Blog, Uncategorized

Being an LGBTQ+ grad student and researcher in Cambridge: a journey to become a role model.

Alessandro Ceccarelli, University of Cambridge
(original article available here)

“Our colleagues make homophobic jokes at meetings, but nobody really says anything – they are just jokes! We do not talk about gender and sexuality at work. People do not talk about their sexuality all the time, why should we?”  Comments like these welcomed me when I arrived in Cambridge, and what shocked me the most was how many gay people here choose to hide their sexual identity in the workplace. This encouraged me to think about the broader difficulties that LGBTQ+ students and researchers may face across Colleges and Faculties in the University.

I am a gay man and a PhD student in Cambridge, and I am involved with local student politics as an LGBTQ+ activist. I am also an archaeologist working on ancient technologies in South Asia, a field that puts me in both STEM and Humanities. For those who might not know the meaning of the LGBTQ+ acronym, it refers to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, Queer, intersex, asexual and non-binary individuals. Being an LGBTQ+ person in academia, either in STEM or Humanities, comes with several issues. If a person self-identifies as an “openly” gay individual, regardless of relationship status, this may have a number of implications at work. Being “out”,  coming out, or being an openly LGBTQ+ person is a  long-term journey, rather than a one-time event, and it is a choice that one makes every day. When you are going to work in the morning, or joining your colleagues for dinner in the evening, or travelling for a research field trip, questions about personal life always occur. Negative reactions are possibilities that LGBTQ+ people consider on a daily basis, which can produce a certain degree of discomfort and stress that may also affect successes and failures.

I am currently the LGBTQ+ Officer and President Elect of the University of Cambridge Graduate Union (GU), which makes me mindful of a range of issues that queer students experience. Besides mental and sexual health, some of these issues fall within four main categories of social principles. These are four simple, closely related, yet very important concepts: (1) inclusivity; (2) equality; (3) diversity; and (4) representation (see University of Cambridge 2018). For LGBTQ+ people, these apparently abstract concepts have tangible effects that can determine the successful fulfillment of research projects and social relationships, as well as affecting mental health in general.

At the University of Cambridge, many aspects have been improved for LGBTQ+ people in the past decades; nonetheless, at different rates and levels, issues related to the above mentioned four social principles are still found. Cambridge is a complex environment, existing on many levels, including Colleges, Faculties, Departments and Schools. Here we shall give a concise insight into some of these aspects, using Colleges and Departments as examples for a working and academic environments, presenting relevant local, national and international survey data, and providing some possible future solutions. 

Colleges in Cambridge
The college dimension is frequently sub-divided into undergraduate (e.g. JCR) and graduate (e.g. MCR) communities, fellows, and members of staff (e.g. SCR and Governing Bodies). Most colleges work hard to offer a higher degree of inclusivity and representation at all these community levels, thanks to the combined efforts of student representatives and employees of the Colleges. It is, however, occasionally possible to observe the lack of dedicated policies, representatives, officers, role models or champions for LGBTQ+ rights. As GU LGBTQ+ Officer, cases of homophobic statements or sentiments have been reported to me, as well as cases of stress-related disorders and isolation, which may occasionally traffic unchallenged within some Colleges, or be ineffectively dealt with. A number of LGB students (c. 23%) formally reported that discrimination had affected their mental health in Cambridge (see Ropek-Hewson 2019). According to CUSU (2017), c. 47% of research students and c. 43% of taught postgraduates in Cambridge were affected by stress and anxiety, LGBT+ students have been disproportionately affected, of whom c. 62% reported these issues. The GU Mental Health Report (Ropek-Hewson 2019) also points out that 68% of LGB students conveyed that loneliness had affected their mental health in Cambridge, with the CUSU (2016) survey reporting that only 36% of LGB students agreed that Cambridge was a healthy and positive place to study.

Without meaningful actions, the current situation can make many LGBTQ+ people feel unrepresented and disenfranchised by their college, which often is their home for years. Governing Bodies of colleges should encourage conversations on how to prevent this type of toxic culture from occurring on a structural level and offer practical solutions. Officers or representatives within Colleges, at all their levels, can provide safe spaces and fora for debates, as well as social and educational resources for the student community, members of staff, fellows or post-docs. Dedicated structural processes, officers and representatives can help to generate a sense of inclusivity and social diversity, and sustain it over time (Grissom 2018: 243). Conversely, the absence of representation and apparent inclusive culture can directly or indirectly generate and sustain a toxic culture among students and researchers and validate certain types of non-inclusive behaviours. Some of these solutions are suggested in the last section of this paper.

Faculties and Departments
University of Cambridge is also embodied by its Schools, Faculties, Institutes and Departments, which are constantly transforming and evolving. Unfortunately, non-inclusive behaviour can also be observed at this level. For instance, LGBT researchers may still find “differential treatment due to their sexual identity”, homophobia and transphobia in the workplace, and can feel isolated even in ostensibly “LGBT friendly” environments  (Rumens & Kerfoot, 2009: 765). Moreover, stereotypes that confuse gender expression for gender identity or that mistake sexual orientation with gender identity may also lead to stigma in the workplace (Yoder and Mattheis, 2016: 6). According to the Stonewall University report on LGBT in Britain (Bachmann and Gooch, 2018), three in five trans students (60%), and more than one in five lesbian, gay and bi students who are not trans (22%), have been the target of negative comments or conduct from other students. Similarly, the CUSU (2016) survey highlights that LGBTQ+ students consistently reported “higher rates of discrimination based on protected characteristics”. Consequently, discrimination and the fear of discrimination have a negative impact on LGBT students and researchers in the workplace (Pizer et al., 2012), and the resulting higher anxiety is often found correlated to lower rates of successes and job satisfaction (see Griffith & Hebl, 2002).

The University of Cambridge Equality and Diversity Strategy and Students’ Unions such as GU and CUSU constantly promote new policies and campaigns that can improve the work environment for LGBTQ+ students and young researchers. However, some of these campaigns and policies are occasionally perceived as tokenistic gestures of inclusion (see Lillywhite 2019); furthermore, Schools, Faculties and Departments are frequently isolated or disconnected from broader social narratives and transformations, and may not quickly implement or adopt suggested new policies. These two factors could be further explored to understand the potential lack of functioning connections or transparent communication, including openness and accountability, among local politics (e.g. campaigns or resolutions pushed forward by the student community and students’ unions) and institutions.   

Often institutions fail to realise that a ‘non-political’ or apolitical behaviour is, in fact, a political statement by itself, which may marginalise members of the community. Similarly, ‘non-action’ can be perceived as a statement by the broader community. For instance, when Faculties and Departments seem to be not actively involved in LGBTQ+ debates, or when they are simply not aware of motions for new policies, they may be perceived as making a statement. They may be indirectly validating heteronormative discriminatory behaviours, and contributing to obliterate the visibility of, and further marginalise, communities whose very existence is political (Rumens 2014). Despite broader progress toward inclusivity, many LGBTQ+ individuals continue to experience workplace “invisibility, erasure, and silence, both self- and other imposed” (Hill 2009: p. 38). According to recent surveys in STEM, c. 40% to 50% LGBTQ professionals are “open to no one” or “to a few” of their co-workers (Human Rights Campaign Foundation 2014; Yoder and Mattheis, 2016). Similarly, the Stonewall report (Bachmann and Gooch 2018) mentions that more than two in five LGBT students (42%) hid or disguised that they are LGBT at university because they were afraid of discrimination. How can LGBTQ+ people feel welcome as researchers, if the norm is to hide and stay quiet and closeted?

Solutions and Resolutions
A number of solutions and resolutions have already been suggested by student representatives. As a result of extensive surveys and considerations, the students’ unions offer resources and advices on how to deal with discrimination and marginalisation, and also cover a range of other subjects, including sexual health, accessibility for disabled LGBTQ+ students, and gender neutral policies. For instance, the Personal Welfare Handbook produced by the University of Cambridge Graduate Union (Guha Majumdar 2019) includes information concerning LGBTQ+ life in Cambridge, support for sexual and mental health, social events, local charities and organisations, and more. 

First of all Colleges, Faculties and Departments should break the silence, and be proactive and reactive. By being more involved with student politics and by providing safe spaces, resources and visibility to LGBTQ+ students and members of staff, they will have a direct impact on quality of life and quality of work of LGBTQ+ young researchers, increasing successes (Dickey 2018). This will also empower others to step forward, to be accomplished and feel accepted. LGBTQ+ students and professionals need charities, organisations, faculties and departments to make clear statements not only of the principles, but also of specific policy framework and procedures for making those principles a reality owned and sustained by all (see Gardenswartz and Rowe 2010; Roberson 2013). In an article from the Nature Careers Community, Neil Reavey (2019) suggests four simple steps to improve inclusivity, and empower LGBTQ+ researches and the wider community: (a) creating events and a local network for the researchers and employees; (b) creating development opportunities to inspire others; (c) collaborating with other LGBTQ+ charities and groups; (d) become a recognised institute for LGBTQ+ inclusion.  Other suggestions include the use of gender-neutral and inclusive language, offering gender-neutral toilets, inviting LGBTQ+ speakers and role models to Colleges and Department, and supporting regional LGBTQ+ events (LGBT+ Physicists, 2013). These could be adopted by each College and each Department, at all levels. Moreover, Colleges should be the primary structures to offer training to their residents at the beginning of academic terms, as well as resources to better comprehend what being LGBTQ+ means.

My dream is, one day, to become a role model for LGBTQ+ scientists and researchers in general, and to see more queer role models stepping up in general. The presence and availability of LGBT-affirming role models in the workplace can provide an example of how to be an accomplished, confident, and successful person, who is proud of being a member of the LGBTQ+ community (Bird, et al. 2011). Role models and champions should not be used as a ‘quick fix’ for diversity problems, and should not necessarily to be an example of a fully realised individual, but someone who can understand the potential that LGBTQ+ people have, to influence others and use that influence constructively (IoP, RAS, and RSC 2019: 28, 36). Personally, I would like to be one of those people whom young students can meet at conferences or lectures, and feel inspired or empowered by. Here in Cambridge, LGBTQ+ people need the help of Colleges, Schools, Faculties and Departments to make this vision a reality, and to explore and fulfil the potential of queer students and researchers.


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