The Bisexual's Guide to Rural Universities
FOREWORD: So, this one is from the archives. In fact, it’s never been published. I was working on it back in 2011 with Riese, editor of the very popular website for lesbian and bisexual women Autostraddle, but it never saw the light of day. (I can’t for the life of me remember why…)
Whilst I no longer identify as bisexual and find my 23-year-old writing a tad cringe-worthy… I thought it may help at least one queer kid studying at a rural university (or college) feel a little less alone.
And in my opinion, that’s worth it.
So, enjoy the time warp.
I get such sharp pangs of nostalgia when I think about my university days that I have to physically stop myself from applying to re-enroll to obtain some other degree, like “Early Education” or “Theatre Media.”
But I had sharp pangs of another kind in 2006 when I showed up in Bathurst for my first year as a journalism student at Charles Sturt University, a rural uni precisely 2 hours and 40 minutes west of Sydney.
For starters, I hadn’t really given the whole ‘moving-three-hours-away-from-everything-I’ve ever-known-at-18-years-old’ thing much thought until my acceptance letter had arrived in the mail. It seemed like a miracle. Not only had I been accepted, but they invited me (and everyone else) to come up for a tour any time I wanted. Any time!
Most CSU students claim they chose the university to get as far away from their parents as humanly possible, but I’d picked CSU for its exceptional reputation, highly-regarded journalism course, campus radio station and television studio.
If someone back then had quizzed me on my knowledge of the town I was about to live in, I would’ve rattled off something about gold-panning. (Bathurst was the site of the first Australian Gold Rush and as such, it was compulsory for most primary schools to lug their children there on an excursion).
Or maybe I would’ve recalled The Bathurst 1000, this huge car-racing weekend wherein hundreds of burly tattooed men with long beards and flasks of Jack or Jim swarmed the small town to watch the cars fly by.
Well, I knew there was a university somewhere near a mountain. I assumed there’d be a McDonalds. Probably also a service station along the road somewhere.
That was about the extent of my preconceived notions, and to be honest I wasn’t too far off. Give or take a couple of stellar cafés, “Flat Rock” (this amazing spot where you could escape the sweltery summers and swing off a tree into a babbling river) and about a gazillion uni students with nothing else to do between classes besides drink cheap cask wine and sleep with each other.
And sleep together they did. In fact, there was so much sex at CSU that we were frequently asked to pee in a cup (in exchange for free pizza) so they could track that year’s STD epidemic -- where it started, where it was spreading.
I was never too worried during these STI outbreaks because I spent my entire three years of uni in a relationship. It wasn’t the relationship I arrived with (a boyfriend of six months) nor was it the relationship I expected, especially after being introduced to my totally un-appealing-to-me (but absolutely lovely) dorm of 32 strangers, all ranging in age (18-32 years old) and backgrounds (there were just as many country bumpkins with sheep as pets as there were Sydney private school boys).
It was my first girlfriend.
It began, as these things often do, with your typical textbook “stalking” situation. I watched her skate to the dining hall in her ripped jeans and “Saturday Night Beaver” tee and often tried to catch up with her so I could walk beside her and casually drop the lines I’d thought out well in advanced. Then it became a fully-fledged secret love affair. Eventually it was blown wide open one boozy night and we became publicly known as “the lesbians” around campus.
Realising that you’re bi, dumping your poor boyfriend, coming out to your friends and family and dealing with all those accompanying confusions and emotions is hard enough for the regular adolescent “finding herself.” But as I’m sure many of you can attest, it’s even harder when you’re in the middle of nowhere.
I wasn’t prepared for the ignorance of the locals. I’d avoided that kind of thing back home in Sydney. So I didn’t take it very well at all.
We got heckled a lot. A LOT. One of my earliest heckling memories was at a uni bar night -- Cinderalla Ball Copacabana 07.
I’d barely made my way past the inflatable palm trees when another girl pointed at me and exclaimed to her friend, “Oh look, it’s the lesbian!...Oi Sarah turn around, look its that chick with the girlfriend!”
Obviously I did not do the mature thing and ignore the drunk girl with the orange fake tan. I believe I shouted some profanity (back then I never swore so it was probably something G rated like ‘JERK!’) and then returned to hiding behind my girlfriend.
Before long I learned that kind of thing was hardly a one-off. It seemed even publicly holding hands with my girlfriend on the library lawn was enough to warrant similar remarks.
Some of my favourites:
“Are you two really together?” (No, we’re just doing it for your viewing pleasure. Grab some popcorn! The show is about to start)
“Will you hook up for five bucks?” And perhaps more insultingly, from a fellow female:
“You don’t, like, have a crush on me or anything do you? Because that would be really weird!” (Tell you what would be really weird? Suddenly finding ‘ignorance’ and ‘arrogance’ totally irresistible!)
When I’d leave campus to go “downtown” to grab lunch or buy groceries, it was much worse. My girlfriend and I were once cornered in a car park by two local girls hassling us about being affectionate towards each other. We felt attacked. Trapped. In danger.
I knew being bisexual at a rural university was gonna be an uphill battle. But I would’ve done anything for my girlfriend, including this.
As it turned out, we weren’t alone after all.
Something that become apparent to me over time is that whilst we were perhaps the most ‘out’ female couple, we weren’t the only ones.
If you feel like you’re the only bi/gay/lesbian/queer/whatever in your rural uni, you’re wrong.
Towards the end of 2007, we formed The Queer Collective.
We banded together and got 130 signatures on a petition aimed at convincing the Student Representative Council to designate a ‘Queer Space’ on the Bathurst campus and in 2008, we won. It wasn’t easy to do and it wasn’t easy to convince the gays to come out of the woodwork. We didn’t start out with any student support like other universities with big queer populations do, we had to start from scratch.
The “Queer Space” changed everything for queer students.
Now we had a safe and comfortable environment free of discrimination and harassment, where students were able to access information, form social networks and get some much-needed support.
Trust me when I say this- if CSU managed to pull this off, any university can.
Ultimately, if there’s one thing all universities encourage, it’s the deconstruction of social norms. When you’ve got people attending class in pyjamas and dining hall in their underwear, fire breathing and interpretive dancing on the library lawn, competing on who could vomit up the strawberry milk first and partaking in nudie runs during broad daylight- being gay didn’t really make us stand out all that much, despite how it felt every now and then.
It was just our particular badge of ‘weirdo’.
In fact, I think someone even shat in the washing machine during my second year.
Doesn’t quite compare to our three years of sharing a single dorm bed now does it?
*If you or anyone you know is struggling, please reach out to either Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue.