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Adam Dawkins

Adam talks about why it is important to have visible LGBTQ+ role models and how supportive an environment Northumbria University is to work as an LGBT+ member of staff.

How did you come out?

Coming out as LGBT* is rarely a grand statement, flourish or fanfare. Everyone’s experience is different. I realised I was ‘different’ from those around me from an early age. Being bookish, having more girl ‘friends’ than boy class mates and not being sporty was enough to be set apart as different at the comprehensive school I went to in Essex in the early 1990s, before sexuality was brought into the mix! When I went to Reading University to study for my first degree in the mid-1990s, my sexuality was becoming clearer to me, but I never had the confidence to come out during this time. Reading was by no means an oppressive environment. However, the knowledge that one of Reading’s former vice-chancellors, John Wolfenden, almost 4 decades earlier had written the eponymous Report which eventually led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality amongst consenting adults, was alas not enough for me to personally feel comfortable about declaring my sexuality to the world! It did feel like my whole world would implode if I took that step. Whilst I had some gay friends at University, which provided me with a vicarious insight into how they were dealing with their sexuality, and what the Students’ Union LGB society and the one local gay bar was like, it was not until I moved to London in 1998 that I began to discover myself and a ‘community’ centred on Old Compton Street in Soho. I also joined a LGBT (and friends) choir called The Pink Singers which provided a readymade source of friendship and support through or shared sexuality and a common passion for singing. Here began a speedy journey of self-acceptance. 

Coming out to my Mum and Dad was the hardest challenge of all in my mind, and the fear of doing so which plagued my thoughts about doing so and playing through the potential reactions I might receive, the worst case in my mind being rejection and blanket non-acceptance. The bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho in April 1999 was a turning point for me, and made me realise that being alive, safe and well was more important than my sexuality and others’ reactions to that. The events of that Friday night, gave me a reason, albeit a tragic and sad one, to come out to my parents, and I called them the next day to come out.  

The Admiral Duncan was a small, friendly bar on Old Compton Street which I used to pop into for a pint after work, just a few minutes’ work from Carlton House Terrace in SW1 where I had my first job in London. It was a bar where I made a number of friends who became a family of sorts in those early years in London. Fortunately, I wasn’t in the bar on that Friday evening when the bomb went off, but the added significance and sadness of the event was that I knew Nick, one of the people killed in the bomb who I’d worked with a few years previously when I had a summer job holiday waiting on tables at the Little Chef on the A12 motorway in Essex, where he had been an area manager. He too had moved to London and became a bit of a mentor to me when I bumped into him on the ‘scene’ in London on a few occasions when I first moved to London. Whilst we weren’t close friends, I remember the strength and confidence I gained from recognising and speaking to someone supportive from my recent past who was like me, who made me realise that being gay was not wrong, but part of who I was. So, it took the events of that night to propel me fully out of the closet and, luckily, find that my family and friends supported me unconditionally, then one good thing came out of that terrible incident.

Coming out is not easy for everyone, and there will be colleagues and friends around us that may never feel able, or indeed feel the need, to do so. I would encourage everybody who is LGBT* to come out if and when it is right for them, and that there is support out there, not just from family and friends. You are never alone, and we are lucky to work in an environment at the University where no one should have to look far for such support. LGBT people come out every week to people who don’t know their sexuality in some form or another. For most of us, this isn’t about seeking to make a point of our sexuality and manifest out differences. The continuum of coming out is simply an outcome of normal social exchanges and pleasantries with colleagues or new people you meet, in relation to your personal life when you refer to your partner, or spouse, just as straight friends and colleagues would. However, it still means you are coming out all the time and it can be tiring sometimes. What’s the alternative? To self-censor what we say, or how we behave and act with new colleagues or acquaintances you meet? I have a strong commitment to not ‘police’ myself in this way, not least because of the message that sends to others about my self-acceptance, and in particular anyone who might be silently struggling with their sexuality. 

Why do you think it’s important to have LGBT* role models?

Mainly because prejudice and discrimination against LGBT* people still exists, including in the UK, and it bears many of the hallmarks of misogyny or racism, and the discrimination can straddle these characteristics.  Given this, it is really important to have LGBT* role models in the workplace and in our personal lives, in particular, individuals who are able to be visibly out and talk about their sexuality. In turn, having allies in colleagues who may not identify as LGBT* themselves but who are nonetheless prepared to stand up and champion the rights and representation of LGBT staff and students is also key to wider acceptance, understanding.

Supporting LGBT* staff and students, and indeed championing them, is not simply something which is a ‘nice to do’ or ‘good to be seen to be doing’. Nor should it be an equality, diversity and inclusion box-ticking exercise. Plain and simply, it is the right thing to do. Always. It makes absolute sense for the health and wellbeing of individuals and for the University as a community, and the messages this sends to staff, students and the wider community and partners with whom we work. The ‘business’ case is also well made for the contribution of diversities of individuals and perspectives in growing and developing organisations and their capacity to innovate. Even if my writing this article, in some small way helps others, or gives them the confidence to be themselves, I will have achieved something.

How easy is it to be ‘out’ while working at Northumbria?

I have found Northumbria to be a supportive environment to be an LGBT* member of staff. Amongst our staff and students at Northumbria, a number of colleagues are doing brilliant research into areas centred on, or tangential to, sexuality which translate into thought leadership, policy, activism (or all three) across a whole range of disciplines, whether in law, health and wellbeing, design, the digital environment and the arts and humanities. Such research fields and impactful in the widest sense of what that means in advancing an understanding of the society we live in, and how we can improve it. 

The new LGBTQ Staff Network, the LGBT* Society of the Students’ Union, and the new LGBT Steering Group which I am proud to chair, all point to an environment in which LGBT matters don’t simply exist but are becoming a vibrant, thriving and increasingly visible part of Northumbria.   Our recent marking of World Aids Day 2018, and our first endeavours to create a programme of events for LGBT History Month 2019 are all part of this journey. We hope colleagues will come along to what will be a varied and engaging programme.

The university sector as a whole has a long way to go in the visibility of LGBT* staff in senior leadership positions and other positions of influence within institutions. It is not sufficient to say ‘lots of gay people work at universities, don’t they?’ and assume that this of itself creates comfortable, liberal conditions for ensuring LGBT* staff and students’ are fully supported to thrive. The importance of universities, and those who enrich and move them forward, as agents for enlightenment, transformation and the challenging of orthodoxies and dogma, is at no time more important as we witness a reversal of LGBT* rights fought for and won. We only have to look at the rise of hate crimes against marginalised groups in the UK, and LGBT* rights being systematically eroded in The USA, Brazil, Chechnya and Russia to realise that all is now well.

Who are your LGBT icons?

I studied literature for my first two degrees so it would be remiss of me to not mention writers such as E M Forster, Edward Carpenter or Virginia Woolf, who always seemed ahead of her time in terms of her embracing of gender fluidity in novels such as Orlando. I also love the writing of American essayist and storyteller David Sedaris. Other high profile figures I admire as great ambassadors for the LGBT community in modern Britain are Miriam Margolyes, Sir Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry and Mary Portas, and musicians including Andy Bell, Marc Almond, Jimmy Somerville (showing my age here), Joan Armtrading, Rufus Wainwright, Olly Alexander and the country contralto of KD Lang. We have a round of honorary degree nominations coming up? A few of the above would make perfect candidates for nomination in my personal view! 



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