Why do you think it’s important to have LGBT+ Role Models?
It was Leeds staff and students who showed me the importance of having LGBT+ role models. In response to a talk I gave at a university LGBT+ event the audience shared their own stories. Nearly every story included a sense of surprise that it really was possible to be ‘out’ and succeed at university. Staff and students shared their fear of being ‘found out’; fear of what ‘it’ might mean for their studies and/or careers. They spoke of the importance of having LGBT+ senior academic staff who were visible and who broke down feelings of isolation; people who stood up and embodied LGBT+ as ‘normal’ and accepted at Leeds. Staff spoke of the need for role models to ‘prove’ that being ‘out’ really was ok; that the expectation should be of respect and inclusivity not of prejudice. It was powerful and humbling to hear how my story could inspire and give confidence to others.
Having visible role models is a vital step to building a supportive university environment where everyone has space to be their genuine self without fear of what others might think and do; where everyone can be both authentic and successful in their chosen discipline and/or role.
What was it like ‘coming out’ as an LGBT person?
Lol, whenever I’m asked that question I struggle to find an interesting enough answer. I don’t have a defining ‘coming out’ story. There’s no point in my life I remember a decision to ‘come out’. Being attracted to men and to women has just always been who I am.
That said, most people tend to make assumptions about sexual orientation based on perceptions of a current relationship. If I’m dating a man it’s perceived I’m ‘straight’, if I’m in a relationship with a woman I’m assumed ‘lesbian’. For me ‘coming out’ isn’t about one event, rather a daily occurrence.
Unfortunately bi-phobic stereotypes are still all too common. Intersectionality of sexuality and gender means my ‘coming out’ is likely to be followed by inappropriate and offensive questions about ‘being bi’.
Sadly, I’ve met too many people who decide to ‘hide’ their bi-sexuality; changing their public identity to ‘straight’ or ‘gay/lesbian’ to ‘fit’ assumptions of their current relationship and/or context.
For me, making a conscious effort to challenge assumptions and ‘come out’ is a small yet important step on the journey to address bi-invisibility. Letting others know they are not alone. While we don’t fit into the ‘straight vs gay’ dichotomy we do exist and deserve equitable treatment too.
How easy is it to be ‘out’ while working at the University of Leeds?
It doesn’t feel like people treat me any differently because of my sexuality. I work with students and staff from a diverse range of cultures, backgrounds, and faiths. Regardless of their personal beliefs around sexuality I have consistently been treated with respect and without prejudice. My colleagues and students appear to have a genuine interest in, and acceptance of, my life. For much of my time at Leeds it’s likely I was ‘straight-passing’; it was only when I entered a new relationship that some staff and students realised that perhaps I wasn’t straight after all. If anyone thought this was a big deal they didn’t let on. The reaction from outside the university, straight and gay, wasn’t as benign. Everyone has a different experience, for me being ‘out’ at the University isn’t a barrier.
Does being LGB or T influence your working life? If so, how?
My experience of identifying as bi does influence my working life. In others I recognise a sense of insecurity, otherness, and isolation more easily than I might have done. I’m also able to empathise with those struggling with ‘imposter syndrome’; a common in the bisexual and academic communities alike. I have a lived experience of being excluded from the dominant discourse, and I use this experience to strengthen my teaching, research, and mentoring practice. I actively seek opportunities to challenge, with kindness, practices that maintain a status quo of exclusion.
I’ve never had a ‘really bad’ experience at work/in a work context, I am however forever mindful that ‘something’ might happen. How ‘risky’ a situation is likely to be does factor into my decision to engage or not in particular events; particularly events that take place in towns/cities/countries where LGBT+ rights are not recognised nor enforced.
It would be great if we lived in a world where sexuality wasn’t something any of us had to even consider at work. Unfortunately we aren’t there yet – for now I maximise the strengths and attempt to mitigate against the negatives.
What advice would you give to other LGBT+ staff or students who may be facing difficulties as a result of their sexuality?
Reach out. Find someone you can trust and speak about your difficulties. Remember the University has inclusive and welcoming groups and services (e.g. LGBT+ staff network, LUU LGBT+ society, the staff and the student counselling services).
Know you are not alone. There are people at the University of Leeds who are willing and able to support you.
What can we all do to make the University of Leeds a better place for LGBT staff and students?
Show respect for the importance of gender and identity by including pronouns in email signatures and verbal introductions.
Avoid assumptions by asking open questions that use gender neutral language. If you don’t know someone’s sexuality use neutral terms. Don’t assume you know someone’s sexuality based on how they look or the relationship they are currently in. Use language that acknowledges someone’s family might be built on other than defacto/marriage and parenting relationships.
Be mindful that many LGBT+ people worry about revealing their sexuality at work. We live in a heteronormative society. If you’re out there as a LGBT+ role model or ally you are making the University of Leeds a better place for LGBT+ staff and students – encourage others to do the same.