Julius Jokikokko speaks to Meri Karhu, BA Fine Art, UAL
“On my first day of my BA I found two other non-binary people. It was really, really good that we found each other on the day and formed a good little network of support amongst ourselves,” says Meri Karhu, an agender fine art student at UAL.
“That was a really big and important thing when to the rest of people I still have to explain a lot.” This is nothing new, nor does it only happen at our university. “There’s a lot of people that use very gendered language,” they say. “I know I get constantly misgendered and I don’t always feel particularly comfortable telling people what my pronouns are.”
As a large arts university, UAL has a variant, vibrant student body which might represent a group of people that are less likely to conform in stereotypes. “You’ll see lots of people dressing in ways that general society would probably attack them for,” says Karhu. “I do feel that there’s a lot of non-conforming gender expression happening here and I feel like there’s also a sense of safety with that.”
However, there is a sense of silence around this topic: the non-conformity is there, but there isn’t much talk about it. The curriculum doesn’t represent the plurality of identities in the student body nor in the industries either.
“I really want to see a lot more diversity, a lot more art that is more politically engaged, instead of art which sees protest almost as a quirk instead of a form of survival.”
It can be a hit or miss: some seminars and lecture series are more inclusive than others. “We talk a lot about dismantling the gender binary. That feels very good, that it’s the part of something that’s happening here,” Karhu says about one part of their course.
Finding support as a non-binary student
“I’d encourage people to have a look at who’s on the UAL non-binary and trans Facebook group and if they feel like they could send those people a message if they feel like they want to talk to someone,” Karhu says. “And come to the events that are happening if they are brave enough!”
While there didn’t used to be much support available, the LGBTQ society and the Students’ Union are organising visibility projects such as the trans awareness week and peer support like the society’s monthly meet-ups.
Supporting our non-binary community
For us allies, supporting our communities doesn’t need to be difficult. “I find that for me I feel the support in little things,” Karhu says.
Being able to choose a gender neutral title in your official papers or being given the possibility to declare your pronouns when you’re introducing yourself to a group of students can be a good start. But it’s also important to remember that no one should be outed without their consent – this is to reveal someone else’s gender identity to other people who might not know about it.
And we’re moving forward. “I’m already noticing a lot happening,” says Karhu. The Students’ Union campaigned successfully to introduce gender neutral toilets at all campuses, and we’re organising events for our non-binary and trans students. “There’s already a lot of good effort that makes me really happy to see that,” they say. But a lot of work needs to be done. “I was expecting it to be like a revolutionary seedbed.”