LGBTQ+ History Month represents an opportunity for the community to pause and reflect on just how far society has changed in recent decades, and how much further we have left to go. In the UK, It’s a Sin on Channel 4 is reminding the LGBTQ+ community (and, for younger people, educating) about the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s – which remains a global pandemic to this day. We must never forget what people have sacrificed in the past to fight for the rights we now have.
I am a Geographer. Geography, particularly the social science side of the discipline, has a long history of scholarly research in the Geographies of Sexuality (see here and here) even when Section 28 was creating significant societal stigma for being queer. The study of “Gay Space” rose through the 1970s and 1980s, and arguably become more notable with the publication of Mapping Desires in the 1990s, as a culmination of research into queer spaces. In 2006, the Royal Geographical Society launched the Space, Sexualities and Queer Research Group as a hub for this scholarship across disciplines, and equivalents have been launched around the world.
Significant progress has been made in academia and in society too. But, there’s still a long way to go. Looking forward, I believe there are three key areas where the LGBTQ+ Community, particularly in the Geosciences, need to go further. Perhaps too often we have forgotten the “Community” of “LGBTQ+ Community”, and left our siblings behind.
Go further for Trans rights
Trans people were some of the loudest in shouting for the rights of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual people in the latter half of the twentieth century. But now, when these rights have been fought for and won, we are failing our Trans siblings. Too many folk sit on a beacon of privilege, not raising the flag and fighting for Trans rights. In STEM academia, 15% of cis LGBTQ+ scientists had experienced harassment, bullying, or exclusion in the workplace – rising to 32% for Trans scientists (Royal Society for Chemistry). 17% of LGBTQ+ scientists suggest their institutions policies and procedures are lacking, or discriminatory, and that figure rises for non-binary and trans people. We must create a culture where support is visible. The feeling of seeing a rainbow flag is, for me, one of absolute safety. In times of anxiety, I can actually feel it lower my heart rate. Doing something as simple as putting pronouns in your email signature helps create a culture of acceptance and inclusivity. We must push institutions to Do Better – gender neutral toilets, targeted wellbeing support for LGBTQ+ people, and encouraging people in positions of power to speak out publicly against such issues.
Pride in the Field
Fieldwork is a big part of being a Geographer. For me, (and I strongly recognise the privilege in being able to say this) it’s perhaps the only place where my sexuality has “got in the way”. I’m so lucky to work in a department where there is a deep culture of inclusivity at every level, and with supervisors who are utterly brilliant. But, there’s no escaping that I often conduct fieldwork in parts of the world where LGBTQ+ rights still have a long way to go. This is never discussed. The feeling of having to go back into the closet again is one of deep and genuine anxiety. Or having to hold an awkwardly long conversation with a key stakeholder about a “girlfriend” back home (I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to my best friend for using her picture to further the lie…). But there was no warning about this. No way to prepare – it’s not on any risk assessment, and it should be. Sadly, someone’s status in the LGBTQ+ Community could put them in physical harm’s way – it is deeply irresponsible to not acknowledge this. UCL are doing a good job here, and the rest of the geosciences community could learn from this example. I’d also like to share this blog post from the RGS about recommendations for LGBTQ+ Inclusive Fieldwork.
Support all diversity
Geography is disproportionately white. As a discipline, it is one of the worst for diversity. People of colour in UK Universities are chronically under-represented, but particularly so in Geography. This matters for the LGBTQ+ Community because discrimination, harassment, and exclusion of LGBTQ+ people is disproportionately on non-white people, particularly women. There is even significant racism within the LGBTQ+ Community that must be tackled. As Geographers, we need to step-up and close this gap – it should be our absolute priority as a discipline. At every level, from recruitment of Undergraduates right up to the promotion of Professors, there needs to be more targeted support for BIPOC individuals, and we must seriously reflect on the discipline as a whole – supporting the work to decolonise a discipline which was created on colonisation.
We’ve come a long way as a society and as a discipline. Reading the book Not Guilty by Sue Elliott and Steve Humphries has made me realise just how lucky I am to be around today, when things are relatively good. But we can’t take our eye off the ball. As a discipline, Geography needs to reach out to help all members of the LGBTQ+ Community to thrive.
Featured Image: The Parkinson Building at the University of Leeds lit up to celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month in 2021. Photo credit to the University of Leeds Twitter team.
About the author: Liam Taylor is a PhD student at the University of Leeds researching novel remote sensing techniques for monitoring mountain glaciers in Peru. He has worked with the RGS-IBG to develop early warning systems for glacial outburst floods through the Postgraduate Research Award.
Suggested further reading
Viles, H. & Tooth, S. (2020). Equality, diversity, inclusion: ensuring a resilient future for geomorphology. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 46, 5 – 11. https://doi.org/10.1002/esp.5026.
Desai, V. (2017). Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) student and staff in contemporary British Geography. Area, 49, 320 – 323. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12372.
Greatrick, A. & Zebracki, M. (2021). ‘LGBTQ+ Inclusive Fieldwork’. Geography Directions. https://blog.geographydirections.com/2021/02/09/lgbtq-inclusive-fieldwork/
The Royal Society of Chemistry, Exploring the Workplace for LGBT+ Physical Scientists: https://www.rsc.org/globalassets/04-campaigning-outreach/campaigning/lgbt-report/lgbt-report_web.pdf
University of Leeds – Pride in the Field: https://lssi.leeds.ac.uk/esrc-iaa/case-studies/social-policy/dr-martin-zebracki/