As Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson has a duty – both legally and morally – to promote equality and condemn hate speech, harassment, bullying, and discrimination within the University. In keeping with the Equality Act 2010, the University’s Equality Policy explicitly protects students on the basis of gender, sex, and sexual orientation. By suggesting that LGBTQ+ students who challenge homophobia are simply easily offended and should face homophobia by challenging it themselves, as if their rights constitute academic debate, she has failed to uphold this commitment to the Equality Act – or to recognise the real oppression LGBTQ+ people face within the University and the wider world.
Richardson’s belief that her duty is to make students ‘uncomfortable’ with education is too near a reality for LGBTQ+ people. In the UK, LGBTQ+ people face violence, risk of mental illness, and discrimination at significantly higher rates than straight cisgender people. In the past year, our own academic community has seen LGBTQ+ students and staff face verbal and physical harassment, encounter resistance from within the University, and even die by suicide. It is deeply inappropriate to compare such oppression to an ‘opinion' or to imply that intelligent people are incapable of the prejudices that cause violence against LGBTQ+ people and other marginalised groups. In the UK, nearly half (48%) of trans people under 26 said they had attempted suicide (Stonewall), and LGB people are two to three times more likely than heterosexual people to suffer from depression (LGBT Foundation). We understand that Oxford’s LGBTQ community faces oppression and challenge our Vice-Chancellor to recognise this and act in accordance to condemn this oppression and discrimination.
Students and staff alike have worked hard for decades to create inclusive, accessible spaces to enable excellent learning and research. We are concerned that the Vice-Chancellor's comments will make current students feel unsafe or unable to report harassment: these remarks suggest that discrimination is acceptable. Beyond this, prospective LGBTQ students will be deterred from applying to the University by such remarks, threatening the already limited diversity of Oxford’s students and staff. Given Richardson’s prominent global platform and the public sector equality duty, it is alarming to see any form of harassment being described as merely an opinion by a respected public figure. If it is the best university in the world, Oxford should be leading the way for a model society which does not tolerate discrimination, instead of giving it the credibility of an academic debate.
As those who believe in the social responsibility of what was recently named the best university in the world for the second year in a row, we demand better from Oxford’s leading representative. There is no excuse for Richardson's equation of LGBTQ+ students’ human rights with an intellectual debate. Students are not responsible for defending their existence to the people guiding their education; Louise Richardson and all members of the University’s senior staff are.
We ask for clarification and an apology from the Vice-Chancellor, and strongly encourage academics, students, fellow alumni, and LGBTQ+ people and allies to condemn her words. Homophobia is not an ‘opinion’, and the human rights and dignity of LGBTQ+ people are not up for debate.
The Vice-Chancellor's comments in full are available to view here:http://cherwell.org/2017/09/04/oxford-su-slams-vcs-comments-on-homophobia
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