Earlier this year, Stonewall, the UK LGBT rights charity, published its latest list of the UK’s 100 most inclusive employers. The list included a record 12 universities. And a recent study revealed that academics are more likely to be LGBT than people in almost all other jobs. But are things really as rosy as all that? The Times Higher Education Magazine this week had a feature on the subject, and I was one of six academics who contributed. I have many great (as well as not so great) stories to tell about my experience of being a lesbian on campus. In my piece (below) I wanted to step away from a progress narrative, and to think about what universities can do to celebrate sexual alongside other forms of diversity as part of their role in helping to create a vibrant society and robust democracy. You can read the full THE article here.
Much more can be done by universities for LGBT staff and students
During my undergraduate days at the University of Adelaide in the 1990s, I was vaguely aware of a Lesbian and Gay student society on campus. However, I was much more conscious of the fact that, according to whispered hearsay, the “university footbridge”, across which I walked every day, was the site of the 1972 murder of a university lecturer for homosexual activity by a group believed to be police officers.
The sense of the danger and illicitness that characterised my early experience is a far cry from the friendly environments, complete with supportive networks and formally implemented anti-discrimination practices, that greet many LGBT students on campus today. Yet Sheffield Hallam University’s #FreshersToFinals study, published last year, suggests that, although LGBT issues are increasingly visible in institutions’ policies, these often focus on bullying and discrimination – which is only one aspect of the needs of students and staff. And in preparing Australia’s first LGBTI University Guide in 2015, the country’s Human Rights Commission found that many universities were not meeting their anti-discrimination commitments or providing adequate health and welfare support or training.
Student and staff communities continue to be places where LGBT people experience harassment. While anti-discrimination policies are important in providing a procedural framework for protection and redress, they are still in no way sufficient. Policies on transitioning staff and students are underdeveloped in many institutions, with action needed on the provision of both single-sex and gender-neutral bathrooms and sports facilities, as well as administrative processes around name and status designation and documentation, such as the reissuing of degree certificates. The Equality Challenge Unit provides a good guide for the higher education sector, and universities need to recognise that practices designed to support those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are not necessarily going to meet the needs of trans and intersex people.
Policies around parental leave also frequently need revising, particularly as they apply to gay men who can all too easily fall through the net of state and employer provision. The unseen work that openly LGBT lecturers and staff do as role models for students needs to be much better rewarded, with institutions recognising its importance to the university community and the time and cost – both personal and financial – that it entails.
Diversity training, health and welfare services and curriculum change are crucial in shifting campus cultures. According to the Australian LGBTI University Guide, many institutions continue to do poorly in the provision of welfare and health amenities and careers advice. Alerting students to Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers list, or to organisations they can join to meet LGBT people in their chosen employment sector, would be one place to start. Students come to university from a variety of backgrounds, and some families are more accepting than others. Policies need to allow flexibility around finance for those in difficulty, with universities actively supporting student groups in creating social spaces and resources for LGBT people.
Much also needs to be done in the area of content and curriculum. Textbooks need to be systematically re-evaluated to make sure that they do not omit or disparage LGBT perspectives. More broadly, teaching and research from across faculties might be integrated and showcased. University College London’s qUCL site is a great example of how LGBT events, people, courses and research projects can be profiled in a way that provides a focal point for future initiatives and an access point for staff, students and the public.
This latter point is crucial. As public institutions and major employers, universities have a role that extends beyond their walls. They need to engage with wider LGBT organisations in a range of areas that include sexual and mental health, civic space, law reform, diversity, community events and history. As educational institutions, they should work to ensure that campuses are not only places of safety and acceptance for LGBT people, but also communities that celebrate sexual alongside other forms of diversity. They should see this as central to their role in helping to create a vibrant society and robust democracy.
The biggest positive influence for me has been the support offered and the positive example set by the openly LGBT lecturers, administrators and fellow students I met during my graduate studies at the University of Oxford (you know who you are!) In my own career, I have sought to be similarly visible to both my students and my colleagues. My discovery a few years ago that my first-year lectures at Brunel University London were being attended by several students who were not actually enrolled in my course brought home to me that for many students such examples are still in short supply.
Tamson Pietsch is a research fellow in history at the University of Sydney and the author of Empire of Scholars: Universities, Networks and the British Academic World, 1850‑1939(2013).
This article was published in ‘How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?’ 5 May 2016 in The Times Higher Education Magazine.