Edinburgh University’s stance on trans-exclusionary feminists raises questions about equality – Dr Kevin Guyan

Barely a day passes in Scotland without a media storm about how institutions, such as universities or big businesses, practice equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work, writes Dr Kevin Guyan.

Wednesday, 19th June 2019, 6:00 am
Dr Kevin Guyan is based in ­Edinburgh and works as an equality, diversity and inclusion researcher. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Edinburgh University’s entire LGBT+ staff committee resigned earlier this month in protest over attempts by the university’s senior management team to censor opposition to a meeting of trans-exclusionary feminists on campus. Also this month, transport company Megabus revealed its rainbow-emblazoned Pride Bus. As part of the Stagecoach Group, the company remains notorious for the actions of its founder and current chairman, Brian Souter, who bankrolled a 2000 campaign to maintain Section 28 in Scotland, legislation which forbid local authorities from teaching about homosexuality.

Although different, these two examples call into question the purpose of doing EDI work in institutions such as Edinburgh University and Stagecoach. For universities, EDI work might address proportionately lower attainment rates of students from marginalised communities, foster cultures that are inclusive and give everyone an equal opportunity to thrive, and proactively address historical legacies that have created disadvantage for students and staff.

Likewise, for many businesses, EDI work can ensure all customers are treated with respect and dignity, improve working conditions for staff and, particularly in countries that lack national, comprehensive equality legislation, ensure staff from minority groups have legal protections and access to equal benefits.

Last year's Pride march leaves parliament and travels up the Royal Mile. Picture: Greg Macvean

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It is also the case that the practice of EDI can reap many benefits for institutions that do little to directly or indirectly improve the experiences of LGBTQ students, customers or staff. Words rather than deeds that focus on the LGBTQ ‘brand’ rather than the practice of LGBTQ politics. In higher education, for example, a positive LGBTQ reputation might boost the number of student applicants, quality of staff recruitment and institutional image. These LGBTQ bonuses ultimately make money for the institution that may not always go back into initiatives that advance EDI.

Hollow gestures from institutions feel particularly pronounced during the month of June, which marks the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, understood as the birth of the gay liberation movement in the US. Pride month and the practice of diversity work is often fairly straightforward for institutions: ensure public portraits of alumni and senior leaders are not just white, cis, heterosexual men and provide enough resources for staff to organise a ‘celebration’ or attend a parade.

However, for many LGBTQ people, diverse representation is only one part of a bigger fight against inequality and for inclusion where we need institutional support. More importantly, we need solidarity and the weight of the institution behind us when things get tough. In many contexts, tolerance and representation of LGBTQ people is simply not enough. Stagecoach Group’s decision to emblazon a bus in rainbow colours was possible because it posed minimal risk to their brand. We need brave corporations to take risks when it comes to EDI work: for example, Nike’s decision to feature athlete Caster Semenya, a target of sex-based rights activists, and Colin Kaepernick, who expressed public support for Black Lives Matter in the US, in their promotional campaigns.

What is even worse is when institutions fall foul of hypocrisy. Following a targeted campaign against trans activist Munroe Bergdorf, the children’s charity NSPCC announced it was ending its ties with Bergdorf, who had been working with the charity to support children experiencing LGBTQ issues. For many LGBTQ people and allies, the NSPCC made the wrong decision. However, for the NSPCC to communicate this decision via a Twitter account emblazoned in rainbow colours felt doubly cruel.

As evident from the homophobic and misogynistic attack on two women on a London bus, society still has some distance to go before LGBTQ people can live our lives free from the threat of violence. It is the job of LGBTQ people and our allies to call out institutions that use our identities to win institutional awards or provide a colourful backdrop to their social media but, when the going gets tough, fail to step up and defend our rights. Institutions: we are not your June campaign – you need us but, as importantly, we need you.

Dr Kevin Guyan is based in Edinburgh and works as an equality, diversity and inclusion researcher. He is writing in a personal capacity.