“Dear Highly Respected HE Professional with a 15-year career, would you like to come to our panel to talk about liking men?”
…is not an email anyone really wants to write. Especially if you’re writing it to your old boss.
Talking about your sexuality is on nobody’s top 10 topics in a work environment (unless relevant to that work environment) and so putting yourself out there as an LGBA+ person is quite a big ask. Talking about your gender identity or, even worse, your transition, can feel like too big a personal sacrifice for the sake of visibility. Yet the LGBTQIA+ community understands that in order to never talk about it again, we have to have a lot of conversations about it now.
EDI at Bradford
The University of Bradford prides itself on social inclusion: it has a very racially diverse student population, a woman Vice-Chancellor (plus Chancellor and Chair of Council), two of the 25 black women professors in the UK (tragically, noteworthy), two members of the Executive Team openly discussing their disabilities and yet, when it comes to LGBT+ representation there is… a gap.
Perhaps we should not be that hard on ourselves, there are, after all, very few senior leaders in HE that openly identify as LGBTQIA+. Last I checked there were two VCs, one of whom came out in an email to staff & students after Bi-visibility Day in 2017. "Making the decision to send the email to all those thousands of people was quite worrying and stressful," he said, but he understood it was the right thing to do.
Universities are complex, multicultural ecosystems, with staff and students from around the world, some of whom come from countries where homosexuality is illegal. Many come from countries where gay marriage is not recognised. Those from two blocks down from our lecture theatres may come from families where being queer is not talked about. A lot of those students are LGBT+. We have a responsibility to let them know that they are not alone, that they are accepted and that they can be themselves within our walls (physical or virtual).
LGBT+ History Month is only one of the ways we can do this: we should continually ask how to make sure LGBT+ inclusion is more embedded into our institutional strategies all year round. For right now, it’s our one big gesture.
LGBTHM21 at Bradford
The difficult thing about putting History Month together this year, was not being able to organise on-campus events. The easy thing about it, was being able to do everything online! No need to pry rooms away from the cold hands of panicked module leaders! Speakers are suddenly all available! Don’t have to budget for travel expenses! And yes, we are all dealing with Zoom fatigue, but people who would not have normally come to a campus event can now watch it online more discretely.
With a different hat, I have been on the SROC committee for 7 years now, organising the annual conference, and what makes it successful is that it always has its ear to the ground. Sure, the committee has views on the direction of travel, but it is our practitioners that drive the content. Similarly, with History Month, I knew what notes we needed to hit, but it was the staff network and UBU (our SU) that ultimately shaped the programme.
We are lucky to have members in our LGBT+ staff network from different corners of the rainbow and of different ages and genders which give us a wealth of perspective. The staff network-led part of the programme grew organically from what was of interest to the members.
At the same time, UBU had their own, very different, ideas. We were talking about Section 28, parenting and STEM and they were thinking inspirational speakers and role models. We were working with twitter and they were working with Instagram. They were very pro-active in getting us all into weekly meetings. Our History Month opening session was a joint event.
We were also lucky to have supportive media and events teams who worked with the staff network to get our event pages set up, get our branding to the VC for sign off and get us publicising in record time. We have also been lucky with our assigned Equality & Diversity Co-ordinator who is part of the LGBT+ Network and is supporting us throughout the month.
Finally, and crucially, we have a supportive Executive Team LGBT+ Advocate (as ally) and a well-respected PVC for EDI, both of whom were a key part of our opening event.
As I write this, we have seven LGBT+ Staff Network sessions lined up with another coming and three UBU sessions confirmed. Important to note, that we are part of a Bradford District wide programme of month-long events. We’ve also published (internally) a series of LGBT+ staff profiles and UBU are running a social media campaign.
It is our one big gesture, but it means nothing if it’s all we do. Over the past year we’ve been building up our resources, including the publication of a Trans Toolkit for staff and students, we’re working on our visibility on campus (rainbow lanyards, badges, flags and safe space signage), we’re introducing easier harassment reporting, normalising the use of pronouns, and will soon be proudly displaying the Stonewall Diversity Champions badge.
But is this enough? What more can the Higher Education sector and individual providers do to create equal opportunities for LGBT+ staff and students and to make them feel safe enough to be themselves?
Marian Hilditch is Deputy Academic Registrar and chair of the LGBT+ Staff Network at the University of Bradford, chair of SROC (the Student Records Officers’ Conference) and occasional speaker and writer of things HE and data.
Readers may also be interested in the following content:
- Doing LGBTQ+ differently, by Simon Bromelow, London South Bank University
- The intersection of LGBTQ identities and mental health, by Stuart McKenna, Manchester Metropolitan University
- Trans people - Guidance and resources for institutions
- Lesbian, gay and bisexual people - adopting a clear approach to LGB equality and providing appropriate support.
Advance HE Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Conference 2021, 16-18 March.
Courageous conversations and adventurous approaches: Creative thinking in tackling inequality. Our conference will bring together the annual Advance HE EDI conference with the biannual Scottish conference with the theme – Courageous conversations and adventurous approaches: creative thinking in tackling inequality. Find out more.
Advance HE supports HEIs in understanding the common issues in further and higher education to design inclusive support services, develop accessible campus environments and make everyone feel welcome at your institution.