Carrie van der Zee, Dentistry SES, Faculty of Medicine and Health

Why do you think it’s important to have LGBT role models?
To promote a culture of respect for diversity. My experience has been that in any workplace, you can feel isolated and worry about how people will react to you when they find out you’re LGB or T. Being able to see other LGBT people who are ‘out’ and the people around them treating them as normal is really powerful in addressing that – and it sets a great example to everyone else.

What was it like ‘coming out’ as an LGBT person?
Pretty tumultuous. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a liberal household with family who were unconditionally accepting and supportive of me, and when I came out to my school friends in Year 8, their reaction was to shrug and not mention it. But when confronted with my peers making homophobic jokes to embarrass our form tutor during sex ed, I made a naive error of judgement and tried to take a stand against it, openly admitting that I myself liked girls as well as boys. You can probably imagine how well that went. Word got out, and I soon found myself the target of sustained harassment and threats of violence by students from other years, which went on for months. Eventually, frustrated at the school’s inability to tackle the problem by any means other than isolating me from the other students, my mother moved me to a different school. The thing I enduringly resent the most about everything that happened back then was that when it all kicked off, the deputy head called me into her office to find out what was happening, and when she asked me what I meant when I said I was ‘bisexual’, she tried to coerce me into saying I didn’t mean it.

Thankfully, nothing as extreme has happened to me since, but it’s likely that’s because the experience taught me to be careful who I came out to. In my working life, the worst I’ve had to endure has been inappropriate ‘banter’ from employers who probably saw that as a misguided way to demonstrate that they were all right with me, and being asked not to ‘force [my] lifestyle down people’s throats’ – but I think that people who say things like that should examine themselves over why a person being open about who they are makes them uncomfortable (never mind that one’s sexuality isn’t a lifestyle choice). Most people have just been accepting, however.

How easy is it to be ‘out’ while working at the University of Leeds?
In my experience, people have only ever been respectful. I take it as a positive sign that I can occasionally joke about it and people laugh.

Does being LGB or T influence your working life? If so, how?
My experiences have made me sensitive towards other people who face discrimination. Of course, that’s not to say I think everyone’s experiences are the same, nor that I’m any kind of expert on the unique challenges faced by different social groups. However, I can relate, which motivates me to try and help people who might not enjoy the same privileges as many others, and to challenge people when they say things that could be taken as problematic.

What advice would you give to other LGBT staff or students who may be facing difficulties as a result of their sexuality?
Reach out to the staff or student LGBT networks, especially if you don’t feel able to address those difficulties via the channels set out in HR policy. You will find people who can relate to what you’re going through, and who want to help you.

What can we all do to make the University of Leeds a better place for LGBT staff and students?
I feel quite strongly that it would help if everyone acknowledged that simple things straight people take for granted, like openly talking about their significant other, going on dates or wedding plans, are actually privileges; many LGBT people hesitate over doing the same things. Also, keep in mind that just because someone’s sexuality doesn’t matter to you or the people you associate with, an LGBT person who’s experienced discrimination or harassment may still feel trepidation about being open with you about it. Conversely, if someone does open up to you about their experiences, please don’t dismiss them! Your understanding is important.

Finally, it would be so good if everyone could endeavour to use gender-neutral language in casual conversation when the details of a person’s private life are unknown. This isn’t just important in terms of not assuming the gender of a person’s partner; it’s important that we’re inclusive of those who identify as transgender and nonbinary, too.