In June of this year the Univeristy of Dundee’s LGBT+ Staff Network hosted a Trans Awareness Session delivered by Stonewall Scotland. The seminar was designed to give attendees knowledge about the lived experiences of trans people in Scotland. It also focussed on how to step up as an ally to support trans colleagues and students, to help ensure that the University of Dundee is an inclusive and accepting place to work and to study. The seminar was really good – informative, interactive and practical. But the quality of the seminar is not what has provoked this blog entry. Two things did. Firstly, it was the mere fact that the Trans awareness seminar occurred at all and that senior members of the University (including two University Executive Group members) were in attendance and participating meaningfully. Secondly, shortly after this workshop (though not related to the workshop), the University agreed to be a Gold Sponsor of the first LGBT+ Pride event in Dundee. These two actions have moved me in surprising ways. Here’s why:
I made the personal and political decision to be an out gay man during the early days of the AIDS crisis after experiencing significant homophobia. Being out both prevented and ensured that I would experience homophobia. An example of how this worked is that I was told I did not get an academic job because the institution was not interested in gays or “refujews”. (Interestingly John Boswell in his 1980 book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality traced and linked anti-semitism and homophobia in the Catholic Church. Oppression of a group, it seems, seldom comes alone.) If I had not been out in my interviews, it would have been horrible to be employed in an organisation that held such blatant homophobic views. As it turned out I ended up working for a university that was informally supportive of LGBT staff members and my academic career blossomed. However, there was not a LGBT staff network, we did not have seminars on LGBT inclusion, policies were all heteronormative, and there was no official mention of LGBT people that I was aware of in the decade I was there. The support was informal, it could have changed at the drop of a hat, and there was no formal recognition that people like me existed or were part of the organisation. At the time, this informal support seemed good enough and as much I could hope for.
Fastforward 20+ years and I now find myself in an organisation where there is plenty of informal support, but people at the very top of the organisational chart are also committed to making the organisation a welcoming, accepting, inclusive and supportive place to work and study. The institution wants to do more than its public sector equality duty. This combination of informal support and a commitment to embed equality, diversity and inclusion in all policies and practices is mind boggling to me.
The seminar and Dundee Pride sponsorship agreement had me reflecting about how much the world has changed in my lifetime. LGBT+ people experience many more freedoms and protections then we did when I was an 18 year old going to university. Yet LGBT+ people (especially T people) continue to experience considerable prejudice, discrimination, violence, and a host of other negative outcomes. I found myself reflecting on and almost moved to tears thinking back to the 18 year old I was. What would he have thought had he known back then that there would one day be a university that was willing to sponsor an LGBT+ Pride event or where the Director of HR would be committed to ensuring that policies were trans inclusive or where someone could be disciplined for calling an LGBT person a derogatory name? If such a place existed back then, how much easier would that 18 year old have had it when he experienced hatred and homophobia as he moved into and through early adulthood? That is why visibility matters. Homophobia, bi-phobia and transphobia still exist and damage the young people of today and prevent LGBT+ staff from reaching their full career development. Having visible institutional support and visible LGBT people and allies provides a beacon of hope to LGBT+ young people (and to this older gay man too).