From Brighton Pride to Sussex Pride
Brighton Pride is coming up this weekend. I heard some people on the train the other day saying that they didn’t think such events were needed any more because “gays have everything they need, especially in Brighton”. Although I was tempted, I didn’t interrupt, though I did disagree. Things have indeed changed a lot over the last twenty years, but they could easily change back if we get complacent and Brighton has its fair share of intolerance and bigotry still.
I was myself beaten up on Brighton’s seafront many years ago, during my previous existence at the University of Sussex as a PhD student and a postdoctoral researcher. There was no doubt why I was attacked: the four young men who surrounded me and punched and kicked me to the ground were shouting just one word over and over again, “faggot”. It’s still a word I hate to hear used, even if purportedly in jest. That event left me with deep psychological scars that contributed to a breakdown I had as recently as two years ago.
Thirty or so years after my encounter with the queerbashers, attitudes have definitely changed, and so has the law. Certain types of criminal offence are now officially recognized as hate crimes: the list treats sexual orientation as equivalent to race, gender, religious belief and disability in such matters. The Police are now obliged to treat these with due seriousness, and penalties for those found guilty of crimes exacerbated by homophobia are consequently more severe. All Police forces now have special units for dealing with them; here is an example.
These changes are mirrored in other aspects of life too. For example, employment law relating to discrimination or harassment in the workplace now puts sexual orientation on the same footing as race, gender, disability and religious belief. In many universities in the UK, staff have been required to attend training in Equality and Diversity matters not only to raise awareness of the legal framework under which we all have to work, but also to promote a sensitivity to these issues in order to improve the working environment for both staff and students. Now we have equal marriage too.
This training isn’t about over-zealous busybodies. Under the law, employers have a vicarious liability for the conduct of their staff with regard to harassment and discrimination. This means that a University can be sued if, for example, one of its employees commits harassment, and it can be shown that it did not make appropriate efforts to ensure its staff did not engage in such activities.
Of course not everyone approves of these changes. Some staff have refused point-blank to attend Equality and Diversity training, even though it’s compulsory. Others attend grudgingly, muttering about “political correctness gone mad”. You may think all this is a bit heavy handed, but I can tell you it makes a real difference to the lives of people who, without this legal protection, would be victimised, harassed or discriminated against. It is, also, the law.
I think the efforts that have been made to improve the legal situation have been (at least partly) responsible for the changes in society’s attitudes over the last twenty years, which have been extremely positive. I’m old enough to remember very different times. That’s not to say that there’s no bigotry any more. Even in this day and age, violent crimes against gay men are still disturbingly common and police attitudes not always helpful even though many police forces do now have Lesbian and Gay teams, something that was just unthinkable 25 years ago.
Although relatively few universities appear in the list of gay-friendly employers compiled by the campaigning organisation Stonewall, my experience generally, having worked in a number of UK universities (Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff), is that they are generally friendly and comfortable places for an openly gay person to work. So much so, in fact, that there’s no real need to make a big deal of one’s sexual identity. It doesn’t really have much to do with the way you do your work – certainly not if it’s astrophysics – and work-related social events are, as a rule, very inclusive.
However, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University there do remain islands of bigotry, and not just about gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender staff. Sexism is a major problem, at least in science subjects, and will probably remain so until the gender balance improves, which it slowly doing, despite the actions of certain professors who actively block attempts to encourage more female applicants to permanent positions. Universities still do not seem to me to treat sexual orientation with the same seriousness as, say, race or gender discrimination. I’ve had plenty of experiences to back that up.
I recently took part in an interesting meeting involving various staff from the University of Sussex with a representative of Stonewall. The topic was how we could work with Stonewall to make it more gay-friendly. If I remember correctly, there are 78 UK Universities currently taking part in Stonewall’s programmes. It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that the University of Sussex is not among them. Perhaps the attitude is that because there is such a large and visible gay population in Brighton it’s not necessary for the University of Sussex to take any steps in this direction. I disagree, and am absolutely convinced that there are many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender members of the University of Sussex staff who would love to see some action taken to make their workplace just a little bit friendlier and more inclusive, even if that just amounts to acknowledging their existence. There is a visible and active LBGT student society on campus, but no such entity exists for staff – an absence that is truly glaring. I don’t even think the University has any idea what fraction of its staff identify themselves as LGBT.
No doubt there’ll be many members of the University of Sussex staff on the Pride Parade on Saturday and at the various parties being held around Brighton afterwards. Perhaps it’s time to start some sort of network so that for staff at the University of Sussex, Pride doesn’t just come once a year…?
If you’re interested in this idea please let me know, either through the comments box or by email.Follow @telescoper