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Bravery and courage come in many colours (of the rainbow)

19 December 2022

6 mins

It is just over 50 years since a group of people were forcibly detained by police offers one night at a bar in New York City for the crime of being themselves. The subsequent reaction from this group of people, who had quite simply had enough of being persecuted, would go down in history as the Stonewall Riots or the Stonewall Uprising. These events are now widely viewed as the start of the gay civil rights movement and, in the intervening years, significant progress has been made in the fight for equality and acceptance for LGBT+ people. However, such progress is not uniform across our society, nor in all places in the world (as has been highlighted by the current Men’s Football World Cup in Qatar).

Today, it is shameful that anti-LGBT+ sentiments persist in many places. Some are obvious. Some are not. But all will be particularly felt by those in the LGBT+ community and their allies.

When the Loughborough University LGBT+ Staff Network championed and worked to have the rainbow installation painted on our campus, I felt a strong sense of pride. How great it was that we were able to work together – our staff network, student representatives, facilities and maintenance staff, senior leadership, and the communications team – to install, celebrate and promote a wonderful piece of art, that not only looks good, but sends a powerful message of acceptance, love and pride.

However, I did not expect what came next. I did not expect the thousands of comments on Twitter, some personal and others more general. Toxic, hurtful, aggressive and threatening.

My surprise only serves to highlight my privilege. I am a heterosexual white man. I fit into many of society’s “norms”. I don’t get heckled in the street because of what I choose to wear (unless it’s a West Ham shirt). I am not routinely threatened with violence because of whose hand I am holding. My sexuality or gender has never formed an undertone in a job interview or a discussion about career progression. I have never been afraid to speak about who I love.

Watching the Twitter diatribe unfold, the hurtful comments came largely from people outside of the University. I was pleased to see our Loughborough community supporting the installation. But it turns out that this clear-cut characterisation isn’t the whole picture. While our staff and students don’t generally make anti-LGBT+ statements in a public forum, we have recently seen anti-LGBT+ vandalism on our campus. Incidents of anti-LGBT+ language and targeted bullying have also taken place within our student community. Where we have been able to identify the perpetrators, we have taken disciplinary action against them.

This means Loughborough University is not always the safe, positive and inclusive environment it should be. This is completely unacceptable. Everybody is welcome here. Everybody is entitled to be part of our community. Everybody should be valued and accepted. Such inclusion and belonging are necessary to achieve our ambitions as an institution and to create a vibrant University community.

Now, while these are important statements, they need to be accompanied by action. We have started on this journey. Our actions will benefit all our under-represented groups, as we review our policies and systems, to ensure they are as inclusive as possible.  Specific actions have already included making EDI central to our new Strategy, clarifying how we protect academic freedom but do not allow hate, and installing LGBT+ inspired artwork around campus. We are rolling out training and awareness, so all staff understand the challenges faced by those from our LGBT+ community and how they contribute to a welcoming culture.  And in the New Year we will implement changes to our student IT systems to extend the use of the ‘preferred names’ category, thereby reducing deadnaming. But this is just the start.

Stonewall published research that in the UK 35% of LGBT+ staff have hidden the fact they are LGBT+ at work out of fear of not being accepted. Over 40% of LGBT+ students have hidden their identity at university for fear of discrimination. I cannot imagine the challenges this must bring, and I am personally committed to doing all I can to make the University an environment where students and staff feel no need to hide their identity.

To help me better understand these challenges, for several years now I have engaged with a number of LGBT+ groups. I work hard to educate myself, to listen and learn from others’ experiences, so I can be a better ally and understand how I can best use my leadership position to help.

The LGBT+ Staff Network Chair and other members of the committee and community have been generous in giving me their time and allowing me to ask questions to improve my knowledge. I encourage you all to read the blogs published, look at the webpages – not just internally, but also outside of Loughborough (some reading I found useful is at the end of this post). Learning makes us all better, and we must all continue to educate ourselves.

I remember having a conversation with a colleague about the idea that once you have come out, many think that you have shed that weight and you can move on with your life. However, the reality is that you have to keep coming out over and over again as you meet new people, join a new club or society, or start a new job.

And while it might get a little easier each time, the reaction of the person you are telling is uncertain and can present a moment of immense vulnerability. It still takes bravery for a member of the LGBT+ community to tell someone for the first time. So, if nothing else, I hope everyone reading this blog remembers the courage involved next time you are on the receiving end of that conversation. Thank the person telling you for trusting you with their whole selves – it is a privilege to work with someone who is willing to do this.

And for the members of the LGBT+ community who have to have those conversations all the time – I am humbled by your strength and enthused by your determination. Let us all continue to work together to create better futures for everybody at the University.

Professor Nick Jennings CB FREng FRS


Further information, networks and further reading:

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Reflections, comments, discussion and opinion on EDI topics from Loughborough University staff and students

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