Dismantling hostility in higher education institutions built upon binary gender

Lo Marshall
I identify as tired’ - Hannah Gadsby

A scene from the film A Fantastic Woman (Lelio 2017) shows our protagonist Marina battling against a hostile environment as she walks a street in Santiago, Chile. Confronted by a windstorm, she drives her way forward, her body leant diagonally to maintain balance, against a tirade of urban debris propelled toward her.  Contemplating writing this piece, I was reminded of this cinematic moment; an allegory for Marina’s story, a trans woman trying to live her life – and grieve a death - in an exhausting social and institutional environment that is largely hostile to her needs and existence. Hostilities that swirl around us in our environment, requiring greater amounts of labour from us to move forward, or even stand still, as we are hit by the detritus of oppressive social norms.

When trying to make sense of how hostilities operate in their multifarious manifestations I often reach for Sara Ahmed’s (2016[a]) thinking on hammering:  

A history can become concrete through the repetition of small encounters, encounters that require you to put the whole of your body, as well as your arms, behind an action. Maybe these actions seem small. Maybe they are small. Actions that are small can also become wall.  They can feel like a hammering, a chip, chip, chip, against your being, so that eventually you begin to feel smaller, hammering as hammered down. Chip, chip, chip.   

Writing on transphobia and informed by incidences and cultures in British universities,  Sara Ahmed suggest that the need for ‘trans people [to] prove their legitimacy can be experienced as a hammering that persistently chips away at trans existence’ (Ahmed 2016[b]: 22). I’m taken by this notion of hammering. A hammer that is part of the tool kit inflicting small but violent blows that chip away at us when our existence is negated, questioned, and/or not embraced in its fullness and complexity.

In her speech 1980 speech at a New York Institute for the Humanities conference, celebrating Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), Audre Lorde addressed the violent erasure of the existence and needs of women who are underserved and overlooked by academic feminism:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference -- those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older -- know that survival is not an academic skill.  It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.  For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.  They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change (emphasis added).

In this speech Lorde reflects on the arrogance of academic feminism in the US in upholding the ‘pathetic pretence’ that differences do not exist or matter. She forcefully highlights failures to take difference seriously and learn from women whose lives are lived at the intersection including racism, homophobia and classism, and unacknowledged legacies of colonialism and enslavement. Lorde not only calls out but calls for community and change: a call for community and changed based upon feminist solidarity across differences. A call for community and change that is informed by the voices of women whose lives are lived at the intersections of racism, homophobia and classism, and who are detrimentally impacted by the legacies of colonialism and enslavement. A call for community and change that is formed through the labour of women who experience privilege beyond patriarchal oppression. Although Lorde’s words are (and depressingly continue to be) widely relevant, it feels pertinent that they were written for and first spoken in university-affiliated institution.  How do we get our hostile house in order?

In the following, I reflect upon some personal experiences in which I seek to make certain operations of hostilities that I have encountered visible and draw attention to institutionalised practices that have produced and perpetuated them. I write as someone in their who is white, queer and non-binary, non-disabled, middle-class, and in mid-thirties whose path from state schools to doctoral studies has taken various detours.  At UCL, I have been a MSc and PhD student, visiting lecturer, PGTA, researcher and the member of an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee at UCL and the following is informed by experiences in these roles. In writing this I am concerned that it may read as a list of grievances, a disavowal of the privileges and support that I experience at work and in life, neither of which is my intention. I want to be clear, there are brilliant people who are committed to and care deeply about creating universities that are more equal, diverse and inclusive, and whose humility and dedication toward achieving this is enormously commendable. I say this not to soften a blow, but to recognise the significant labour that is all too easily overlooked when we criticise exclusion and inequity at universities. Criticisms tend to mask the emotionally exhausting and time-consuming labour undertaken by people seeking to build more inclusive universities.  In the spirit of Audre Lorde, I seek to shed light upon a broad spectrum of ways that hostilities in higher education are reproduced and maintained in relation to gender, and call for change and solidarity across differences within our academic communities to equip us to re-imagine, re-tool,  re-structure, and re-assemble equitable environments that critically engage with hostile academic histories.

Let’s begin by dwelling a moment on teaching, which as students is our first contact with higher education and shapes the research and teaching trajectories of those of us who follow a career path through academia. Having enormously benefitted from incredible teaching across my education, and not only at fancy institutions like UCL, but state schools, FE colleges and a non-Russell Group university, I undoubtedly would not be in the position I am now had it not been for this.  I have been supported, inspired and encouraged by scholars whose own identities and teaching have tended to be marginal in HE contexts. But, I have never (knowingly) been taught by someone whose gender, sexuality and background coalesce in a way that mirrors my own. This is an experience that is often shared by students who are people of colour (especially black women), working class and/or disabled, amongst other marginalised vectors of social difference. These absences matter to individuals and have broader curricular implications that are detrimental to the learning of all students. This is not only about the potential of enabling students to explore and understand their own identities and position in the world, it’s also about asking students to critically engage with societies in their complexity and look beyond their own experiences. For example, creating discipline specific decolonial and anti-racist curricula that contain tools for people of colour to learn from voices that speak directly to them, understand their own positions in the world and relate this knowledge to their wider studies. Anti-racist and decolonial curriculum must also be taught to white students who require the tool to recognise their privileges and the systems of oppression that white supremacy is built upon and continues to operate through.  Huda Tayob’s Race, Space and Architecture open access curriculum and more recently, The Bartlett’s ‘Race’ and Space curriculum are fantastic examples of the productive potential for collaborative working to produce teaching resources, including through EDI channels.

Academia is changing. There is growing amount of teaching and teaching resources that are LGBTQ+ inclusive, anti-racist, feminist, decolonial, the list goes on... Often these changes have depended upon the labour of those who have moved through academic institutions that have marginalised knowledge produced by and about marginalised people. I have also never been taught queer and trans studies; disciplines that I now teach. Sometimes this is the labour of tenured academics that create these chances, but frequently this work depends upon the precarious, low and/or unpaid labour of doctoral students and early-career researchers because it’s lecturing good and necessary experience but “the budget hasn’t been allocated”, and/or “that’s just the way it always has been, we’ve all been through it.” That is, order of the house is premised upon the expectation that all who dwell there have the freedoms that come with personal wealth. To this list we might add an expectation that one’s political commitment must be uppermost, even if it means their labour and knowledge is de-valued. In the past I have fallen through the trap door of teaching for free in an attempt to rectify an absence that I had experienced. I am tired of these kinds of absences. I am tired of feeling like it is my responsibility to fix them. Having your labour exploited by an affluent institution in order to teach about the oppressions that your communities live with and struggled against is a really a very special kind of discord. I am tired and now refuse this discord. When I do get paid to teach it is at the behest of ethical individuals who value my knowledge, labour and time.

Through conversations with an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee representative and friend - a black woman who does decolonial research - we realised that we had both fallen through the trap door. Yet speaking to fellow doctoral student who are white, heterosexual and cis, we heard a different story. We turned our concern into small survey to better understand this emerging pattern. The results showed that those of us who are minorities had disproportionately been unpaid for our lecturing labour.  We raised this through EDI channels and were told that all postgrad should be paid for lecturing, the issue was administrative, a policy was subsequently clarified. Administrative structures had worked for some of us and against others, but what about the humans putting those administrative structures to work? I do wonder if this change has translated into some of us – and you can guess which of us – not being invited to lecture at all. I haven’t been invited back since my lack of payment was questioned. There may be other reasons for this. Maybe. I am tired of cynically wondering.

You cannot have gender equality without gender diversity. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committees and initiatives can certainly be productive in bringing together people with shared commitments to creating change. There are times where engaging in EDI activities can feel hostile toward people and inequalities that they are supposedly intended to benefit. I have felt a very visceral discordance when participating in an EDI committee meetings as a living, breathing non-binary person, discussing Athena Swan data that negates my existence and that of other people who complicate flawed binary understanding of sex/gender (Fausto-Sterling 2019). That is, a façade that man/male and woman/female (cis and trans) are the only viable sex/gender realities, which serves to further bolster supposed neutrality and naturalness according to an imperialist, racist and cis-hetero-patriarchal social order. How is it that an equalities mechanism can be so dislocated from a wealth of transdisciplinary academic knowledge -from the science to the humanities – that dismantles binary sex/gender essentialism and reveals the rotten foundation upon which these structures are built. On an emotional level, it is disheartening – to say the least - to experience well-intentioned and otherwise supportive colleagues being effectively forced into complicity in the pursuit of (partial) gender equality. I am tired and still feel bruised by this experience. Perhaps because of a naïve sense that I shouldn’t have to deal with this shit in EDI contexts. Maybe because it acts a stark reminder that sometime the most insidious operations of oppression and inequity are invisible and/or unimportant to most and have been integrated into the order of the house. Building gender equality upon the foundation of a binary gendered order is not only flawed, it is structurally violent. We need to dismantle and re-build, and this demands individual and collective solidarity across differences against structural oppression.

This moment in the EDI meeting is just part of a cacophony of hammers that chip, chip chip away (Ahmed 2016).  A speaker at a union meeting arguing that trans peoples’ self-determination was a threat to society akin to climate change. Yes, really (as absurd a proposition as this may be). THWACK! University campus being use to host A Woman’s Place. THUMP! A number of UCL colleagues have claimed to have had their ‘legitimate concerns’ (aka. concerns legitimised by transphobia) ‘silenced’ …… in public letters published in national newspapers. BANG! The hammer hits at the same moment as LGBTQ+ research I have collaborated in is publicly wielded by the university to signal of their institutional innovation. HUH? I have neither the time, scope nor energy to engage in a ‘debate’ about trans people and free speech and I am worn down by the violence of trans peoples’ existence being rendered threatening and debatable. Instead, I will borrow the words of James Baldwin, that we can agree to disagree ‘unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.’ Ahmed proposes that refusing to participate might be a "key tactic for survival" and the only means of exerting agency over a situation in which one feels worn down by the "relentless questioning of [their] being" (Ahmed 2016: 31). I. am. tired.

How do tired people rebuild broken structures? For many of us, as staff and students, to function in academia is to exist in tension and force our way through dissonances. Like our fantastic woman Marina, we push forward in hostile environments, propelled by our politics and our academic communities where we find and practice solidarity. I am tired, yes, but I am energised by and grateful to colleagues have nurtured and uplifted me and my research on LGBTQ communities and gender diversity, offering me opportunities to teach, speak, write and publish where my labour, time and knowledge is valued and fairly compensated. It is with these colleagues that we vent our shared frustrations, offer solidarity across our different identities and experiences, find solace in the face of institutional barriers, and can feel seen more fully.

The house as it stands must be dismantled, re-ordered and re-assembled in ways that prioritise, and learn, from the knowledge and experiences of staff and students who are members of oppressed groups and under-represented social groups without relying upon their labour. But let us not forget that, to borrow from Audre Lorde, to ‘stretch across the gap’ of ignorance and educate people as to our existence and need is ‘an old and primary tool of all oppressors [that] keep[s] the oppressed occupied with the master's concerns.’ Over-work, under-pay and wide-spread precarity are tools that maintain hostile academic environments and perpetuate inequalities. Creating equitable universities cannot be an extension clamped on to the house; equality cannot be an add-on to existing workloads or deemed extra-curricular. Part of creating alternatives requires us all having (and taking) the time and energy to educate oneself on other(ed) peoples’ struggles, to transform infrastructures in which solidarity is an everyday practice through which we dismantle and rebuild alternative structures.


Author Bio

Lo Marshall is an urban geographer researching gender and sexuality. They are a Research Fellow in The Bartlett School of Architecture, affiliated to UCL Urban Laboratory, as well as a doctoral researcher in the Department of Geography at UCL. As part of an on-going collaboration researching LGBTQ+ Nightlife in London with Prof Ben Campkin, Lo has co-authored an article in Soundings journal (Campkin and Marshall 2018), guest co-edited Urban Pamphleteer #7, LGBTQ Night-Time Spaces: Past, Present and Future (Campkin, Marshall and Ross 2018), co-curated a ‘Queer Salon’ at the Museum of London (2018) and contributed to the exhibition ‘Queer Spaces: London, 1980s – Today’ at The Whitechapel Gallery, London (2019).