How can universities support global LGBTQI+ human rights?

From more research to clearly signposted support for international students, UK campuses can do more to advance inclusivity worldwide. Drew Dalton offers four strategies

Drew Dalton's avatar
University of Sunderland
26 May 2023
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Statue of blindfolded Justice against the gay LGBT rights rainbow flag

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When I started my degree back in 1998, an LGBT society at the university was usually seen as “enough” for LGBTQI+ student support. While I had opportunities to study sexuality and gender, thanks to my sociology degree, homophobic prejudice towards students across the wider university was a regular feature of my undergraduate existence.

Fast forward to 2023, and things have changed dramatically. Universities in the UK have played a part in advancing LGBTQI+ rights and are increasingly places of safer employment and study. While I acknowledge that there is still a long way to go (the UK recently slipped from 14th to 17th place on the ILGA Europe ratings) – and despite increasingly polarised debates around transgender and non-binary inclusion on UK campuses – positive change is happening in the wider academy. In fact, the top 100 employers in the Stonewall index now include 13 British universities. In addition, there is a vast network of British queer conferences, seminars, awards, workshops, campaigns, student and staff groups, and even ally schemes. This is momentum.

While progress is happening at home, in an increasingly globalised higher education sector, British universities must play a role in ensuring that they are part of the worldwide LGBTQI+ human rights movement.

Many students at our universities have moved to study or work away from their nation states, where same-sex activity and gender “transgression” can come with threats, blackmail and outright danger – from mob violence in parts of sub-Saharan Africa to state punishment such as criminalisation (or the threat of it) in the Middle East. At the same time, and in line with international human rights, LGBTQI+ students have the right to an education free from violence and discrimination, one that promotes respect for fundamental freedoms. LGBTQI+ staff at universities also have the right to work in places of employment that recognise our needs and treat us with dignity and respect.

So my question is, how can we harness the power of our universities to support global LGBTQI+ human rights?

This is a question I have faced as an academic and, sadly, it has no easy answer. However, I believe that, from a few good starting points, we can harness British universities to support LGBTQI+ people worldwide. Here’s what we can do to get started.

Start with the research

Research into the motivations of LGBTQI+ students (and staff) to study and work abroad is woefully lacking. According to Universities UK, the number of international students in the UK is rising and was 679,970 as of 2021/2022. It is not unreasonable to suggest that many LGBTQI+ international students seek to study in other perceived “safer” countries to either find a new life and “come out” on campus, or to escape their own nations and governments or, in some cases, their own families and communities.

In my time as an academic, and being out to my students, I have had a significant number of international students from countries such as Indonesia, China, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia come out to me as LGBTQI+. These students represent a drop in the ocean, compared with others who quietly hide, are forced to marry a member of the opposite sex, face curricula where they are made invisible or degraded when they are mentioned, or are medicalised by doctors and psychiatrists when they do have the courage to come out or tell others. We can start with research into their motivations and needs.

Scholarships for LGBTQI+ international students

More scholarships aimed at supporting members of the global LGBTQI+ community are becoming available. However, they are often unheard of outside the USA, Canada and, to a lesser extent, Australia and New Zealand. Universities can target the next generation of LGBTQI+ activists and change-makers with scholarships to increase their knowledge, skills and employment opportunities.

Support systems and spaces on campus

Are we providing clear and obvious LGBTQI+ support for international students and staff across all our campuses? I once heard that we should be “culturally sensitive” by not aiming LGBTQI+ support towards international students, but this defeats the purpose of inclusivity, maintains the status quo and drives those students who want that support deeper into the closet. Universities have a range of spaces on their global campuses where they can host LGBTQI+ discussions and meetings for free, especially since these organisations are often under-funded or reliant on volunteers. We have the mechanisms and spaces in place; let’s use them.

Forming partnerships with global LGBTQI+ organisations

I have also heard a number of times that local LGBTQI+ organisations are supported by universities, and this is to be applauded. However, we risk taking our eyes off the bigger picture, as some (often lesser-known) global LGBTQI+ organisations – such as Human Dignity Trust, ReportOUT, Kaleidoscope and House of Rainbow – are making waves. These organisations are fighting hard in the global LGBTQI+ human rights arena. Is there not space to partner with them?

The list is much longer than this. However, as universities, we have the research power, the support mechanisms on our campuses, the partnership potential and the spaces to do more. We have changed a lot as a sector since my time at university back in 1998, but now is the time to bring the fight for LGBTQI+ human rights to the global level.

Drew Dalton is senior lecturer in sociology and programme leader of the MSc Inequality and Society at the University of Sunderland. The university will host, in partnership with human rights charity ReportOUT, the Safer to Be Me global symposium on 22 June.

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