Oxford vice-chancellor’s call to challenge homophobia ‘no more than a platitude’

Freedom of speech is not the same as accepting ‘petulant’ professors’ views, says Kerrie Thornhill

September 12, 2017

This spring, I had the honour to attend an LGBT+ Formal Hall at one of Oxford’s oldest colleges. In some 800 years of hosting these traditional dinners, this was the college’s first in support of LGBT+ rights. It followed a seminar on the history of gender and sexuality, so I sat next to senior co-panellists as well as undergraduate student leaders.

The hall was packed, but everyone listened in silence as one of the college staff told us about growing up gay in the 1970s. Family rejection. Electroshock “therapy” intended to “cure” him. Homelessness, abuse. The undergrads said that he had never told his story so openly. Yet he was willing to share his most heartbreaking memories at this college event, to people gaining the education that he was denied, in order to support a charity that gives teens the help he never had.

His speech resonated with many staff, faculty and students with similar experiences of homophobia. At my table, it inspired a candid intergenerational conversation about fighting bigotry of all kinds, especially within elite (and elitist) settings such as the University of Oxford. We ate rainbow trout with rainbow chard.

I wish the Oxford vice-chancellor had been there. At last week’s Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, she told delegates that she had had “many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality”. She added that her job “isn’t to make you feel comfortable” and that if students do not like these views they should “challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that”. “Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind,” she said.

I would like to ask her: would the event that I attended have been more educational if homophobic speakers had been invited? Would such an unbridled exchange of views have taken place in a more hostile space? I suggest that maintaining academic integrity in universities does not require opposing positions so much as it requires deep honesty: reckless, vulnerable honesty.

Here’s a reckless truth: homophobia kills. In my four years as junior dean for Hertford College, the well-evidenced link between homophobia and teen suicide was painfully apparent. I saw brilliant young minds tormented by depression and suicidal urges, made worse by the exhaustion of pretending to be “normal”. But with strong support from the welfare team and other students, many were able to seek help. Those who did, flourished, and became peer supporters in turn.

At Hertford, the LGBT+ support came from the top: the dean, the chaplain and devoted student leaders worked together to make the whole college a better place. Anti-hate work is not about making universities too “comfortable”, as Richardson stated. It is about keeping our future thinkers alive and well.

Does that mean that progressive views should not be contested? Far from it. I taught a queer theory tutorial for a visiting student who identified as non-binary but, over the course of the tutorial, shifted from “they/them” to “she/her”. Using her preferred pronouns was a simple courtesy that did not require that we think alike about queer theory. In fact, respecting her evolving gender identity made room for more interesting debates on the social construction of gender. She did not find our tutorials easy.

I challenged her to read more widely, to organise her thinking and to confront the underlying assumptions of her arguments. Ultimately, she wrote that these confrontations “helped shape my writing, my thinking and my existing”. The effort I put into challenging the student came out of my respect for her talent and potential, not a belief in my inherent superiority as her tutor.

In larger classes, I inform new students that our tutorials are a place for “dangerous thinking”, within certain ground rules for respectful dialogue. That permission to disrupt cuts both ways. It enables me to challenge the students, and the students to challenge me in turn and, inevitably, to rubbish the canon and to reject views they deem to be “pale and stale”.

Student rebellion can come across as arrogant or unqualified to the long-suffering tutor. But students can be experts, too. One of my most anti-canonical former students, Billy-Ray Belcourt, has a forthcoming book of poetry on queer Indigenous grief, This Wound Is a World. No Oxford professor, currently, can write more authoritatively on the condition of being Cree and queer.

The vice-chancellor does not seem like someone with homophobic personal views. Her comments emphasise our shared goal to promote rigorous debate at Oxford. However, the call to “engage with” and “challenge” homophobia is no more than a platitude if queer students are killing themselves, smothering their identities in a closet, or being told that their right to dignity in the classroom hinges on whether or not they can win over “smart” bigots in positions of authority.

Rigorous debate cannot thrive within stark power imbalances, a point that deserves more attention at a university whose professoriate is 85 per cent male and 94 per cent white.

Oxford must generate the freedoms required for free speech, rather than defending petulant profs who, after all, were not “smart” enough to read the university’s anti-harassment code. I therefore call on the vice-chancellor to work with the LGBT+ Staff Network and its student leaders to heal the rift that her comments have created.

Kerrie Thornhill is deputy director, international gender studies, at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.

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