On Being an LGBTQ Role Model: Reflecting on Stonewall’s LGBT Role Models Programme

Prompted by a post I wrote back in March on sexuality in academia (and it being subsequently being republished by Times Higher Education), I asked at work if I could attend Stonewall’s LGBT Role Models programme as I felt I needed guidance about what it means to be out at work and online, something which I hadn’t actually considered before writing the post.

Coventry supported my attendance and its now been 2 weeks since I attended. As such, it seems a good time to take a moment to reflect on what I had learned. (Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that I am only blogging about the event now as I try to avoid reflecting almost immediately after an event. I tend to find that when I walk out of a training room, I leave with superhero ambitions that aren’t that realistic. I prefer to let the learning sink in and to first go back to my daily routines, revisiting the slides a week to two later to reflect more thoughtfully on how to apply the learning to my daily working life).

I want to begin by saying that I found the programme incredibly useful. It helped me to articulate the challenges I face within the workplace and, working with others from a range of different sectors, to identify possible solutions to these challenges.

The morning focused on our LGBT working lives. We spoke about the importance of authentic leadership and discussed research that shows how being yourself in the workplace can improve happiness and boost productivity. This was accompanied by a discussion about the extent to which LGBT people feel they can be themselves at work. What became almost immediately clear was that it is was rare for an LGBT member of staff to be completely themselves at work. We often found ourselves hiding parts of our identity or lives at particular moments or events. One participant introduced a particularly interesting activity of getting teams to talk about their weekends without using gendered pronouns to highlight the live and quick-fire internal conversations LGBT frequently experience. It is a skill I have finessed over many years and have become quite good at – but not necessarily one that I want to, or feel I should have to, employ on a regular basis).

Concealing our LGBT identities can be a result of working in or with particular communities, countries, or spaces, especially when we do not safe space or are in spaces, situations and environments that are new or changed. We also spoke about experiences of where we are sometimes made to feel “other”, or outside, not part of the daily work culture or conversation. These conversations led to what I felt was incredibly important moment of self-discovery. Being bullied as child about being perceived as gay (I didn’t “come out until 21), I have lacked confidence and it has only been in the last five or so years that I have been completely comfortable with being more open about who I am, particularly in the professional sphere. Our private life needn’t impinge on our professional life, right? These conversations, though, made me consider (and realise) the number of times I do conceal my identity when at work and the moments of panic when, in a split second, I have to decide whether to disclose my sexuality or correct someone’s assumption. This is something I find more pressing now as an independent researcher working internationally. We then spoke about the effect this has had upon us and about the “exhausting fiction of heterosexuality” that LGBT staff can experience – as well as the emotionally difficult conversations that may result from revealing our identity, conversations which sometimes can feel as if they take up too much of our energy and of our time.

The afternoon focused on what it means to be a role model and how we could act as role models within our own contexts, reflecting on our own role models as well as the career stories of LGBT people from a range of different sectors – which are really interesting reads and can be accessed here:

We came to define a role model as someone who is “aware of their potential to influence others and intentionally exercises that influence for the purpose of helping to create a more inclusive workplace”. This definition is challenging, as it explicitly brings together my private, professional, and political lives and asks me to consider how they interrelate. This is something I need to think much more deeply about. Indeed, what kind of role model do I want to be and how can I achieve this?

At the end of the programme, we were asked to make a pledge about what we would do as a result of the course. In session, I decided confidence was key to my development as a role model and that I need to be as open as I can be (taking ethical pragmatism and safety into account) to ensure that I am a visible role model for other LGBT staff at Coventry, but also LGBT researchers internationally.

This is something I will need to work on continually and so I’ll set myself the challenge now to blog again in 6-12 months and reflect on where I am, what I’ve done, and what’s changed since writing this.

Although there is work to do, I feel as a result of this course I’m in a much stronger place now than I was before the course.

Details on the Stonewall LGBT Role Models Course

Details on the Stonewall LGBT Allies Role Models Course

And if feels entirely appropriate to leave you with one of my LGBT role models that got me through those troublesome teen years:

“I Am What I Am”: Thinking About Careers Post-PhD and Post-PostDoc

It is my last week at Bath Spa University and it feels like a good time to reflect on my career path so far and some of the decisions I have made since completeing my PhD. This has not proven to be a simple task, as the way in which a career unfolds is often the result of a combination of chance, ambition, and passion, as well as gut instinct, informed decision making, and personal and professional development.

I went through my PhD without ever thinking too hard about my career expectations or career path. I – like many undertaking a PhD in the arts and humanities – assumed that a lectureship was the end goal. However, the scarce number of postdoc positions combined with the fact that I needed a full-time job meant that on completing my PhD practical decisions had to be made – hourly paid lectureships (often thought to be essential to obtaining a lectureship) were a luxury I couldn’t afford. So, on finishing my PhD, and after a stint working at Glyndebourne Opera House and as a postgraduate recruitment assistant, I took a fixed-term Research and Knowledge Transfer Support Officer role at the University of Bradford.

To be honest, I had relatively little of knowledge of what this role would involve at the time of application, but was intrigued by the post and thought it would provide me with good experience for an academic role in the future – an alternative to a postdoc in effect. Within a couple of weeks, I had become fascinated by the role. I was working with people from a huge range of disciplines (including engineering, health studies, and cancer research), opening my eyes to research well outside of my humanities discipline. As well as a broad sense of research in the UK, the role also provided me a deep understanding of the inner workings of Higher Education Institutions and of research funders and policymakers. If began to feel as though this might be a possible long-term career. Since then I have held a fixed-term (academic) position at the University of Brighton (working on their Art and Design REF submission) and a permanent academic-related position at Bath Spa University (training researchers at all different levels of their career).

Despite my keen interest in this area of work, I continued to apply for lectureships – and got closer and closer to that goal with each application. A few months ago, though, I had a revelation, prompted by the advertisement of a position at Coventry University. On looking at the job specification, I soon realised that this was the job for me, the role building on my burgeoning interest in research training, funding, policy, and development. Whilst on paper the role may not signal a significant break in my career trajectory thus far, it did ask me to think critically and carefully about what I wanted from my career. Unlike previous positions, this career move was not the result of a contract coming to an end, but the result of a conscious process of thinking about priorities, interests, ambitions, work-life balance, and personal and professional development.

What become clear was that my career path up until this point had been dictated partly by the nature of the short-term contracts I had held and partly by the unquestioned long-term goal I had set myself of becoming a lecturer. It was only at this point of deep reflection, I realised that I had been applying for lectureships because that’s what I thought I wanted and, perhaps also, because that’s what my peers thought I should be doing. While the intentions were always honourable and the advice welcomed, the continued suggestion that I would make a good researcher/lecturer implied – albeit indirectly – that the various roles I occupied were not valued or credible professional pathways for someone with a PhD. The pressure, whether real or imagined, of our peers can severely limit the way in which we think about careers and can often affect the choices we make. Supervisors are often a great resource during a PhD, but everyone is limited by their own experiences. While it can seem difficult to know who to speak to regarding careers, I would highly recommend speaking to as many people as possible and reading career stories from others within your discipline or area. It is only then that you can appreciate the diversity of post-PhD and post-postdoc careers taken up.

It is perhaps fair to say that I stumbled into my career – but let’s face it, nobody when asked at school what they wanted to be when they grew up excitedly answered “I want to work in Research Development”. The fact is that careers are dependent upon the opportunities available to you and there are so many roles out there that you don’t necessarily know exist. My career path, I hope, is example of where seizing a chance opportunity has resulted in what I feel is a fulfilling and exciting career path. It perhaps also provides an example of letting go. Indeed, it is hard to put into words the excitement (and relief) I felt when I got the Coventry position. I now feel I have a clear sense of my professional identity and pathway. The relief came from finally letting go – letting go to musicology. While this is something I have immensely enjoyed (and will no doubt continue to enjoy), I realised that the knowledge and experience I have acquired in my research-related roles to date is now more important to me. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the understanding I gained about my PhD experience and how the skills I acquired during my PhD have underpinned and been enhanced by my work to date.

Letting go of my preconceived ideas of academic career pathways, I have found liberating. When thinking about careers it is important that you are honest with yourself, that you are critical and reflective about the opportunities available to you and your ambitions, and that you are open and responsive to all sorts of opportunities. While there has been occasions in the past where I felt as if on the outside looking in, I have to come to realise that this was never actually the case. Taking a different career from the norm does not mean failure or that your PhD wasn’t worthwhile. (In this case, a knowledge of research was essential and is is becoming increasingly valued in a range of professional service roles). Nor does it mean that you are then committed to solely exploring that path for the rest of your career – career paths are likely to fork and/or merge again and again.

Careers are both complex and multivarious. They are intangible, changing and in flux. Ambitions, needs, and wants change as you change and as your priorities change. As such, finding out who you are and what you want to be is an ongoing process (and sometimes letting go).

***UPDATE***

Interestingly, since writing this post, I took a sideways move at Coventry University, taking up the position of Early and Middle Career Researcher Development Programme Manager. And what is perhaps relevant in relation to the above is that this post is an academic post. While musicology is still in my past, research isn’t. The research I now undertake builds on the knowledge I have acquired over the last 5-6 years in research management and research development blended with the humanities methodologies I learnt during my PhD and the social science learning I have acquired when reviewing bids and supporting researchers.

I honestly could’t be happier. Career paths are winding and may surprise you, but that doesn’t mean your on the wrong path. In fact, although I was unsure of my path, I have actually ended up at the right destination for me.

The Fairytale of New York: Some thoughts on Homophobia and Heteronormative Christmas Soundscapes

Something has been playing on my mind lately and I wanted to explore my thoughts, which are by no means conclusive, here (and welcome comments and discussion). What started me thinking was the how in December our sonic surroundings or soundscape drastically change. Christmas songs fill the air and can be heard almost everywhere we go: supermarkets, shopping centres, pubs and restaurants. They are heard on the radio and frequently on television as well as the theatre and in karaoke bars. One of those songs played and performed regularly in the UK is The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, a powerful Christmas favourite that was released in 1988.

The line I want to discuss was a line that was the subject of much controversy at the time of release: “You scumbag, you maggot / You cheap lousy faggot”. Whilst originally the BBC edited versions of the song and removed the term (as well as the term “slut” in the proceeding line), the controversy is now long past – for some forgotten, for others unknown – and since 2007 the song now played by the BBC in its original version. The BBC argued in this case that:

“While we would never condone prejudice of any kind, we know our audiences are smart enough to distinguish between maliciousness and creative freedom. In the context of this song, I do not feel that there is any negative intent behind the use of the words, hence the reversal of the decision.”

I find the use of the term ‘I’ here particularly telling and dangerous. What concerns and interests me more though is that since 1988 the song has become increasingly institutionalised, a seemingly integral part of the Christmas soundscape. This means that the homophobic slur of the song (and by proxy homophobia?) now forms a regular part of my Christmas and has since I was 7. I don’t think we can ignore the effect persisitant (and uncritical) homophobic language has on LGBTQ audiences, and on those in particular who are coming to terms with their sexuality.

My aim here isn’t to put an argument forward for censorship (which only leads to social amnesia and a turning away from difficult issues), but to open up a debate on the relationship between aesthetics, creative freedom identity, and ethics, particularly when an aesthetic object, art practice, or cultural tradition becomes institutionalised and runs in danger or oppressing minority groups and reinstating white, masculine, heterosexual hierarchies. Indeed, this isn’t an attack on the song per se, but the (uncritical) legacy of that song. So what, if anything, should be done?*

I recently read an article that drew my attention to the fact that the Tom and Jerry cartoon series available on Amazon Prime are now accompanied by a statement that highlights the racist nature of some of these cartoons. While this I don’t think provides a satisfactory solution, it does draw the viewer’s attention to the issue and potentially generates discussion, which is better than these cartoons being screened without comments.

So, is an equivalent strategy needed for The Fairytale of New York? Should listeners be informed and warned of the homophobic and misogynistic language? Should the song be played (without edit) by publicly funded corporations and should it form part of an institutionalised christmas landscape if it is played without comment? To what extent are we willing to privilege aesthetics and heritage over and above equality? And what other areas do we need to think more deeply about this issue? Indeed, this is something that goes far beyond the gay community when we think about institutionlised narratives of “normativity”.

Perhaps an alternative solution lies with balance in what we hear at this time of year. Do we need to work harder at ensuring that there opportunities to hear, see, and engage with works that challenge heteronormativity, works frequently hidden from view? And on that note, I’ll leave you with a celebratory LGBTQ christmas song by Bourgeois and Maurice and Sink the Pink. Enjoy.

*It is perhaps worth saying that I like and enjoy the song, but I find it’s performance and legacy problematic.

Why I Don’t Like Writing Journal Articles; or Some Thoughts on the Creative Humanities

Creative Humanities Visual

I have recently been exploring the intersection between humanities research and creative practice, undertaking exploratory projects that look at new ways of communicating the findings of humanities research. Having undertaken a fairly traditional humanities PhD in musicology, my research outputs have been up until now pretty much text-based. I am increasingly finding, though, that this isn’t necessarily the way I always want to communicate, so I have started to explore alternative ways by which not simply to translate my research findings, but to rethink them and re-contextualise them.

I felt that the conference format was well suited to exploring this approach and as part of an upcoming conference I have decided to discuss musicology through performance, turning my findings on dystopian and utopian futures into an imaginary interview between myself and Judy Garland. This approach has enabled my talk to cover the key concepts and arguments and to present these ideas in an immediate and affective manner that enhances, yet also complicates my argument. Still very much at an experimental stage, I’m hoping to explore and expand on this in more detail in the future.

This experiment has led me to question more generally what this type of research practice might be called. It is clearly tied to notions of creative practice as research and closely aligned with Kip Jones’ idea of Performative Social Science, as well as Mary Ann Francis’ exploration of research as creative writing.

For now, I’ve settled on the broad category of the Creative Humanities; but would love to hear any thoughts you have, of other examples, and of any projects you are currently undertaking that are of a similar nature.

 

Measuring the Mixtape: Some thoughts on Cultural Value, Sharing, and Identity Politics

100909_cassette_4 Cultural Value is a term that is increasingly employed by policymakers and scholars to describe the range of benefits cultural activities have on individuals, communities, towns, cities, and businesses (to name a few). Although a somewhat palpable concept – when we go to the theatre we feel as if the play, say, has had an effect on us – cultural value is a slippery concept as there is currently no clear-cut definition and no easy way of understanding or assessing the value of a cultural act. Despite the complexity, trying to identify, determine and evidence what might constitute cultural value is important as it can not only affect policy and arts funding, but also help us to understand our relationship to the arts, our culture, and the world around us. (For more on thinking about different approaches to understanding cultural value see Belfiore, E. & Bennett O. (2010) ‘Beyond the ‘toolkit approach’: Arts impact evaluation research and the realities of cultural policy-making’Journal for Cultural Research, 14.2. )

For some time now, I have been looking at the nature of the cassette-based mixtape of the 80s and 90s, an artefact and social activity that I find particularly fascinating when looked at from the perspective of cultural value. The mixtape was primarily a way by which to share music. Both an artefact and a social activity, mixtapes consisted of a carefully selected sequence of musical tracks and were often used to accompany a specific event or activity or gifted to friends and/or loved ones. Meticulous planning of the tracks was essential. As the character Rob describes in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity:

Making a tape is like writing a letter – there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again…You’ve got to kick off with a corker, but hold the attention…and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you…can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and…oh, there are loads of rules. (Nick Hornby, High Fidelity, Riverhead Trade, 1995, 88-89)

As well as drawing attention to the planning involved, Hornby also connects the act of making a mixtape with that of writing a letter, suggesting that the mixtape requires a personal and emotional investment from the creator (and perhaps also the listener). Blending medium with message, art form with artefact, the mixtape acts as an emotional and affective conduit between the creator and the user, a shared experience where making and consuming are each important parts of the process.

In a way, the mixtape complicates a simple economic approach to understanding cultural value. While we could calculate the amount of blank cassettes sold, it is the transformative process of making and consuming that is key to the value that many listeners ascribe to the mixtape. Indeed, the mixtape is tied to notions of individual and group identity and the development and formation, in particular, of teenage identities and teenage relationships.

Providing a haptic and a sonic experience that combines creativity with craft, the mixtape provides a material and sonic space that allows creators and listeners to explore identity politics and forge an identity (or series of identities) in relation to the social groups in which they participate and interact. The question, then, is how do we assess the value of this haptic, material, and sonic experience? How do we calculate the benefit to the individuals who receive mixtapes and to those that create them? And, importantly, how do we bring into alignment the process of making and doing with the process of consuming in our understanding of cultural value?

A8EkTz9CYAAHSkcThe development of digital playlists further complicates these questions, as playlists can now be shared globally to a range of different networks and social groups. What does it mean to share these emotionally invested and carefully curated playlists with people from different locations, geographies and cultures? How do we understand this idea of sharing, and are there cross-cultural political ramifications to sharing artistic identities. (Indeed, the mixtape began as a reaction to the music industry and consumer culture, providing a disillusioned youth culture with a means to challenge the music industry and the idea of pre-packaged music for consumption).

The aim here isn’t to answer these questions, but to draw attention to them and the complex issues that require further and detailed exploration. To understand cultural value we need to undertake a multidisciplinary investigation into individual creativity and shared experience. We need ask what it means to imprint our identity on an object, and what it means to put our name to something. We need to explore what we learn and gain from communicating through music and art (rather than language) and think about how we might understand (and measure?) notions of emotional attachment and enchantment. Are these quantifiable concepts, and how can we address the fact that understandings of the mixtape, say, will change over time and with each person, community, and culture that engage with processes of making and listening to mixtapes.