Why do you think it’s important to have LGBT+ role models?
I was at school when Section 28 was in force. Homophobia was just a fact of the culture that I grew up in. As the drag performer Panti Bliss says, you couldn’t not imbibe a bit of homophobia yourself if you grew up in a culture saturated with it. I find it quite hard to explain how meaningful it is that there should be people who I can see are like me in public life and in roles in the workplace, and I don’t want to overstate it, but it does matter.
What was it like ‘coming out’ as an LGBT+ person?
Well, it’s not really a one-off event, is it? You sometimes find yourself referring to ‘my partner’ in the hope that people will get it, and sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes you set them straight (sorry for the pun), and mostly it’s fine, and sometimes you don’t bother, because it does just get a bit dull.
How easy is it to be ‘out’ while working at the University of Leeds?
Generally, it’s completely fine. Like most big universities, Leeds is a very open and diverse community, and a very welcoming place to work. I guess the exception was when people expressed their great shock at my becoming pregnant, before, or instead of, offering congratulations – it wasn’t nearly as upsetting as being threatened or verbally abused by strangers in the street (as happened a few times when I was younger), but it was a reminder that there’s still a bit of work to do before sexuality really just doesn’t matter.
Does being LGB or T influence your working life? If so, how?
I sometimes teach on LGBT+ issues a little, and have done since I started in academia over a decade ago. It’s quite surprising how rapidly attitudes have shifted – when I was first teaching on these issues civil partnerships were just coming in and students had mixed views about them, and many were opposed to equal marriage and the idea of LGBT+ people being parents. Now the mainstream view is decidedly in favour of equality in all areas, but there is also a minority of students who deeply disagree with this. I find it quite tricky to handle this sometimes: it’s important that all students feel that they can express their views and offer reasons in support of them in class discussions, but at the same time I don’t want to make LGBT+ students listen to their peers telling them they don’t deserve equal rights, and I never enjoy it myself. I’ve had students on both sides of the debate get a bit upset sometimes.
I also work on my School’s equality and inclusion strategy, and while I think this is a really important area that Leeds has put a lot of effort into in recent years, I do feel ambivalent about my role. It is probably true that having experienced discrimination gives me some relevant insights into this work, but I’m also wary of the practice of getting minorities to do the social labour of leading on equality and inclusion: it potentially reinforces the impression that this isn’t everyone’s responsibility.
What advice would you give to other LGBT+ staff or students who may be facing difficulties as a result of their sexuality?
Well, I don’t have any more wisdom on this than anyone else, but if I were asked for advice I’d say find someone you trust to talk to about it, connect with the LGBT+ staff network or student groups. And I’d say that things have got markedly better for LGBT+ folk in a fairly short period of time, so there’s a lot to feel optimistic about.
What can we all do to make the University of Leeds a better place for LGBT +staff and students?
I can only return to the point above: equality and inclusion really is everyone’s responsibility, and something worth investing in for the benefit of all staff and students, it’s not just something for minorities. So, if you’re sitting in a meeting and E&I is last on the agenda and you really just want to go home or go and get a coffee, do try to make the effort to stick around. Or if you have to go, maybe suggest that it isn’t habitually last on the agenda so that you can catch it next time. Just a thought.