This blog was kindly contributed by Mia Liyanage, who recently graduated from the MSt in US History at the University of Oxford, specialising in LGBTQ history. Her thesis uncovered the presence of ‘queer euphoria’ and an intersectional queer community in the face of persecution at Harvard University in 1920. She now works for the social mobility organisation CoachBright. Mia is also the author of HEPI’s recent paper on decolonising universities.
The summer before my third year at university, I, along with thousands of other students across the UK, was faced with a momentous choice: the topic for my undergraduate dissertation. I had an idea, but lacked the passion for it needed to sustain me for 12,000 words. Somehow, I alighted on the idea of writing about LGBT history. I had never dreamt of bringing my queer identity into my academic work. The idea seemed inappropriate; frivolous; even unsafe. I tried to reason myself out of the idea, but before I knew it, I found myself at an academic crossroads. Exposing myself so publicly as a queer person seemed a high price to pay for the pursuit of research that I suspected wouldn’t be recognised or supported by my institution. Ultimately, I felt utterly compelled to place queer history at the heart of my work. But, faced with the same dilemma, too many young scholars make the – perhaps savvier – decision to avoid an inevitable personal and academic struggle.
The Royal Historical Society (RHS)’s new report on LGBT+ and queer (LGBTQ+) histories and historians, published on 28 September, has thrown this hidden issue into stark relief. This report, the first of its kind, articulates my experience as an LGBTQ student of queer history with validating but startling accuracy – my peers and I are not accustomed to hearing such narratives reflected in policy research. On the contrary, LGBTQ historians have grown used to being the lone voice in the room. We have been the diversity hire, the novelty in class, or the pariah within university departments. Above all, we have been either invisible or painfully, uncomfortably visible.
The RHS’s report is based on a UK-wide survey of 852 History students and practitioners conducted between July and September 2019. It finds concerning evidence of discrimination, marginalisation and prejudice towards LGBT+ historians at every level of the discipline – from undergraduates to professors. The report reveals that 1 in 4 LGBT+ staff and 1 in 3 LGBT+ students have witnessed queerphobic behaviour, attitudes or decisions between their counterparts. From a lesbian lecturer asked ‘if I need to use dildos’ at a lunch welcoming her to a department to a bisexual student who admits, ‘I lie [on applications] and say I am heterosexual in order to avoid the potential for missed opportunities,’ the powerful testimony in this report demands our attention.
One of the report’s strongest tenets is its recognition of the particular struggles of the trans experience. Academic, musician and activist CN Lester, quoted in the Foreword of the report, describes ‘the leap of faith required to say “this is who I am” in the absence of a prepared and welcoming place to be’. This is especially daunting for transgender historians, who face virulent transphobia on top of the discrimination experienced by cisgender LGBT+ people. Research on sexual orientation is only as strong as its intersectionality; this paper’s explicit centring of transgender historians and histories ensures that trans narratives are not left out of their own rehabilitation.
In my own work for HEPI on the decolonisation of universities, interviewees from across the higher education sector (HE) explained to me that erasure and passivity with regard to race could have effects just as devastating as those from overt racism. The RHS’s research reveals a similar story for members of the LGBTQ community and its histories. 1 in 3 LGBT+ staff were unsure or did not think that they would be supported in challenging reluctance about, or hostility to, the teaching of LGBT+ histories. Furthermore, the authors write, ‘many historians lack a clear understanding of how to respond to discrimination and harassment against LGBT+ peers and colleagues.’
Coining a term that particularly resonates with me, the report also describes a pervasive feeling of ‘onlyness’, or loneliness, amongst LGBTQ students and staff. For many respondents, this could be traced to a lack of LGBT+ peers, role models or colleagues – as well as the absence of proactive inclusion practices. Only 1 in 3 LGBT+ survey respondents, and 1 in 6 postgraduate students, agreed that their department’s approach to LGBT+ inclusion had a positive effect on their mental health. This state of affairs has very real consequences for the furtherance of scholarship on queer histories – as one LGBT+ undergraduate commented: ‘I would be afraid to undertake this area of research and actively avoid it.’
Recognising the insidious nature of tokenism, the LGBT+ Histories and Historians report commits to the active combatting of queerphobic discrimination in History. In a Position Statement it also makes the case, explicitly, that LGBTQ inclusion is fundamental to the integrity of History. The authors are adamant that ‘inclusion and respect are not in opposition to academic freedom: they are fundamental to it,’ and clarifies that this conviction ‘fully encompasses trans and non-binary people’. It states:
Our position is that valuing diversity means listening to the voices, and respecting the experiences, of people whose lives and identities may be different to our own… All [LGBTQ+ identities] are—and need to be accepted as—integral to the richness of human diversity and experience. The sum of historical research, teaching and public engagement is impoverished in both its understandings of the past and how it relates to our present condition if it fails to include diverse identities and experiences.
Too often, research with the power to demand change is presented by bodies whose desire to remain neutral effectively defends the status quo. The RHS’s refusal to do this should not be striking to me, but it is – it is just so rare.
The LGBT+ Histories and Historians report is a powerful indictment of the systemic queerphobia faced by LGBTQ students and staff. But it is not complacent in its criticism. On the contrary, the report provides insight and examples of best practice for both the HE and heritage sectors, as well as sections on Institutional Support, Careers and Research and Teaching LGBT+ Histories. Its recommendations are far-reaching, and the report kickstarts an ongoing project for the RHS, with additional resources already available. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted anti-racism as an imperative in the development of the HE sector. One significant blind spot in this report is that it does not examine the particular challenges faced by LGBTQ people in higher education who are also Black or people of colour. As a queer woman of colour, I see the potential for further research that centres these issues.
This report has given me the ability to name the barriers I have faced, and explain them to others who would usually be unreceptive, for the first time. We cannot underestimate the power of reports like these. However, this paper is only the first step towards a better academic experience for people of all sexualities and genders. Furthermore, although this report focuses specifically on LGBT+ identity and History, its lessons are vital for all HE practitioners. These can, and must, be applied to how we treat historically marginalised narratives and people across the sector. As this trailblazing report shows, when we commit to active change, we all stand to benefit.