50 years of Stonewall: how far we've come and championing LGBT+ at Regent's

With this year marking 50 years since the Stonewall riots, Professor Martin Milton reflects on some of the major breakthroughs in global LBGT+ rights, what still needs to be done,  and how we can champion an inclusive environment at Regent's 

Can you tell us about your specialism in LGBT+ psychology and psychotherapy at Regent’s?

Personally, I’ve long studied issues related to LGBT+ concerns. I did my masters here back in the early 1990s, and my dissertation was around HIV-related psychotherapy. Later I did my doctorate on affirmative therapy. That came out of a recognition that, while there is great potential within psychology and psychotherapy, there is still a problem in relation to how psychology and psychotherapy understand diversity, or how they held old-fashioned and problematic assumptions. 

While it’s important to look at LGBT+ experiences, I don’t think they should be looked at in isolation. There is a lot of work being done in relation to other areas of discrimination that we can learn from too, for instance there are colleagues working on Islamophobia, and feminist psychologists that also help us see the misuse of power, and the impacts of that, with regards to faith and gender. 

Understanding each of these groups in their own way, and how discrimination is manifest against them, has been something that’s really interested me as an academic and as a therapist too.  There is much more that needs to be done.

And I think we’ve got to stop invisibilising; we’ve got to spot the embedded heterosexism, and problematic assumptions that get covered up in banter – and do something about it. Where we see systems that are disadvantageous to LGBT+ students, we should be calling it out – and not just waiting for the disadvantaged student to raise it. Fostering an inclusive environment, I think is very important.

This year’s Pride celebrations marked a significant LGBT+ landmark – i.e. fifty years since the Stonewall Uprising. Can you tell us about some of biggest LGBT+ milestones of the last five decades?

Stonewall is an important date – not only because it energised gay rights activism in New York and the US, but also much more globally too. Stonewall is inspirational as it showed how the abused and disposed rose up to say ‘no more’. 

Post Stonewall, another important date is 1973, when we saw the removal of ‘homosexuality’ (horrible term) from the so-called “psychiatric Bible”, the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual). This means that in the space of six years (1967-1973) we stopped seeing same-sex sexuality as criminal activity (in the UK) and stopped seeing same-sex desire as a mental health problem. 

Other important dates include, 2003 where we saw the government’s repeal of Section 28 and 2013, when the Equality Act was introduced by the UK government. A piece of intersectional legislation that aims to ensure people recognise the hideous impact of discrimination of all kinds and ensure that we work towards equality of opportunity.

But despite these important events, we mustn’t get complacent, we’ve got a President in the White House, who has managed to limit transgender people’s contribution to the military, on very spurious grounds. 

And here in the UK, Galop, the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Anti-Violence and Policing Group, have indicated that a similar process has been directed towards gender and sexually diverse communities with a 147% increase in anti-LGBT crime in the three months after the Brexit referendum. As I say, there remains a lot more to be done. 

martin milton

What are the biggest challenges still facing the LGBT+ community?

You can answer this in a couple of ways: what individual people may do and what needs to be done legally or in society. So in terms of LGBT+ at Regent’s, we need to think of what lecturers can do in their classes, what managers can do in terms of policy can do, and what students can do in their friendship groups. 

One thing is to be open to diversity. Students and staff can be insightful. If you listen to what’s going on, you might see why the extroverted class member doesn’t go to the pub with everyone else. Why do they consistently not go? We shouldn’t leave it for individuals to have to say ‘this context or this situation is oppressive or scary’. 

The bigger group needs to be asking ‘are we inclusive enough?’, because otherwise it’s like leaving racism to be dealt with by people of colour alone. It doesn’t make any sense. 

I think the other big assumption we need to get over is the idea that we can know categorically what people want or need. We can only get a roadmap of that because people are individuals. We need to be building flexible classrooms and flexible curricula, so that we’re open to LGBT+ issues and concerns. 

I also don’t think we can look at this question without looking at the wider context. Economically and politically, we’ve kind of been developing a system where a small number of people get greater advantages, and minorities don’t. We see this in the fact that hate crime is going up, I think this, and of course, things like Brexit, are pushing some of these more nationalistic world-views to the fore, sending a very clear message that some people are worth more than others. 

I’m not a social media expert, but you can see how easily that domain becomes hate-filled and divisive too – and it’s all very much this mindset of you’re either “this” or ‘that’ – you’re ‘in’ or ‘out’. Again fuelling the idea that some people are better than others. It’s happening on a big scale, so we need to think every time we see it, how we get people to recognise that that doesn’t make any sense, and actually there are far better ways to interact with people.

What is your advice for any students or lecturers wanting to show support for their LGBT-identifying peers?

Don’t wait around quietly or expect people to come out before you consider your own banter, heterosexism or implicit homophobia. What we know from research, and from LGBT+ voices all over the place, LGBT+ people will watch to see whether it’s safe to come out. We should all be working towards inclusive classrooms and a welcoming University wide culture. Students, managers and lecturers shouldn’t imagine sitting there quietly, simply not joining in with the banter, is enough. 

Being a bystander will not reassure those who feel uncertain, will not prove your trustworthiness and allow students to be come to you and confide in you. When you see inappropriate banter, or abuse it should be challenged. That might a) limit discriminatory behaviour and b) allow students to recognise that Regent’s is a safe place. 

When you think that many of our students are young people. Coming away to university might be their first chance to break out and voice who they are. We need to be creative and imaginative in making sure that the door is open to all kinds of different people. 

We also need to have more allies, have the ally flags up. We need to have people talking about going to Pride, about its history and its meaning, to make sure that different conversations go on. It would be wonderful to see that alongside Black History Month being celebrated, the contribution of migrants, and so on – really celebrate the diversity which our student body and staff body brings.