Alan M. Greaves
In the post-pandemic university LGBT+ staff networks must take a new role as confidential forums for peer-to-peer social and mental health support.
The Stonewall Workplace Employability Index and other performance metrics encouraged universities to establish employee networks for their LGBT+ staff as a display of their commitment to equality. These were forums for staff/employer consultation around issues affecting employees with ‘protected characteristics’ defined by the Equality Act (2010). During lockdown, these networks proved invaluable for consulting Disabled and BAME staff, the two groups most affected by COVID-19, about changed work patterns such as shielding for those with long-term health conditions.
It is too early to know if COVID-19 disproportionately affects the LGBT+ community. Although higher rates of tobacco use, body dysmorphia, cancer, HIV, and healthcare discrimination may prove to adversely effect our survival rates, the elephant in the room is our mental health.
LGBT+ people are significantly more at risk of mental illness than the general population. The rot sets in in childhood as the growing child realises that they are somehow ‘different’ from the heteronormative images of happiness and social acceptance that bombard them from the media, school and family. This is compounded by negative experiences of coming out, homophobic bullying, and lack of support from family, friends and colleagues. Consequently, 34% of young LGBT+ people have made at least one suicide attempt in their lives, compared with 18% of heterosexual young people. Those LGBT+ people who survive to adulthood after attempting suicide are at significantly heightened risk of another try, with 10-15% finally succeeding. The on-going lack of social and psychological support slows their recovery from previous suicide attempts and heightens the risk of another. Bullying, marginalisation and isolation in the HE workplace are potential triggers of further incidents for LGBT+ academics.
I’ll let you take a moment to reflect on that for a minute – over one third of the gay people you know or work with are survivors of suicide and their personal histories place them at higher risk of future suicide or long-term mental health problems.
Into this complex and dangerous mix, the pandemic has enforced separation from the LGBT+ social support networks that keep us safe. Connection to other LGBT+ people and communities creates a sense of belonging, which helps build individuals’ personal resilience and reduces their risk from mental illness and suicide. Gay social spaces and events such as Pride are often diverse and inclusive and, deprived of LGBT+ inclusive social spaces by the pandemic, it should now fall to universities to create such spaces for their employees and students whilst also avoiding the ‘creepy treehouse’ scenario of centrally co-ordinated online jollity.
These must also be confidential spaces, real or virtual, in which colleagues can freely discuss their workplace experiences because ‘coming out’ at work has significant ramifications. Many LGBT+ people navigate multiple intersectionalities between our sexuality and our race, ethnicity, religion, class, disability, gender, etc. For example, lesbian women report that they more problems in the workplace because of their gender than because of their gay identities. The modern HE workplace is increasingly internationalised with universities researching, or even forming partnerships with, countries that criminalize same-sex relationships. Postgraduates and Early Career Researchers in insecure employment move from university to university and country to country, often living in shared accommodation or in cultural environments where they cannot be themselves. It is unsurprising therefore that 41% of graduates go back in the closet after graduation.
‘Coming out’ at work puts individuals’ carefully managed social identities and even their personal safety at risk. The increasingly precarious nature of academic employment means that some people will not feel safe to ‘come out’ institutions with proven credentials for protecting LGBT+ staff from bullying and discrimination offer them permanent contracts, which may never happen. Yet, without safe spaces in which to explore and express their identities, LGBT+ people are at heightened risk of mental illness and suicide. Effective employee networks can reduce the risk from enforced social isolation for a group that is prone to mental illness and post-pandemic universities should ensure their LGBT+ staff networks offer a confiding online space in which to meet their LGBT+ colleagues, some of whom should be trained in identifying and supporting their peers around mental health.
Alan M. Greaves is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Liverpool, a psychotherapist in private practice and a volunteer and trustee of the Queer Notions LGBT mental health charity.