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Oxford Reacts: The Vice-Chancellor’s Comments

Katt Walton, President of the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society

As the President of the LGBTQ+ Society, I was shocked and dismayed by Vice-Chancellor Richardson’s comments. I have experienced varying levels of homophobia as a student here from peers and staff which have, without doubt, affected my academic and personal life, sometimes to the point of not feeling safe within my own college, stopping me from using the library or going to dinner. Richardson’s comments expose a nefarious lack of concern for Oxford’s LGBTQ+ community which goes far further than students feeling “uncomfortable”.

As the President of the Society, I have a duty to LGBTQ+ students to safeguard welfare and make sure Oxford is as welcoming and inclusive as possible and as a queer student myself I have a right to feel safe in my home and place of education.

This is a reminder that homophobia has no place in this University because it endangers LGBTQ+ students and disadvantages them (under the Equality Act 2010). I am disgusted with Richardson’s attempt at rectification and I implore the University to realise the effect that homophobic opinions can have and not stand behind the words of Vice-Chancellor Richardson

Flora Pery-Knox-Gore, Bi/pan rep of the OUSU LGBTQ+ Campaign committee

I’m fairly sure Louise Richardson didn’t mean to endorse homophobia, or to dismiss the concerns of the LGBTQ+ community so flippantly, but I don’t think that matters anyway. The effect of her words on the LGBTQ+ community was immediate. I felt compelled to reassure freshers that their tutors were likely to be very tolerant – though the Vice-Chancellor stated she’d had many conversations with upset students – and that if any issues did arise, there are mechanisms in place to protect the rights and safety of students. Her comments show that she’s severely out of touch with the values of the student body. Every college recognises tutors ought to be held accountable for their treatment of minority students. This isn’t an issue of free speech – tutors can hold whatever opinions they want, but some sentiments just aren’t appropriate for a tutorial setting and students shouldn’t be forced to defend their right to exist on a daily basis.

To imply that LGBTQ+ students might profit intellectually from debating homophobes is ridiculous. When I get harassed on the street for holding hands with a girl, my first reaction isn’t gratitude for the learning experience. Just because hatred comes from a tutor doesn’t mean it’s any more rational. That Professor Richardson sees homophobia as something that can be debated shows a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of hatred. It’s intellectually dishonest to suggest that the only reason people hate, based on sexuality, is that no one’s debated them properly. This issue is really troubling for me and my community, and we await her response eagerly.

Claire Heseltine, Oxford University Rainbow Peer

The idea that homophobia is merely a question of being ‘uncomfortable’ is what confuses me most about the VC’s comments. It’s almost as if she was looking the other way during last year’s vigil for Orlando that took place on the RadCam’s steps, or that she forgot to read the Equality Policy of her own university. Her suggestion that LGBTQ+ students should engage in debate with homophobic academics is naïve and ignorant at best, harmful at worst. She does not seem to realise that what she is asking these students to debate is whether the people who hate them have a point, whether their existence is ‘moral’, and whether they are worth protecting from homophobic violence and hate speech. I would encourage the VC to step out of her own comfort zone and listen to the experiences of LGBTQ+ students (both home and international students) at her University. As she clearly values education so highly, she should be happy to try and learn something.

Eimer McAuley, Second year English student, St. Peter’s

Professor Louise Richardson became something of a role model for me when I read the headline of her Guardian interview: Tackling Elitism can be done, I mean, I went to a rural school in Ireland. Not only was she the first woman to hold the post of Vice Chancellor, she’s achieved it all coming from a rural, nationalist Irish background – not dissimilar to mine. Perhaps that’s why I found her recent remarks particularly disheartening, and the message she’s sent to not only Oxford’s queer students, but by extension all students who face discrimination at the hands of tutors. The message is quite clearly, it’s up to you to tackle homophobic, or any other discriminatory attitudes and not the institution.

This approach to the responsibility of an institution for the attitudes and actions of its representatives is far too reminiscent of what Ireland has seen so many times in the Northern Ireland parliament, it’s an approach which takes no responsibility for the damage those actions can do. The reluctance of leaders to condemn or take responsibility for the homophobic rhetoric of representatives in turn legitimises homophobia on a wider scale in society. From this perspective, the Vice Chancellor’s remarks are reminiscent of so many made by Arlene Foster. Their inability to condemn makes bigots feel comfortable, and the people they represent and have a duty towards, not only uncomfortable but alienated and put at risk.

Roan MacKinnon Runge, Former LGBTQ+ rep, Exeter College

What the Vice Chancellor fails to understand is that homophobia is more than just offending a student. Homophobia does not foster academic debate between an LGBTQ+ student and a homophobic professor. Rather, it shuts down the student’s feeling of being able to speak and their space for learning. No environment for learning is encouraged when one member of the debate is in a position of power and is asking the other—who is younger and less experienced in the adult and academic world—to justify their existence. The outcome is that the LGBTQ+ student feels frightened and invalidated. As the Oxford SU has so well outlined, this has awful impacts on the mental health of LGBTQ+ students.

As a former LGBTQ+ rep for Exeter College, as a person with intent to care for this community, these remarks are frightening. They set a precedent of dismissal of LGBTQ+ feelings and fears as trivial, of our identities as up for debate, of our safety as unimportant. I fear for the effect this will have on current and incoming students and their feeling of belonging here at Oxford.

Dr Eden E L Tanner, Postdoctoral Researcher in Physical and Theoretical Chemistry

I was dismayed to read VC Richardson’s comments at the Times Higher Education Summit. Whilst I understand that she was trying to make a comment on the nature of free speech in higher education, the example she chose to use was completely unacceptable. As an LGBTQ+ researcher at the University, I deserve to work for a University that abides by its Equality Act duties in keeping me safe at work. As a supervisor and a teacher, it’s essential that my students feel like their complaints about harassment will be taken seriously, and Richardson’s comments completely undermine that aim. The ‘apology‘ we were issued failed to take responsibility, and woefully misunderstood the nature of the harm caused.

Teddy Jennings, Second-year Classicist at St Hilda’s

Besides the obvious direct harm Louise Richardson’s comments cause for the LGBTQ+ community, what often is even more distressing is this trope of ‘challenging homophobia through intellectual debate is the best way to beat it.’ When I came out I remember people telling me that my sexuality made them physically uncomfortable, and I always asked them ‘why?’ and they always responded that they didn’t know. Homophobia isn’t a position or stance decided upon from critical thinking and intellectual rigour – it’s a knee-jerk response. Debating homophobia will give you about as much success as debating your gag reflex.

The tutorial system is meant to challenge you, yes, but in the sense of my tutor asking me about Plato’s theory of forms not in the sense of them invalidating my rights as a human being. That Louise Richardson would advocate putting LGBTQ+ students at this university in that position is so incredibly irresponsible, and her reduction of systemic oppression to a matter of feeling ‘uncomfortable’ also neatly lets her pretend that this has nothing to with structural problems within Oxford and the university elite, and everything to do with ‘easily offended’ university students.

Jenyth Evans, Access Rep, Jesus College

There is a whole generation of Oxford students who are excited to have just received their places. Many of them will be following Oxford prolifically on media and news, just as I did before I came to university. And, just like I did, many will face questions about their future at this university from friends and family at home. Personally, I have never felt unable to report anything, and the support from my college has always been fantastic, but the Vice Chancellor’s callous comments feed into harmful stereotypes about Oxford. Many potential applicants have concerns and worries, and I speak to lots from all sorts of backgrounds at Open Days and student tours. They ask if tutors in interviews will try and corner them, and they worry about fitting in when here. One to whom I recently spoke was an LGBTQIA+ potential applicant, who was so excited to hear of the campaigns, events and support for the community at our university. I can’t help but think of them now, and how it must feel to have a senior member of the University say she doesn’t care if a tutor discriminates against them. Her comments are destructive to much of the hard work put in by JCRs, Access Fellows and the outreach network at Oxford.

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