“To me it comes as a package deal”: Being an Openly LGBTQ+ Sabbatical Officer

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Co-Editors Tessa Ndjonkou and Ilaria Riccio sit down with Sabbatical Officers Miranda Bauer, Martha Ní Riada and Jill Nelis about the importance of being openly queer while in office.

Since its establishment in Belfield in 1960, University College Dublin  has become an increasingly inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ staff and students. This accomplishment is certainly facilitated by the fact that public figures within the college open about their belonging to the queer community. Case in point with three of the current members of the UCD Students’ Union sabbatical team. It is thus unsurprising that ensuring safety and inclusivity for queer-identifying students within UCD is one of the primary goals during the sabbatical officers’ mandates. Proving this point is the fact that they have been upfront about their queerness since the beginning of their campaigns last year. This openness paints an image of the Students’ Union as an inclusive space for the queer community, and the respective officers aim to extend this trend to UCD as a whole. 

To celebrate this year’s LGBTQ+ History Month, The University Observer sat down with UCDSU Campaigns and Engagement Officer Miranda Bauer, Welfare Officer Jill Nelis, and President Martha Ní Riada to discuss the importance of being ‘out’ during their mandate and the current state of LGBTQ+ rights on the UCD Campus.

Our opening question to the three sabbatical officers was to interrogate their choice to not conceal this part of their identity while they were running and during their mandate. Campaigns and Engagement Officer Miranda Bauer revealed that being open about her bisexuality “just came naturally – and fortunately, the SU is a workplace that is super welcoming.” Bauer expanded on this matter in relation to her specific role: “Every year... there are campaigns on things like trans awareness and sexual health for LGBT people. So it was more about what I can bring to the role [as a bisexual person].” 

Welfare Officer Jill Nelis echoed Bauer’s sentiments: “I didn’t really make any conscious decisions about my identity coming into the job. To me it comes as a package deal [...] if they want me as Welfare Officer, they’d have to want me as a lesbian – because that’s who I am.”

President Ní Riada offered a different perspective than her fellow sabbatical officers. Indeed she admitted to toning down her queerness during her campaign last year in an attempt to “make [her]self palatable to the audience” as she could. The SU President explained that she was planning on cutting her hair, but decided against it since having short hair “might have put some people off because I looked too queer.” 

The SU President explained that she was planning on cutting her hair, but decided against it since having short hair ‘might have put some people off because I looked too queer.

Although the SU is notoriously an inclusive working environment, Ní Riada’s worries were not unfounded; the President revealed that a piece of feedback the UCDSU received during the last academic year lamented that the Union is not representative of the student body since “there are too many multi-coloured gay people.” And while this comment only further cements the fact that UCDSU is generally a safe environment for members of the LGBTQ+ community, it paradoxically reveals the omnipresence of  discriminatory acts on the UCD campus. 

Notably, in April 2023, posters advertising LGBTQ+ Society’s Lavender Ball were torn down; the same treatment affected posters promoting the first on-campus Pride parade on 12th April 2023. These events happened shortly after Nelis, Bauer, and Ní Riada were elected into their current roles. Their queerness and their incumbency in the SU prompted us to enquire how those acts made them feel. Rather unsurprisingly, all three officers expressed how upsetting it was to learn about these overt homophobic attacks on the UCD campus. Specifically, Campaigns and Engagement Officer Miranda Bauer suggested that events like this “are more likely to get a lot of backlash... especially in the current political climate.” Indeed, the Campaigns and Engagement Officer remembered how the same treatment was given to the posters advertising a Palestine solidarity rally in November 2023

Campaigns and Engagement Officer Miranda Bauer suggested that events like this 'are more likely to get a lot of backlash... especially in the current political climate.’

Welfare Officer Jill Nelis’ anger was also prompted by how, until that point, she had experienced UCD in a “queer bubble”, and so the realisation that people would do such a thing in UCD “was quite jarring”, if not fear-inducing. Nelis’ fear was both personal and altruistic, as she thought of how such acts could target students who are visibly queer. Nevertheless, the perfect timing of these events ensured that Nelis would enter the job of Welfare Officer with “determination” to “protect all the minority students. [...] I will always strive in this job for as long as I have it, to be the cushioning around the sharp edges of it – that’s what my ethos became because of that.” The law that posits that not much can be done about these acts of vandalism  – since Belfield is an open campus – further fuelled Nelis’ anger at the events; on her part, however, Miranda Bauer expressed gratitude that UCD Estates promised that they will “be more vigilant about those things” – thus treating last spring’s events as a precedent for how to respond to such acts. 

UCDSU President Martha Ní Riada also expressed her annoyance at the events, and continued by revealing that unfortunately, microaggressions tend to be frequent –especially transphobic rhetoric. 

Although overtly anti-LGBTQ+ attacks remain few and scattered across UCD, we nonetheless enquired what the Sabbats think the college can do to improve the living conditions of queer-identifying staff and students on campus. This particular question was inspired by the UCDSU’s strategic position with regards to UCD’s governing authority. As a response, President Martha Ní Riada mentioned a proposal to add an option to allow students to specify their pronouns on Brightspace; in this way “lecturers can have everyone’s name and pronouns so that they don’t misgender anyone in class. [...] because... they don’t want to misgender someone.” On her part, Campaigns and Engagement Officer Miranda Bauer cited measures already in place in UCD – notably the LGBTQ+ staff network and the use of gender-neutral language in specific settings such as SU Council. However, Bauer highlighted the importance of “show[ing] the students’ perspective, because most of the time they have only the staff’s perspectives.” 

President Martha Ní Riada mentioned a proposal to add an option to allow students to specify their pronouns on Brightspace; in this way ‘lecturers can have everyone’s name and pronouns so that they don’t misgender anyone in class.’

As for Welfare Officer Jill Nelis, she revealed she has struggled to put a specific proposal in place: Nelis had hoped to introduce a Trans Healthcare Fund, and whilst she “knew it was going to be controversial, [she] didn’t expect quite as much resistance.” Nevertheless, the difficulty of implementing this proposal attests to a broader lack of funding for LGBTQ+-related issues – especially trans issues. 

Nelis had hoped to introduce a Trans Healthcare Fund, and whilst she ‘knew it was gonna be controversial, [she] didn’t expect quite as much resistance.’

If putting such measures in place requires a collective effort between the SU and UCD’s governing authority, the Union can at least bring some levity to the college experience of LGBTQ+ students. On the week of 19th February, this manifested through UCDSU’s ‘Rainbow Week’. With a series of events across campus, including the second-ever on-campus Pride parade on Tuesday 20th February, Rainbow Week served as a safe space to celebrate queer identities and help LGBTQ+ students express their identities safely on campus. 

Rainbow Week was entirely in Welfare Officer Jill Nelis’ remit, with considerable help from the rest of the Sabbatical team. Notably, Campaigns and Engagement Officer Miranda Bauer stated that she has been planning the Rainbow Week events since “early last semester” alongside the other Sabbats and the LGBTQ+ Campaigns coordinator, Ailbhe Crean Lynch. What has made this year’s Rainbow Week particularly special was the emphasis on hosting creativity-based events that would foster a safe space for queer UCD students. More importantly, however, the Sabbats have a common goal of promoting gender-affirming actions. On this matter, Welfare Officer Jill Nelis stated that the feminine make-up masterclass with representatives from Harvey Nichols is the event she is the most proud of. She expanded on this further: “I know a lot of queer people that want to express themselves through makeup and don’t, or don’t really know how. I think anyone who is feminine-presenting is going to have fun with that, and even if you’re non-binary or experimenting with gender. I think that’s the thing I'm mostly proud of because it’s targeting a specific sect of students that I think have been overlooked in the past, which is why I've done so much this year to not overlook them.” 

The discussion progressed and moved away from campus matters to discuss the Sabbatical officers’ personal experience with their queerness. While Campaigns and Engagement Officer Miranda Bauer declined to answer, her counterparts were not as coy.  

Ní Riada revealed that she came out “relatively late [...] I was in my third year of college at that stage.” She explained that the timing of her coming out was related to attempts at “forc[ing] myself not to be queer”, alongside not knowing “many queer people growing up” and being brought up in a relatively religious family. Ní Riada continued, “it took a bit longer for me to accept that part of myself and to allow myself to actually come out. [...] then eventually with Covid, I had so much alone time and thinking time that I just had to do it, because there was no other option, there was nothing else to do.”

A religious upbringing deeply affected Welfare Officer Jill Nelis’ queer journey. Hailing from Belfast, Nelis attended an all-girls school and was particularly active in church. At the same time, Nelis had an openly lesbian best friend – and who remains her best friend to this day. Although she interacted with queer people, identifying within the LGBTQ+ community was not something Nelis “had considered” for herself. At sixteen, Nelis first came out as bisexual which is a common experience for lesbian women who are first coming to terms with their identity. The compulsory heterosexuality made Nelis feel as though “men have got to be there somewhere” with regards to her sexual orientation. However, Nelis revealed that the thought of a domestic life with a man made her feel “trapped [...] I hated the idea of marriage when I thought I was in any way bisexual, because I hated the idea of being tied to a man”. 

The  ‘queer journeys’ of these three sabbatical officers may likely resonate with those of many LGBTQ+ students currently in UCD. Furthermore, having openly queer Sabbatical officers is certainly a sign of a relative openness to LGBTQ+ identities within UCD. Nevertheless, anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and other issues persist – in UCD, but also in society more broadly. 

Yet that the UCD student body is represented by openly queer people perhaps suggests that the college is committed to fostering a safe and inclusive environment – and if the Sabbatical officers manage to succeed in their goals, there is hope that the livelihood of LGBTQ+ students in UCD will continue to improve.