Once you step through the white door, you’re welcomed to sit down on the fluffy purple couch, enjoy a warm cup of tea, or have a chat with the friendly people in the room. The only thing you can’t do? To ask about their gender.
I’m standing inside the Queer Lounge, a small cozy room nested along a dim-lit corridor on the fourth level of Building 57, RMIT University. It has a large TV, a kitchen corner, study desks, beanbag couches, a bookshelf filled with pamphlets on sexual health, free condoms for every gender, and a wide range of titles you wouldn’t pick up yourself were you in a public bookstore or library. Tacked next to the big glass window is a colourful poster that reads, “Love is Love.”
Ai Vee Goh, one of the Queer Officers at RMIT, welcomes me with a warm friendly smile, the way she has been greeting students, old and new, to the Queer Lounge for the last three years. During her time, she has seen its ups and downs, its change in gender and culture demographic, and she’s happy that her goal from the early days has seen much progress: To create a place where everyone is loved and represented. Equally.
“Everyone who comes here, we welcome them with open hearts,” Ai Vee says while preparing my tea. She then exchanges a quick chat with a couple of members in the lounge as I settle down onto a couch. They talk about their latest hairstyles, holiday trips, and other casual things. They must be close.
“We have a male member from China and he’s a gay cis-male,” Ai Vee gets herself seated and returns to our story. “He’s very happy every time he comes to the Queer Lounge. We’re open-minded, so he just feels so loved. And he can be who he truly is. No need to hide. I think that’s what most queer individuals want and that’s what we don’t usually get. ”
The Queer Department at RMIT was established in the early 1990s, with a decent amount of funding. In 1993, fourteen students from the department had a “kiss-off” demonstration against homophobia in a crowded campus canteen, which later made it to the news.
Today they have two Queer Lounges in the city and Bundoora campuses, where they fill up their members’ week with fun social activities: games, workshops, cinema, wine-and-whine, and art-making. At the time of talking, Ai Vee is about to facilitate a workshop with Sally from Transgender Victoria. The weekly workshops aims to promote services available to queer students, and have been significantly well received by the community.
“We educate, support and empower our members. We have to do that because if we don’t, no one’s going to represent them,” Ai Vee says.
This year, the Queer Department welcomes footballer Jason Ball from BeyondBlue, social worker Canon O’Saurus from Headspace Collingwood, relationship coach Megan Luscombe from Starting Today Coaching, and life coach Natalia Dewiyani from The Happiness Paradigm. They also partner up with RMIT Chaplaincy, Metropolitan Community Church Melbourne, and Marhaba – a support group for Muslim LGBTIQ for a number of talks.
A few months ago, they successfully campaigned for gender-neutral bathrooms to be installed at RMIT campuses. Until then, Swinburne University had been the only university in Victoria with bathrooms that does not discriminate pee’ers based on their gender! At other universities, students who are not comfortable with using gendered toilets often have to rely on disabled accessible bathrooms.
“You know, the society always thinks in terms of two genders, while there are more than that. Non-binary, intersexual, bisexual… Don’t let me get into that!” Ai Vee says.
While we are talking, an Asian girl opens the door and peeks in, but as soon as she sees two of us (and probably my camera), she quickly closes the door. Ai Vee walks out in hope of reassuring the girl, but she is nowhere to be seen. According to the Queer Officer, this is not unusual. Queer students from conservative cultures like China, Vietnam or Malaysia often shy away from the lounge. Even now, the number of international members is less than a handful.
Stepping through the white thin door for the first time can be a daunting experience. Ai Vee knows it well. She used to go through the whole emotional roller coaster to actually walk in the Queer Lounge, even though she was just looking for a nice quiet place to do her homework. Later, the friendliness of the collective members would help her open up her mind and embrace who she really is.
Now to other queer students, Ai Vee is a counsellor, a friend, and a trusted source of information on such gender issues as coming out, bullying, questioning sexuality, or embracing who you are. She herself has come out to some family members and friends for more than two years.
At the end of our talk, I ask Ai Vee what’s her most favourite thing in the room. I am expecting it’s the bookshelf, as she stands by it immediately when asked to take a photo. But it turns out to be a different thing.
“Its people. I hope more will come and join us so that we can provide them with love [laughs]. To be accepted and loved, isn’t it what we all want?”
Trinh Le. First published on Meld Magazine.