To celebrate LGBT History Month, we asked UHI students and staff to share their thoughts, reflections and stories. Social Sciences lecturer Carol Shepherd discusses the importance of creating a supportive environment for LGBT+ students and staff.
In terms of supporting our LGBT+ students, I believe role-modelling is key. With regard to supporting LGBT+ members of staff, I believe it is imperative that some of us are open about our sexuality to create a supportive environment for colleagues who may be struggling to be themselves in the workplace, or who may be dealing with incidences of stigmatisation in their personal or working lives.
I grew up in South Wales during the Thatcher years. Section 28 came into force in 1988 when I was 17 years old and attending a local FE college in a socially conservative area. At that time, I was struggling to understand my confusing dual attraction to both men and women, as well as reconciling that with my new Christian faith. How I would have appreciated being able to talk to someone about this complex identity crisis I was facing. No priests were going to entertain the idea of bisexuality as a positive, God-given facet of my being and it was illegal for any teacher to discuss such issues with me, under the new regulations in place. In her now infamous address to the Conservative Party Conference in 1987, Thatcher informed delegates and a watching TV audience of millions, that “children are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of these children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”
How times have changed, thankfully. The UK Government under Labour finally repealed Section 28 law in 2003, in part due to the campaigning work of the Stonewall LGBT Rights pressure group, and now many LGBT children are receiving the sound start in life so cruelly denied young people of my generation. Nevertheless, there is still a considerable way to go, before we can say there is an equal playing field for young people of all sexual orientations and gender IDs. The Stonewall Schools Report of 2017 revealed that nearly half (45%) of LGBT pupils are bullied in UK schools for being themselves, whereas a report by Stonewall and BritainThinks found that one in five LGBT NEETS (not in education, employment or training) have struggled to find a job owing to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
How does that impact on my role as a lecturer at UHI? As a teacher of Sociology and Politics, sexuality is a subject that frequently makes an appearance in teaching resources and classroom discussion. Being willing to use myself as an example in topic exploration, sends out a message that LGBT students are not only welcome in my class, but understood. It also communicates that even a queer woman from a non-liberal background can succeed in professional life. This is vital, when so many young people face micro-aggressions and sometimes outright hostility linked to their orientation or gender ID on a daily basis. As an out bisexual woman of faith, I have an intersectional identity (a personal identity consisting of two or more stigmatised aspects) which not only speaks to the complexity of existing within mainstream heteronormative society, but which also enables and challenges students enjoying heterosexual privilege, or indeed any other form of hegemonic identity such as white or male, to gain new insights into how different life can feel viewed through a minority lens.
Teaching the Social Sciences, as well as performative subjects such as Drama and Theatre Production, provide a platform to facilitate conversations on LGBT issues that other curriculum areas do not so easily lend themselves to. Whilst there is no obligation for any queer teacher to out themselves, and certainly no need to rub one’s sexual orientation or gender ID in people’s faces, the casual dropping of ‘my wife and I’ into the conversation about plans for the weekend, normalises same sex relationships and can be done no matter what the subject taught. There is no requirement to engage in unsubtle or unnecessary self-revelation to make it clear to students that it’s absolutely ok to be LGBT or simply ‘different.’
Such conversations apply to the staffroom and online meetings as well. This is my second year of teaching here, and I have to say, I am not aware of any LGBT staff groups, though I am a member of the EIS LGBT staff caucus. Whilst I feel secure in my sexual orientation and gender ID, there may be NQTs or younger members of staff who have not been privileged to receive the support I have from my line managers and colleagues at UHI and within the affirming church I attend in Edinburgh.
For that reason, I believe it is vital, where a lecturer feels able, to serve as a role model to students and colleagues alike.
Support for LGBT students and staff is available here.