices. Commenting on the presentation’s relevance to the queer community, Lavoie said  “until you get to university, sex education doesn’t include information for non-heterosexuals.”

Professor Brenda Cossman, director of the Sexual Diversity Studies (SDS) centre, expressed her desire to see more promotion of the program during Queer Orientation. “There is an obvious partnership between the students in the program and the students who come to Queer Orientation events. Students should be more exposed to the academic and educational opportunities available to them,” Cossman said. In addition, the department is very interested in becoming more involved with planning Queer Orientation next year.


Casual fun

Hart House organized a button-making session, where participants could socialize without the pressure of a rigid agenda. “Button-making as a craft is one that I find to be comparatively more accessible than some other forms of creative relaxation,” said Day Milman, the program co-ordinator. “It’s a great outlet for stress, mental pressures, or just self-expression. Making your own button is your chance to customize your message to the world.”

Participants sitting and working on their buttons appeared to share Milman’s views. Dinaly Tran, a third-year student, said “what I like about this event is that it’s not issue-oriented. The previous events were great, but most of them were about tackling a certain subject or discussing a popular issue. I really like that this event doesn’t have any such agenda, that it allows the space to get to know other people in a more relaxed environment.”

Department members, Sexual Diversity Studies Students’ Union (SDSSU) representatives, students, and fellows were present at the SDS Launch Party on Thursday. The party was a rare opportunity for everyone associated with the program to come together. Jade Reid, a sexual diversities specialist student, had nothing but praise for the events. “People [at these events] are always very positive, the energy is always high, and the food is always good,” she said.


Looking forward

Clarke was pleased with the success of Queer Orientation. “We saw students really engaging in the events, hanging out after to chat, and making their experience Queer Orientation their own.” With regard to future plans, Clarke said that the precedent set this year was good, and that he hopes Queer Orientation next year will be an even greater success.

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