Acceptance without exception? LGBT+ life in higher education

Universities are typically seen as leading the way in LGBT+ policies and politics. But in light of a report by Stonewall on the LGBT+ experience in UK universities, Alex Diggins asks how accurate is this perception and can institutions do more?

The recently released Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is a triumphant piece of cinema. Swaggeringly cool with a foot-tapping jukebox soundtrack, it shows how Mercury strutted, sashayed and skyrocketed Queen to phenomenal success. But it also demonstrates how much has changed for the LGBT+ community. Mercury endures open abuse on the street; tearfully comes out to his wife (only for her to say she’s known “for years”); and conceals evidence of the AIDS which would eventually contribute to his death.

Much, fortunately, has changed. And universities have often been seen as being at the forefront of that change; they are perceived, as Mhairi Taylor, Equality and Diversity Manager at Glasgow University, argues, as “bastions of liberal ideals”. But a recent report by Stonewall, LGBT in Britain – University Report 2018, has thrown a bucket of cold water over this complacency. Its findings should galvanise university leaders to take a hard look at their own LGBT+ provision; and consider that, as Mhairi notes, “the reality on the ground for staff and students can be quite different” from the apparently accepting status quo.

Present prejudices

Stonewall’s report makes grim reading.

It found that one in seven LGBT+ students had been subject to negative comments and abuse by staff, and one in five by fellow pupils. In addition, more than a third of trans students had experienced abuse, and an appalling 7% had suffered physical violence on account of their identity. Prejudice was particularly acute for those with multiple or overlapping identities. One in four BAME (Black, Asian and ethnic minority) students who identified as LGBT+ had experienced abuse in the past year, and figures were also proportionally higher for disabled students. “For many pupils, universities are arty, liberal spaces where people can explore their identities,” said Pete Mercer, Head of Public Sector Membership Programmes at Stonewall. “But, as our report indicates, for many others, that certainly isn’t the case. [They are] faced with harm and discrimination for simply being themselves – this is completely unacceptable.”

The report’s data can, of course, be contested due to its relatively small sample size: it asked 5,000 LGBT+ students across the UK about their experiences, and investigated the specific cases of the 522 who responded to the questionnaire. And those who had experienced prejudice, and wished to report it, may have been more likely to respond. In addition, as it relied on students self-identifying as LGBT+, it’s potentially vulnerable to manipulation from people unscrupulously identifying to distort the statistics. Nonetheless, its findings make sobering reading and deserve to be taken seriously. In fact, the relative scarcity of good data is a problem which is shared across the sector. There is no compulsion for institutions to collect data on sexual orientation or gender identity. This is down to fears over data protection and institutional prejudice. But, unfortunately, this means that, as Pete argued: “Institutions don’t know if LGBT students are dropping out their courses en masse. The lack of data means that when universities say they don’t have a problem with prejudice, it simply means their assumptions are unfounded.”

Present solutions

What can be done? Institutions can tackle LGBT+ prejudice through their policies and cultures. The approaches are entangled and mutually supportive – but both must be championed to root out the abuse and discrimination that still apparently tarnishes UK universities.

Start with policies. One of the most important is having clear avenues through which LGBT+ staff and pupils can raise complaints, propose policy and facilitate dialogue with senior leadership. “One of the most important elements of our work is the importance of listening,” said Karen Cooke, Chair of the LGBT+ staff network at Cardiff University. To this end, Cardiff has an LGBT+ working group that meets three times a year and incorporates representatives from the staff, pupils and leadership. This forum provides a space “to discuss what is working, what needs to improve and how we can effect change together”.

The idea of a LGBT+ working group – composed of a cross-section of staff and students – is one that is repeated at Essex and Glasgow, which also both scored 10 out of 10 in Stonewall’s benchmarking criteria of LGBT+ friendliness, Gay by Degree. Other policies adopted across all three institutions include training for academic and administrative staff on unconscious bias and bystander intervention, in addition to initiatives such as giving staff and students the option to disclose their identity as non-binary and use the title Mx. As Karen Bush, Head of Equality Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Essex, said: “People are not just one thing – we all have multiple identities and the intersection of these identities impact on our experiences.”

This intersectionality can prove a challenge to universities’ creaking administrative systems, though. “There can be indirect challenges with policy implementation, particularly when they interact with technical systems,” admitted Karen Cooke. “Many systems are built or based on the idea of binary genders, and a number of our staff and student community have very different attitudes to gender and it can take a while for systems to catch up.”

Cultural change

As those systems catch up, however, universities must ensure they foster a supportive culture for LGBT+ people. Depending on their location, this can be easier for some than others. For large, metropolitan universities like Glasgow, which already have a vibrant LGBT+ scene, it is mostly a matter of facilitating and encouraging existing LGBT+ communities. This can involve gestures like flying the rainbow flag, when appropriate, or selling rainbow pins so people can identify as LGBT+ or as an LGBT+ ally. But institutions can also tangibly support LGBT+ people through funding for student and staff networks. These support networks are especially important for smaller, more rural institutions where LGBT+ people may not have a wider community for support.

Movements to diversify the curriculum, so that they more accurately reflect the LGBT+ experience, are also critical. “Understanding the value of the student voice is very important,” explained Pete. “[It’s about] ensuring the LGBT experience isn’t erased.” In some subjects – the social sciences, for example – academia has been ahead of the curve in this respect. But in others, like psychology, there is still an implicit assumption that heterosexual relationships are the norm, and gender identities are binary. Unsettling these assumptions is an important part of making universities a more comfortable, welcoming space for LGBT+ people.

Ultimately, though, perhaps the most significant step institutions can take is realising they aren’t rarefied, complacently liberal spaces; instead, they are “microcosms of wider society”, as Mhairi noted. They should be leaders in setting policies and encouraging cultures that support LGBT+ communities. But they are, nonetheless, caught up in the wider currents of society. And from the election of Donald Trump to the poisoning of the body politic with hateful discourse directed at ‘others’ of all sorts, the need for universities to take a stand for inclusivity and tolerance has grown all the more acute. As Pete states: “I would urge any institutions reading this to think carefully about what they think, versus what they know.”

Bohemian Rhapsody shows how far we have come – but also serves as a reminder of how far we have to go.

Except in direct quotation, this article uses LGBT+ as it is the most widely accepted term for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and non-binary people.