Being LGBT at York St John event – reflections by a straight cisgender ally, employee and a global citizen

Why is the beginning of a reflection always challenging? Reflecting is a natural process, yet the order and articulation of thought seem to be somewhat chaotic. I think this is particularly the case here, as I feel very passionate about the subject and I have so many things I would like to convey.

LGBT History Month occupied February with events spread throughout. Although I am writing a reflection on one of the events, it is impossible not to recognise the magnitude of the whole month. What a fantastic achievement for the LGBT community and for the wider community too!

If I had to describe the Being LGBT at York St John event with one word, it would be “poignant”. It was so special to hear the stories of people from different generations, to share their experience however briefly, and to feel the emotions coming through. Knowing most of the contributors makes me so proud – it brings a tear to my eye, which makes me think that maybe I should have waited to get to the hotel room before I started typing away on a very busy train. The stories were individual yet shared a very similar pattern of a journey of self-discovery… A journey not very different from the one straight cisgender people go through, actually. However the latter were and unfortunately in some parts of the world still are deemed to be “normal”… Oh how I do not like the word “normal”… That is a topic for another blog post however! Back to my reflection. It was wonderful to hear the positive experience of people whilst being at York St John. First, alumnus Andrew took us on a journey which began in the 70s, explaining that the lads at university perceived him as one of their own. He explained that his involvement in sport and looking after the bar at the Students’ Union helped with this. Andrew did mention that a friend of his, who was also gay, did not have such a great time as he was perhaps more introvert in character. Would this young person have had as hard a time as he did if he was straight and introvert? Perhaps not.

Chaplaincy volunteer Jenny was next and her story was fascinating. Jenny’s upbringing, religious background and beliefs didn’t allow her to go through self-discovery fully until she was a mother. I found her courage commendable; what a brave lady! How difficult must it have been to fight prejudice in the 80s and to fight for who you really are! This coupled with being a Christian was for sure hard to bear!

Moving on to former Vice President Education/Education and Welfare Dan – I know Dan personally and have always admired his passion for equality. Dan embedded the equality agenda within the Students’ Union when he was a student and later a sabbatical officer. When I was Equality and Diversity Officer for the Students’ Union, feeding off his energy when working on projects was great. Dan shared that his mum found out he was gay via Facebook (and continues to add all his friends!).

Richard from the International Programmes team was the last person to share his story with us. He did it with a theatrical performance, full of meaning and emotions. What a fantastic piece! I wish we filmed it! There was humour and heartbreak. Richard tried to be butch at university; he wanted to fit in. He didn’t know how to tell his mum. By the end of Richard’s performance I was in tears. I felt so proud of our contributors and yet sad, as once again realised what LGBT individuals are going through.

Additionally, there were colleagues who provided their stories in the form of short video interviews. We had Steph, David and Saffron telling us about their experiences and in some cases battles with faith and acceptance. It was great to hear that they all shared the feeling of support at York St John; that they can be who they really are here and achieve their full potential because of this. Annie, the University Chaplain, also contributed a video, conveying her strong support for LGBT colleagues. Annie helped once again to push the LGBT inclusion agenda forward by being a visible ally, and we are so grateful to her for that! And not to forget the straight cisgender allies talking about why we support our LGBT colleagues and the LGBT community as a whole. Technology Enhanced Learning Manager Phil was chatting to people about his views, which unfortunately I didn’t get to hear, but I’m sure are common with the rest of us – the fight for fairness and equality.

Although my task is to reflect on how this particular event went, I find myself drifting off, thinking of the international LGBT community and how we could and should apply our inclusive and supportive practices at York St John not just regionally and nationally, but internationally too. We are so lucky to study, work and live in the UK and sometimes I feel it is quite easy to forget that there are still communities out there where people are persecuted and killed for being what is perceived as wrong… For being who they are.

At Manchester Airport now and looking around, there are hundreds of people here of various nationalities heading to different destinations across the globe and I can’t help but think that all that matters is that we are all people. Unique and wonderfully diverse as individuals but one human collective.

At York St John, it seems we are making small steps forward, and even the smallest step takes us closer to our goal: a society in which “coming out” is no longer necessary.

It is my job as an ally not just to support my LGBT friends and colleagues but to fight with them for a very common purpose: full enjoyment of human rights for all!

Silviya Lewin

I work in international student recruitment and over the few years at York St John University, I have undertaken various roles with international focus. I have always been keen on being involved with the wellbeing of students in general, but particularly international students, as in terms of cultural transition, they have so much to overcome. I was involved with Equality and Diversity at York St John Students’ Union during my undergraduate studies, and this interest has transferred to my work, as I am now one of the University’s Equality Champions. LGBT+ topics and the community are very close to my heart. I am a proud Stonewall Ally and feel very passionate about supporting my LGBT+ colleagues and friends, as well as the wider LGBT+ community.

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