Tag Archives: Academia

The importance of role models and allies: A personal reflection

LGBTQ+ rainbow flag Quasar "Progress" variant

In September 2017 I was asked to speak at the University of Dundee Court Retreat on my experience as a gay man in academia. It was part of an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion awareness raising programme for Court members. I recently came across the text of my presentation and decided to publish here on my blog 4 years later. Though 4 years old now, the messages of that talk still resonate. Enjoy

Before I get to my talk I hope you will indulge me in a quick little exercise.

I would like you to turn to your neighbour and in 30 seconds say what you did last weekend without using a gendered pronoun; anything that might indicate boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife…and you can’t use the word partner either.

Now imagine having to do that every day as if your job (or life) depended on it. 

To further contextualise my personal comments and reflections tonight, here are some facts and figures from a UN Free and Equal Report:

  • In the US, UK and Thailand, between ½ and 2/3 of LGBT students are regularly bullied at school. Up to a third skip school.
  • Up to 40% of homeless young people in major US cities are LGBT
  • Gay and lesbian young people are 4 times more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide and trans young are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide.
  • 1 in 5 LGBT employees in European countries report being discriminated against in the past year
  • LGBT people have higher rates than their straight peers of joblessness, poverty, food insecurity and depression
  • On a macro level, a World Bank pilot study estimated that LGBT discrimination cost the Indian economy $32 Billion annually

Stonewall’s 2013 Gay in Britain report echoes the findings from the UN report. In the workplace 20% reported experiencing verbal bullying based on sexual orientation in the past 5 years, 13% did not feel confident reporting homophobic bullying and 25% say that they are not at all out to their colleagues. 

In 2009 a study of HE in the UK found that only 38% of LGB staff are out to everyone – those that aren’t out cite fears of employment discrimination and job security, students might respond in homophobic ways or that their research agenda may be compromised (ECU).

The same study also found that approximately a third of LGB staff experienced negative treatment by colleagues, 20% from students and 25% from those working in other parts of the university.

Trans staff report even higher levels of difficulties and 23% of trans staff reported being denied promotion due to their trans status.

The student experience is similar – but the fear (and experience) of losing financial support from family is an additional stressor for students.

So though we have recently celebrated 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, there is still a long way to go and people are still being discriminated against and some are viciously attacked because of their sexuality.

I can say that I have experienced everything these statistics suggest (and then some), yet I have been successful in my career. Sometimes successful minorities are held up as examples of “how great things are now” or used to suggest “well she made it, why can’t you?” I want to push back at both of these. There is still considerable homophobia in workplaces and even more widespread  is heteronormativity.

I am going to give a fairly personal account of my career development as a Gay person with the aim to bring to life what the literature describes. I hope this will demonstrate the importance of working to increase visible diversity, equality and inclusion for people from all protected characteristics. 

I grew up in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains – in the deep south, smack dab in the middle of the bible belt. We were the only Catholic family in the southern half of a VERY large county. My immediate family protected me and taught me how to survive in a culture that allowed discrimination as well as open hostility toward us. This is a key point – most other minority groups are raised in families that share the minority status and these families socialise children in ways of survival. The majority of LGBT people do not have families to teach protective skills when it comes to homophobia. Role models and allies are needed to teach these skills. 

I kept my sexual orientation hidden but lived in terror of other people finding out. I went away to University and found a bit of freedom and slowly started to come out – but I lived in fear that my roommates would find out. A lot of energy was spent on trying to cover up. My first 3 university years were fraught with personal and emotional difficulties all tied up with my sexual orientation, my studies suffered greatly – and I almost flunked out. Here’s where a bit of dumb luck comes in. I got a part-time job as a secretary in the Dean of Student Service’s office. He was an openly gay man and introduced me to some other gay students and kept a watchful eye on me. I also was assigned an academic advisor who, though straight, was comfortable with gay people. When things fell apart for me in my 3rd year due to issues with my sexuality, they were both there for me and helped me get back on track. My experience is an example of what the literature says –  LGBT students need visible role models and allies. 

After graduating I had a partner who died of AIDS in the early days of the AIDS crisis. I faced extreme discrimination due to my sexuality and status as an “AIDS widow” and these experiences informed my decision to stop hiding and really be out. This was a political decision on my part, but I didn’t realise that this would increase my chance of being successful in my career. Anyway, during this period I started my post-graduate education, enrolling on an MSW programme. I was a “bit” of a militant gay person during this period. “Hi I’m Tim I’m Gay and and AIDS widow…get over it” Again as luck would have it, I was assigned to an academic advisor who turned out to be a LGBT ally. Lockhart was an African-American woman who had experienced huge prejudice to get where she was. Lockhart was somewhat alarmed by my in your face approach and shared with me her strategies for tackling racism. She helped me begin to think about how to survive in an oppressive and sometimes dangerous environment. An ally was able to provide me with survival socialisation as I did not have that naturally in my own life. 

There was also an older lesbian on faculty who took me under her wing. As was the way for many in her generation, she wasn’t exactly out, but she wasn’t really hidden either. These two women – one a role model and the other an ally – helped me learn how to be gay AND a professional. As the research suggests, LGBT students and those early in their careers need visible role models and allies. 

My first job after my MSW was in a rural mental health centre. I did not hide my sexuality from my boss or co-workers.  However, it was suggested that the clients might have some difficulty with my orientation so I shouldn’t self-disclose, after all, they said, they didn’t disclose their sexuality. These same people would, when with clients, casually and naturally refer to their husband or wife, wedding anniversary, children, etc. Or they would have a family picture in their office, or wear a wedding ring or have some other outward and implicit disclosure about who they were – this is heteronormativity. Though I loved the job, after a year it became very tiring and the emotional cost of trying to not self-disclose was too much, and so I found a job where I could be authentic.

This experience mirrors what the research suggests. Not being able to be authentic at work impacts negatively on productivity. Also, organisations that make it difficult for people to be authentic at work face a talent drain.

I went back to do my PhD and Lockhart and Ruth were both still there. But now there was also a “modern” lesbian also on faculty. We ended up doing some research and teaching together – Nancy saw it has her responsibility to help the next generation along a wee bit. The leaky pipeline, which we see very clearly for women in academia, also happens for LGBT and BME people. Nancy demonstrated the value of having open LGBT people to help plug the leaky pipeline.

As I was finishing my PhD I had already published several articles, had taught for a couple of years, and also had good clinical experience and as such I was a rare hot commodity on the job market–– and it was all because a couple of lesbians and an informal LGBT ally took me under their wing. One of the interviews I took, against Lockhart’s advice, was a great job for me. However, the offer of the job was blocked as the chair of the search committee said “they weren’t interested in gays and refujews”. This discrimination was lawful then and still is in many places.  Of course it is illegal now in the UK, but discrimination does still happen in more subtle ways.

Other interview processes were exceedingly heteronormative, and draining. 

Here is an example of a typical conversation that I experienced back then (and I’ve had similar ones here in the UK)

What does your wife do? I don’t have a wife

Oh you are single, there are lots of places to meet women here. 

I am not single, I am dating someone but I’m not sure if he will be joining me or not. 

What does she do? 

He, Marcus, is a fund raiser for a charity. 

I’m sure she’ll find something similar here….. 

Lockhart put me in contact with a University because she knew the Dean was a great guy, he was building the kind of school I was looking for, and she knew my orientation wouldn’t be an issue. She was right. I was hired and it was a great fit. Again I was taken under people’s wing and my career was advanced. This time by the Dean who was openly gay and the woman who became my mentor – an ally. They both opened doors for me, allowed me to be authentically me and this enabled me to thrive and flourish as an academic. Under their guidance I rose to prominence in the US and Canada in my area of expertise before moving to the UK. I am an example of the research that shows that people who are able to be comfortably out at work are more likely to have positive career progression than those who are not.

When I moved to Scotland in 2003 I immediately had legal protections that were unavailable to me in the States. My working life in Scotland has been free from homophobia on a formal organisational level. Heteronormativity, however, is still very present. But at this point in my career it does not take up psychic strain, sometimes it is an irritation and sometimes it can actually be humorous. To younger academics or professional services staff, it can be more than an irritation. 

My experience at the University of Dundee has been neutral, positive and negative in different ways and at different points.

During my interview for Chair of Social Work, the then Principal Alan Langlands immediately picked up on my use of pronouns for my Civil Partner (now Husband), and used the appropriate gender whenever referring to my spouse. Strangely though it took me about 4 years to actually meet another gay or lesbian person. If an out gay man like myself didn’t easily find others like him, how hard must it be for those members of staff who are afraid to come out. What might this be doing to their ability to be truly authentic at work? What kind of productivity or creativity loss are we experiencing as an organisation? What will happen to the LGBT students who might be struggling as I did as a student if we are not more visible?

Unfortunately, over the past year I have experienced some homophobia in the workplace. Luckily for me, the University Executive has been incredibly supportive and clear about my experience being homophobic, and they have also been very clear about intervening. This experience has demonstrated to me that the top level of management at the University is values driven, and are prepared to do the right thing. Their recognition, naming and willingness to act and provide support have been incredibly affirming. Not only has this increased my loyalty to this organisation, but I am even more committed to delivering on the University vision. As the research suggests inclusivity and LGBT support are good for productivity and retention. 

In my experience, the senior management has shown itself to be welcoming and inclusive of LGBT people. However, there is still work to be done to make sure that inclusive spirit and practice filters all the way through the organisation. Though times are better in many respects, our society still has a lot of ISMS – whether its racism, sexism, ableism, classism, ageism or homophobia. Those isms still emerge is subtle ways. A concerted effort is required on all fronts.

The re-energised Staff LGBT+ Network has been an important step to demonstrate the University’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion.  The Network is working with the Stonewall organisation to help make the University uniquely welcoming and supportive to LGBT staff and students. Using their yearly Workplace Equity Index as a baseline we have developed an action plan to strengthen LGBT inclusion at the University. As a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champion Programme the University is benefiting from consultation, workshops and access to a wealth of resources to improve policies, processes and culture practices – not just for LGBT people, but for all protected groups. The action plan is now embedded in the University’s Equality Outcome Plan.  Stonewall suggest a 5+ year journey for tackling workplace discrimination – beginning with ensuring organisations have the essential ingredients: Strong values, driven diversity leads, and senior buy in. The University has the right values and is getting diversity leads in place. Senior buy-in also exists, but we could be better at making that visible across the organisation. After this Stonewall recommends organisations work to improve inclusivity and visibility for LGBT people (and other protected characteristics too) in policies, monitoring, training, procurement, communication & marketing. Working with the E&D Office and the E&D Structures we are engaging in this process. Having the Court’s explicit support for these efforts will demonstrate one of the essential ingredients – buy in at the highest levels of an organisation. 

Thank you.