Helen Finch – School of Languages, Cultures and Societies

Why do you think it’s important to have LGBT+ Role Models?

Role models can be really important to help overcome the sense of isolation that LGBT+ people, including students, can feel at university. As an international colleague (I’m Irish), who moved to the UK for her job, I know how disorienting it can be to try and find LGBT+ community in an entirely new workplace, culture and country. Knowing that there are role models visible at the University, and that they are safe and supported in their careers, can be very liberating, particularly if you are arriving from a place where being LGBT+ isn’t easy.

What was it like ‘coming out’ as an LGBT+ person?

You never stop ‘coming out’ as an LGBT+ person! I grew up in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, when homosexual acts were criminal. The idea of ‘coming out’ in that environment was horribly difficult, and I have huge respect for people who were brave enough to come out in the face of massive State and cultural homophobia back then. I arrived in Leeds in 2007 with my partner, and made sure that I ‘came out’ to all my new colleagues as soon as I met them then. But you still have to come out over and over again in new contexts. I felt this particularly when my partner and I got civilly partnered in 2008 and then again when we had children.

Constantly coming out and challenging assumptions about your sexuality and family does get exhausting. Most people are very kind and apologise straight away if they make the wrong assumption about my partner or my children, but sometimes I’d just rather not face the extra effort of managing their embarrassment and making them feel better! In general, though, coming out has got a lot easier, as British and Irish public attitudes towards LBGT+ rights have changed very quickly. Ten years ago, students were not necessarily supportive of equal rights or aware of the LGBT+ struggle, and I was very wary about being ‘out’ in the classroom. Now, I try to be as ‘out’ as possible, and students have been very affirming.

How easy is it to be ‘out’ while working at the University of Leeds?

I’ve had nothing but positive experiences. Colleagues have always been warm and supportive, and HR were very helpful when I took paternity and partner leave to be with my children. My particular workplace, the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, is extremely international and diverse in many ways, and I feel that my diversity is welcomed as part of that mix.

Does being LGB or T influence your working life? If so, how?

Lots of ways! My first academic book looked at queer themes in German literature as resistance to histories of violence. I’m continuing to do research into queer German studies, and I’ve also introduced queer themes into my teaching. Last year, I designed a section on queer German history and culture to include in our compulsory Level 1 German studies module. It was really touching to see how positively students reacted to being taught about a German gay rights movement that goes back over a hundred years! I’ve also started to connect my research and teaching in queer studies with personal activism through the LGBT+ staff network, through working with Athena SWAN, and through the UCU. I’ve found it very empowering to bring all these parts of my life together. It’s also helped me to battle some of my own internalised queer shame, and to realise that queer histories, cultures and activism shouldn’t be marginalised – they belong at the heart of the curriculum and of research.

What advice would you give to other LGBT+ staff or students who may be facing difficulties as a result of their sexuality?

  • Always remember, other people’s homophobia is NOT your problem. It’s never your fault if people or organisations cause you difficulties because of your sexuality. It’s also not your responsibility to challenge people if you don’t feel safe or confident in doing so. You don’t owe it to anyone to come out or risk yourself in any way.
  • Inform yourself about your legal rights – it’s empowering to learn that sexuality is a protected characteristic under equality legislation. You should be protected from difficulties at work!
  • Reach out to other LGBT+ people in a way that makes you feel safe – contact a role model, an equalities officer, the LGBT+ network, the LUU Equality & Diversity Officer, or one of the brilliant local Leeds LGBT+ organisations.

What can we all do to make the University of Leeds a better place for LGBT+ staff and students?

I don’t have all the answers – everyone’s needs are different! But a few suggestions:

  • Make sure that you are as inclusive as possible in all your practices. Use gender neutral pronouns whenever possible, and particularly when referring to people’s partners. Don’t assume anything about a person’s gender or sexuality. Use queer-positive imagery in work-related spaces where you can – for instance, a poster for the LGBT+ network, rainbow flags or images of LGBT+ people on marketing or teaching materials. Think of ways that you can bring queer voices, histories and concerns into your teaching, research and other work practices. I believe a queer perspective is really enriching for everyone’s work – whether it’s designing LGBT+ friendly student support services, teaching about neglected queer histories, or researching the particular needs that LBGT+ people might have in medicine, transport or the law.
  • Listen actively to LGBT+ people’s stories and needs, and learn from them. Things may seem to be fine for LGBT+ people in the UK today, but many, many LGBT+ people still face difficulties and discrimination, and many of us carry traumatic stories and memories. Remember that intersectional issues affect LBGT+ people – LGBT+ people have different needs and histories depending on their ethnicity, nationality, disability status, age, gender and many other life experiences.  Assuming that LGBT+ rights are now ‘fixed’, that everyone shares the same experience, or that gay people should just stop ‘going on about it’ is a form of homophobia in itself.
  • And finally, stand up for trans* people whenever you can – our trans* siblings are coming under a lot of attack in the media at present, and it’s really important to show our solidarity.