Giving a voice to silence

January 21, 2000

Alan Skelton argues that gay and bisexual academics have a right to rethink the curriculum.

It is "doing the job" that counts, not your sexuality, argued Michael Portillo in his campaign to become Conservative MP for Kensington and Chelsea. This argument is also used as grounds for "including" gays in the armed forces, "allowing" lesbians to be mothers and recognising the rights of the many bisexual, gay and lesbian teachers in higher education.

But this renders sexuality invisible. When an academic decides to tell colleagues that he or she is gay, they often hear: "Fine, it does not affect your teaching." Yet someone might actually want their sexuality to inform their teaching.

Perhaps such personal detachment from teaching is understandable given the relentless clamour to solve all problems through technology and standardising mechanisms. Our professional lives are meant to be easier, but they feel less engaged.

The Commission on University Career Opportunity (CUCO) is producing guidelines for universities and colleges to ensure that they do not discriminate on the grounds of a person's sexuality. This work recognises two things:

* That issues of sexuality are absent from many institutions' equal opportunity statements

* That although there has been some progress in relation to the pension rights of same-sex partners, many structural inequalities still remain and need to be addressed.

CUCO's emphasis on equal opportunities and anti-discrimination policies reflects a "doing the job" mentality. If people are suitably qualified, they should have access to jobs and promotion, irrespective of their sexuality.

What is lost is the relationship between sexuality and culture, and how culture is reflected in curriculum and learning practices. For example, are the perspectives, contributions to knowledge and experiences of gay, bisexual and lesbian people made available through the higher education curriculum? And are those gay, bisexual and lesbian academics who wish to address issues of sexuality in their teaching free to do so?

Emphasis on equal rights means these curriculum issues are likely to be ignored or trivialised. But they are important given the growing recognition of the link between knowledge and power.

In a democracy, marginalised groups must be involved in the production, consumption and legitimisation of knowledge. Providing all students with access to such a multi-cultural curriculum must be a necessary requirement of any higher education system committed to democracy.

Some gay and bisexual academics use sexuality to frame their teaching. Sexuality is an important part of what it means to "do the job" effectively. An English tutor I interviewed for a research project on gay and bisexual male higher educators ran a course on gay and lesbian literature.

Other interviewees taught units or sessions on sexuality as part of larger modules or courses (for example, as part of a module on adolescence) and some addressed sexuality in disciplines where they deemed it appropriate. As one academic said: "Gay issues arise in law - civil liberties, family law, tourism law, employment law, equal opportunities."

In making an explicit connection between sexuality and the curriculum, many reported discrimination involving colleagues and students.

One person was taken out of the research assessment exercise because his research focused on gay issues. One received offensive notes in his pigeonhole from a colleague and someone else was accused of being part of a departmental gay mafia for speaking up at a meeting.

The "doing the job" mentality will not challenge situations like these because it assumes that if people do their work effectively they will not experience discrimination. This fails to take into consideration two things:

* That for some people "doing the job" well involves drawing on one's sexuality

* That should people seek to do the job well in this way, they are likely to experience discriminatory behaviour.

Not all gay and bisexual male academics want to use sexuality in this way. Some I interviewed did not see its relevance and voiced what might be regarded as "typical" concerns about bureaucracy, research time constraints, the low status of teaching, stress, work loads, under-resourcing, lack of professional status and so on.

In this light, the "doing the job" discourse could serve three purposes:

* It questions the damaging stereotype of gay, bisexual and lesbian academics simply pursuing self-interested political issues that is often used to discredit their contributions and undervalue their commitment

* It recognises that there are differences between gay, bisexual and lesbian academics in terms of the meaning and significance they attach to their sexuality within a professional context

* It reminds us to reappropriate mechanisms such as the RAE to record and formalise a person's achievement irrespective of their sexuality. Focusing on "doing the job" - as evidenced by measurable outputs such as research publications and teaching quality scores - can be used to counter forms of direct or indirect discrimination.

There are many competing voices among gay, bisexual and lesbian academics. There are benefits in just "doing the job" and limitations. It is a shame that those who want to make connections between their sexuality and their work are viewed with such defensiveness by some.

Perhaps the defensiveness surrounding changing sexualities reflects a much larger and deeper anxiety about purpose and direction.

Higher education used to be in the vanguard of social change and a champion of critical thinking and independent thought. Nowadays it appears happy simply to meet the demands placed on it, for the good of the economy and industrial growth.

We need a more assertive higher education system that recognises the positive interplay of differences for the collective good and for the quality of teaching and research in a democratic society.

In challenging compulsory heterosexuality, changing sexual identities remind higher education of the importance of transgression and critique. It is only through these qualities that higher education can continue to offer a critical voice on social, economic and political developments - something that is surely going to be necessary as we start the new millennium.

Alan Skelton is a lecturer in the higher education research centre, department of education, Sheffield University.

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