By Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston |
The University of Oxford has a long and storied history when it comes to sexuality. Whether it be the epicureanism of Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde’s ‘love that dare not speak its name’, or Charles Ryder’s adoration of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (1945), the city of dreaming spires has long been synonymous with (admittedly often white, male, and highly privileged) queerness. It was both surprising and disheartening, then, to read the comments of the Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson, concerning homophobia and its place in the academy. I have articulated my objections to Richardson’s comments and her woefully inadequate (non-)‘apology’ in an open letter and do not wish to recapitulate them extensively here. Instead, I wish to discuss my experiences as an LGBTQ+ individual studying and working in the university.
For almost eight years, Oxford has been the city and the institution in which I have lived, learned, and loved. I completed my BA and MSt here, and was delighted to return here to begin my DPhil. It was in Oxford that I was first given the tools to engage meaningfully with questions of gender and sexuality. It was in Oxford that I was challenged to interrogate my assumptions about identity and those of the society in which I lived. It was in Oxford that I met many of the LGBTQ+ individuals who have most inspired me, from my undergraduate personal tutor, to my partner.
However, when I began to realise that my gender identity could not be comfortably contained within the narrow confines of the male / female binary, I was nervous as to how those whom I had known, both personally and professionally, as a cis-hetero man in Oxford would react. I worried that the faculty in which I had studied and taught would struggle to understand or accept the person I realised I wanted to be (or, deep down, had always been). I was concerned that my relationship with my supervisor would become fraught, that my students would feel uncomfortable, and that my friendships would grow strained.
On every front I was proved utterly, and delightfully, wrong.
Friends sent messages of support and encouragement. A former tutor gave me money to help queer my wardrobe. My supervisor shared an anecdote about going to a butcher shop as a child wearing a dress and cowboy boots. My students treated me with warmth and respect (or, at least, as much respect as a grad student ever enjoys…), and my teaching benefited from the comfort and freedom I felt in my identity. I also found myself welcomed into a wider network of LGBTQ+ people throughout Oxford, and, along with my partner, trained to act as one of the university’s LGBTQ+ Staff Role Models. In doing so, I joined a community of activists who passionately believe that any individual, student or staff, will be at their happiest and most productive when they feel most able to be themselves. My desk abounded in cards, flowers, and rainbow flags.
It is for this reason, among many others, that I feel so disappointed and betrayed by the Vice-Chancellor’s comments. The image they present of an Oxford in which the acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals is anything other than the norm bear little relation to my experience of the university. They bear little relation to the tolerant and diverse university that anyone involved with the LGBTQ+ Staff Network or any of the numerous student groups and campaigns are striving to create and sustain. Above all, they bear absolutely no relation to any institution, academic or otherwise, which I would wish to inhabit.
Equally, while I have been immensely privileged to enjoy such a positive experience of being out in Oxford, Richardson’s remarks trouble me because they seem to imply that, should I experience discrimination within the university, the burden of responsibility for challenging it would rest solely with me. Prejudice exists. Discrimination happens. Homophobia, transphobia, and sexism manifest themselves every day, in popular discourse, in micro-aggressions, and in open hostility and violence. LGBTQ+ individuals are disproportionately affected by mental health problems and suicide, and often live more socially and economically precarious lives than their cis-hetero counterparts. LGBTQ+ individuals of colour face even greater challenges, as do those with Learning Difficulties or disabilities. To attempt to justify these experiences as the price of entry for meaningful academic exchange, or to claim that it is the job of the university to make students feel ‘uncomfortable’, seems grossly to misunderstand both the nature and the impact of discrimination on those whom it affects. To expect those individuals – many of them young, unqualified, and living independently for the first time – to challenge that discrimination directly, especially when it comes from an older, well-qualified individual who assesses their work and speaks with the imprimatur of the university, just seems cruel.
It is for this reason that I was delighted to be invited to contribute this blog. It is for this reason that I will continue to live, work, and teach in Oxford as an open and proud member of the LBGTQ+ community. It is for this reason that I want to assert clearly, queerly, and unequivocally, that, whatever figures in the upper echelons of the university may say, in Oxford, no LGBTQ+ person ever stands (or studies) alone.
Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford where he holds the Hertford College – Faculty of English DPhil Scholarship in Irish Literature in English. His thesis explores the political and aesthetic roles venereal disease and discourses of sexual health played in the emergence of Irish modernism. Other research interests include literature and the law, and the institutional construction of obscenity. His work has appeared in the Review of English Studies, The Library, and the Irish Studies Review. Lloyd edits the AMH Blog and convenes the University of Oxford Graduate Literature Work in Progress Seminar.