Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Homophobia and transphobia have no place in Universities

I work hard in my spare time, as vice chair of the OxU LGBT+ advisory group to put on LGBT+ awareness events, spread understanding and help create an accepting and inclusive work environment here at the university with some awesome people. I do a lot in the local community too. When I do, I say proudly that I am from Oxford University - a place that accepts me for who I am. I do what I can to make sure that my workplace is represented in a positive light because generally my experiences here have been positive. I have been supported by so many here, given a platform to spread a message of inclusivity. To do some good in the world, breaking down barriers in peoples perceptions. It is amazing to see people see how responsive and positve the reaction (from outside the LGBT+ community) is. In the last few years I have found the University of Oxford a great place to work as a rather visible member of the LGBT+ community. 

As a result, I put a lot of effort into my 'day job'. Being in a happy environment I give extra to my work. Extra effort, extra time, extra care. I am proud of my workplace and hope that I am making the world a better place. It may only be a little drop, but an ocean is made up of drops of water. 

Having read the comments made by the VC of the University of Oxford, I was somewhat surprised.
"I've had many conversations with students who say they don't feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality," said Prof Richardson. 
"They don't feel comfortable being in class with someone with those views.
"And I say, 'I'm sorry, but my job isn't to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I'm interested in making you uncomfortable'.
"If you don't like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that. 

It is hard to know the full context and intent of the statement. I hope the comments are clarified soon. We need context. But right now the comments, as they stand, concern me. 

Imagine if the sentence was "say they don't feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against black students / Jewish people / people with disabilities." Would you be comfortable making that statement? If you cannot imagine making those statements, then the same should be applied to comments on sexuality (and gender identity). The sentences sound as though you are saying that it is ok to make homophobic statements in a classroom. Whether the intent is there or not, that is the message that will be taken – as Twitter, etc. have proven. 

Homophobia is illegal, for a start. The Equality Act 2010 specifically mentions sexuality (and gender identity - though as gender reassignment) as a protected characteristic. The University is bound to this law and the guidelines and policies of the University are framed around this. The guidelines and anti-harassment policies are clear. It is unacceptable to make homophobic comments and it is the universities responsibility to prevent this / challenge such thinking. Not that of the students.
The Oxford University LGBT+ Advisory Group, OUSU LGBTQ+ Campaign and LGBTQ+ Society all work hard to make LGBT+ students and staff feel accepted, welcome and safe at Oxford University. We work hard. We care. I personally feel like we are doing a great job and things are improving. We do this, firstly because we believe that these people deserve to be treated with the same dignity that everyone else is treated to. Secondly, because the LGBT+ community is subject to elevated hate crimes and the University should be a place where people feel safe.
We often do not feel safe or accepted. 

The key findings from the Gallop ( http://www.galop.org.uk/news/the-hate-crime-report-2016/ ) survey show: 4 in 5 LGBT people had experienced hate crime; A quarter had experienced violent hate crime; A Third experienced online hate crime; A Tenth experienced sexual violence as part of a hate crime. The university should be a place where you can get away from the discrimination in the wider world. Not a bubble, but a break. Oxford University should be a place of higher learning. Hate should have no place in this. When persecuted it is hard to really flourish and this is, of course, true in academia.

Why is it such a big deal? Well, the LGBT+ community have alarming levels of depression and suicide. LGB people are twice as likely as heterosexual people to have suicidal thoughts or to make suicide attempts; LGB people are two to three times more likely than heterosexual people to suffer from depression; Over half of gay young people deliberately harm themselves yet the NSPCC estimates that for young people in general its between 1 in 15 and 1 in 10 (http://lgbt.foundation/About-us/media/facts-and-figures/ ). Nearly half (48 per cent) of trans people under 26 said they had attempted suicide, and 30 per cent said they had done so in the past year, while 59 per cent said they had at least considered doing so (http://www.stonewall.org.uk/media/lgbt-facts-and-figures).these numbers vary by survey, but the general trend is clear: LGB+ people are far more susceptible to severe depression and risk of suicide than none LGB+ people, and for transgender individuals the number become far worse. 

Why is this? Well, because of discrimination. Because of hate, abuse, lack of fundamental dignity. Fear of all the above once you come out. Hiding who you are due to that fear. I personally spent nearly thirty years suffering from severe depression knowing that I was transgender. Worrying about the effects of coming out. Suicide felt like a viable option a number of times. Yet, when I came out and was accepted for who I am, the depression lifted. Completely. Had I not been accepted for my gender identity, I do wonder how different things could have been. I read cases of suicide (not to mention murder) for being trans every few days – and generally these cases come from homes / social groups where the person was not accepted. Such things are reflected in the elevated levels of LGBT+ homeless: LGBT young people are more likely to find themselves homeless than their non LGBT peers, comprising up to 24% of the youth homeless population; LGBT homeless youth are highly likely to have experienced familial rejection, abuse and violence (69%, AKT 2015) (http://www.akt.org.uk/webtop/modules/_repository/documents/AlbertKennedy_researchreport_FINALinteractive.pdf). Rejection is a real issue if you are LGBT+. If you know where to look, the news is grim as a trans person. It is not much better if your sexuality is deemed 'alternative'. 

This is why I am so passionate about creating an accepting environment. Why I put so much time and effort into maintaining this for other people. Casual comments that suggest homophobia is acceptable undo a lot of good work. The statement may not have intended to be such, but it comes across that way and thus will be taken as a green light by some. 

If a student does not feel comfortable with their tutor because they are homophobic, then should they have to hide who they are? Worry during classes that they can be 'found out'? Should it be ok for them to hear homophobic comments used in casual conversation even if they are not aimed at them? Or would this be upsetting? 

Is it really up to the student to challenge such behaviour? I think the dynamic between homophobic professor and student are clearly misunderstood. The professor is in a powerful position. Few students will stand up to that. Fewer still to people who make flagrant homophobic comments from a position of power. I would not have done so as an undergraduate. Now I will fight for those students.
And I make myself a visible role model. Why? Well, I almost chose suicide over coming out as trans because I assumed that trans people are not accepted in science and engineering. In 15 years I had met one out gay person and no other LGBT+ people at all in my fields. Statistically it is very unlikely that this is representative of the people I met, but there it was. It is not hard to draw conclusions based on what you see: if there are no out LGBT+ people in STEM subjects, they must not be accepted in those fields. After working so hard on my career, how could I give that up? I did not feel able to be myself but I accepted a substandard life. As a result my academic output was low. It was hard to write papers when my mind was in a downward spiral. 

I avoid having the 'what if' thoughts. What could I have achieved had I transitioned much earlier? Such thoughts are not constructive or positive. I cannot change the past. Still, I hope I would have achieved much higher academic achievements. After all, I managed to gain a PhD, many international collaborations and four years worth of postdoctoral research whilst operating at a subpar level compared to what I am capable of, due to my mental health issues. 

I cannot be alone. I know I am not. As I say, in all the years prior to my coming out I met a statistically low number of LGBT+ people. We need to foster an inclusive environment within university in order to allow people to flourish. It should not only be those who have no worries or cares that output at their highest level, everyone should be able to. By creating an accepting space we can get the best out of everyone. Surely we want the best, especially here at Oxford. 

And those that say “well, it is your choice to be gay” - are we not past the point where we even think that sexuality is a choice, that gender identities that vary front the gender assigned at birth is a lifestyle option? The medical community is clear, these things are not a choice. I do not believe I have a choice. Who chooses a life of depression? A life of become a target for hate crimes? How can our academics be the best in the world if they are so closed minded to things they do not understand? Do we have climate change deniers teaching chemistry? Deniers of evolution teaching physics? We want academic excellence.

I do agree with the VC that universities should be challenging. Students should be challenged, made to think. I agree with that. If we live in an echo chamber of similar thoughts then we fail to grow as people. Without challenge, how do look to achieve higher and push ourselves? We need to understand why we think how we do, act how we do. We need to know both sides of arguments. Society will move forward through a compromise and balance of conflicting ideologies. However, there is a difference in free speech and hate speech. Homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, ableism, agism - none of these things are not debateable. They are not acceptable. Not in society and certainly not at Oxford University.