2022 saw St John’s College’s first formal celebrating the idea of Pride in the LGBTQ+ community (Pride at John’s – John’s Chronicle (johnschronicle.org). On the back of its success, the idea of a Pride formal was cemented in the formal calendar, and consequently this year’s ‘Love & Pride’ formal was held on the 15th February 2023. Thanks to the help of some student volunteers, Leech Hall was beautifully decorated with a range of Pride flags, colourful lights and decorations, alongside a fun playlist, to create the right ambiance. There was a huge demand for places at this formal, and as a result the hall was packed with John’s students and guests alike. There were a number of interesting guests on High Table, such as Richard Roberts, head of the Senior Common Room, Rosie Evans, the Vasey Group’s leader and David Rushton, Chaplain of St Chad’s College. The room heard three poignant speeches to set the tone for the evening. The first speech was from John’s alumnus Dr Benedict Douglas, an Assistant Professor in Law at the University, who spoke on his recently published article about love and human rights. Love and Human Rights | Oxford Journal of Legal Studies | Oxford Academic (oup.com)
“As a queer student at St John’s, seeing our community come together was truly moving. I think we’ll grow from here and I’m looking forward to other events and friendships that are bound to follow.”Emily Martin, 4th Year Engineering Student and SJCR Vice-President (Undergraduate)
Also on High Table was the SJCR’s LGBTQ+ Representative, Imy Harrison. Imy is a second year Theology student at John’s, and became LGBTQ+ representative for the Common Room at the end of her first year. Her speech at the formal received a standing ovation, and you can read a copy of it at the end of this article. Imy kindly gave some of her time to talk with the Chronicle and reflect on this year’s formal and its importance for the LGBTQ+ community within John’s.
What are your general reflections on the ‘Love & Pride’ formal?
I can definitely say that this year’s Pride formal was one of the best things that has ever happened to me during my time here at John’s. Prior to it, I was extremely anxious about making sure it was executed correctly and ensuring the theme got the attention it deserved. I remember I talked to the catering team about a month in advance to make sure that the food being served would be perfect! In fact, the catering team did a great job, and put so much time and effort into it – special thanks to Colin, the chef on the night, and John for his work behind the scenes sourcing the lovely rainbow napkins and cake. However, the time and effort put into planning for the formal and worrying about it really was worthwhile, and in the end it was a really rewarding experience to see the formal come to fruition as it did. It was obvious how much effort had gone into the decorations, lighting and music, and they just created a great atmosphere from the start of the evening. I’m immensely proud of what was achieved that night by myself, SJCR’s Campaigns and Inclusivity Officer Hattie, the student volunteers and the College staff. Looking back now, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. The night really was a triumph and I really think everyone present at the formal felt the love in the room.
Why do you feel the ‘Love & Pride’ formal was important?
Last year’s formal was titled ‘Love is Love’, and felt slightly more centred just on the idea of love rather than the idea of Pride, which I think this year’s formal captured more definitely. It was so important that the night was recognised as a celebration of Pride, especially as St John’s College is, in fact, home to such a large and vibrant LGBTQ+ community. I really felt like that was captured better this year; it was a definite acknowledgement of those people and a celebration of their lives and contributions. In a wider sense, with the College’s link to the Church of England and the subsequent stereotype within Durham University as a whole of being the ‘religious’ College, the formal is important as a statement that John’s is a place where Queer people are accepted and loved. It felt like this was a step in the right direction for John’s in honouring the LGBTQ+ community and the ways in which they are treasured in our College.
“The Love and Pride Formal really brought out the best in John’s. This is a proud, loving and welcoming community, full of people who love so deeply. The speeches, with laughs and tears, made me realise why I love this College so much – the people. It was truly the most touching event of my John’s experience so far.”Lee Stonehouse, 1st year philosophy student
How do you feel your time at John’s has impacted your LGBTQ+ journey?
Being at John’s has definitely forced me to consider the link between the Church and Pride. There really is an undeniable Christian presence within the College, which oftentimes can be seen to oppose or condemn the LGBTQ+ community. Like many students who identify as Queer, I was slightly nervous about the religious element before arriving at John’s, worrying that I wouldn’t be accepted or wouldn’t be able to properly express myself. However, I have been and continue to be pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere in the College, in which the Christian and LGBTQ+ communities coexist quite happily. It has also led me to my own conclusion, that if God made all of us as individuals, he made me to be this way and be happy, and he made me right; I think that’s something which should be celebrated.
What are your hopes for the LGBTQ+ Community within John’s in the future?
Since arriving at John’s, I’ve really seen that the College is a very open-minded and welcoming place – there is not the homophobic atmosphere that some, who judge it based solely on its religious stereotype, would think there is. But the assumptions can really impact people’s decisions on coming to study at John’s or not, and I’d love for incoming students to know how vibrant our LGBTQ+ community actually is. Ideally, the stereotype for John’s would no longer just be ‘the religious College’. For this to happen, there doesn’t need to be any change to how the religious side of John’s exists, simply for more acknowledgement of the size of the College’s Queer community and more celebrations of Pride – I want people never to have to doubt that when they get here they will be loved and accepted.
“Imy was truly an inspiration at the formal and her speech resonated with many who were sat in Leech Hall. Her words about seeking more than just validation and liberation were very profound. Love IS love.”Oliver davis, 1st year biosciences student and assistant food and formals officer
As LGBTQ+ Representative, do you have any plans for the near future?
I’m really hoping that this years’ Pride event in June will be just as successful as in previous years and I am super excited for it. However, I want to bring in some more involvement from LGBTQ+ community groups from around the North-East or from other Colleges within Durham University to make this event more well-rounded and offer more perspectives for those who attend. The success of the ‘Love & Pride’ formal really gave me a lot of inspiration to hold more LGBTQ+ events within John’s, so watch this space! Definitely, this is just the beginning.
To keep up-to-date with Imy’s activities as the SJCR’s LGBTQ+ Representative, and Pride events within St John’s College, follow the Instagram account St. John’s College Durham LGBTQ (@johns.lgbtq)
Imy Harrison’s Speech
When I first came out, I was 12, and I was a lesbian in a place that wasn’t too friendly, or open, or respecting.
A lot of the things told to me when I was young and in the years since I came out for the first time – or at least a lot of the good things – were how valid I was. My friends, my online communities, my parents affirmed my identity. Yep! You’re definitely gay, and you’re allowed to do that. Well done you.
I am incredibly lucky to have this response from my parents – sometimes validation is not given to us at all.
Being queer in society is thought of as something that is either valid or not valid, and this message, in both its polars, is a majority of what I heard in the eight or so years I have been out.
Language of validity, and I’m hoping a lot of you know what I mean by that, permeates discussions of queerness.
Is being queer valid?
Is the way in which you are valid?
What about being a religious queer person? How do you do that properly?
What can the world, as an outside source, allow us as LGBT people to do and not do? How can we be valid in our identity? What’s the valid way to be a woman or a man? What’s the valid way to be queer?
We even do it to each other, it’s a comfort thing even for me to be affirmed that I am valid, and allowed to exist the way I am.
What I want to suggest to you is something past validity.
What I want us to do is to not only expect more, but know that we deserve more than validation from others.
Validity, in the only way it matters, comes from you. The way you exist, that fits and fulfils you and feels right, that is the way you should exist. I look at you all in front of me, even after some glasses of wine to make things a bit fuzzy, and I see a room full of adults who can and should exist on their own terms, not on the terms of anyone else.
Another thing I want you all to remember is what you deserve.
What you, and I, and every other queer person in this College, University and beyond deserves is liberation past validity. We know we are valid. It is a given. We just exist the way we do, and that is final. What we deserve is to live within a community that respects us, welcomes us with open arms, and does not just tolerate us.
What you also deserve is an apology from anyone who thinks that this has anything less than people’s lives at stake.
The continued mistreatment of queer lives and trans rights in this country and by the government shows us that validity is not enough. We deserve, and I hope everyone in this room has, a space within which to live authentically and openly. I hope we can be that for each other in this place, whilst our lives intersect here.
Thank you all for being here. This room is full of love and pride.
You are all love.