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A Work in Progress with Professor Andrew Webber

18th February 2021

As a member of the University for over 30 years, Churchill Fellow and current Vice-Master, Professor Andrew Webber, is well placed to talk about the progress of diversity and inclusion at Cambridge. And while there are important initiatives underway – in gender equality with the Athena Swan programme and in racial justice with the Race Equality Charter – there is still much work to be done, not least when it comes to equality for the LGBT+ community.

This is why for LGBT+ History Month, the college has chosen to fly the Pride Progress flag. As well as featuring the well-known rainbow stripes, it also includes black and brown stripes to represent people of colour, and light blue, pink and white to include the trans flag in its design. Taking up a theme of the recent Out at Cambridge study, Andrew – who has been the University’s LGBT+ Equality Champion for the last three years – says visible signs and symbols matter. The Pride Progress flag signals that equality is an intersectional matter, and that while there is progress to be celebrated, this is still work in progress.

Andrew remembers demonstrating in Cambridge against the Thatcher government’s Section 28, which was brought in to "prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities", not least in schools, alongside a campaign against so-called “pretended families”. And the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in the same period added to that sense of fear and repression. History Month has to combine celebration of acts of courage by pioneering members of the LGBT+ community and their allies, in past times such as those, with a concern with our present and future. “While some of the more painful aspects of those histories are now hopefully behind us in the UK, experience shows us that there is no room for complacency in addressing the needs of the present. History Month can also give the opportunity to recognise that present realities for many LGBT+ people around the world are still marked by the kind of fear and injury that we might like to think belong to the past.”

While the legal situation for LGBT+ people and broad public opinion in Britain are much improved, there are still significant challenges to be dealt with in society and its institutions. At the University, the LGBT+ staff network is very active, but a recent survey showed that 40% of staff would not be happy to be out in the workplace. Additionally, a student survey carried out at the start of 2020 showed that over half of those who commented said that they felt uncomfortable talking about their LGBT+ identity with counsellors or pastoral staff, and 44% were not “out” to any staff about their sexual/romantic orientation. Perhaps most sobering of all, is that 9% of students said that identifying as LGBT+ made them feel lonely at university daily, 20% said weekly and 23% said monthly.

So what’s being done? At the start of this month, the Cambridge Student Union (SU) launched their new Care+ campaign, which aims to improve support for LGBTQ+ students in Cambridge, and also plans to respond to the effects of the pandemic, which has “only heightened pre-existing systematic problems”.  Care+ hopes to have LGBTQ+ representatives among staff at each College, and this will be, crucially, a visible role, working alongside the JCR and MCR representatives.

As Andrew said, “Progress should be celebrated, but should never be taken for granted. It needs to be protected and built upon. Our community in the University and the College is global, and some come from parts of the world where there is both legal and social repression for the LGBT+ community. We must be mindful of this. Visibility matters, as signs and symbols say something about what kind of a place this is, but change has to happen structurally and behaviourally. With the work of its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the efforts of its broader community, Churchill should be proud to be at the forefront of the work in progress”.

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