University of Sheffield Workshop: Promoting positive mental health and challenging homophobic behaviour – 23 July 2018

On the 23rd July 2018, I was happy to be able to attend an LGBT+ inclusion workshop hosted by the LGBT+ Staff Network and Open@TUOS Allies, deliberately scheduled to coincide with Sheffield’s Pride week. (It also coincided with the one Monday that I didn’t have to lead a module meeting at 1.15, which would have clashed with the workshop and a day in which my teaching hours didn’t clash either!)

It is part of ongoing LGBT+ inclusion work at the University of Sheffield. Other examples include the “Open@TUOS” campaign (which currently has over 2200 supporters across the university, most of whom wear rainbow lanyards as a visible sign of support) and LGBT History Month . According to Professor Gill Valentine, who is the Provost and Deputy Vice Chancellor and who opened the event, the workshops were hugely oversubscribed.

The workshop was delivered by Josh Willersey from Stonewall.

The first session was focusing on mental health.

We started with a matching activity for terminology and definitions relating to LGBT. I was familiar with all the words except “gender variant”. Click on the link to have a go yourself!

Some of the things I learnt:

  • Until 1990, “homosexuality” was on the WHO’s mental illness list. (Very recent past!)
  • A “cisgender ally” is someone who is not trans but supports trans people. (“Cisgender” means your gender identity matches the gender you were assigned at birth – that I knew)
  • 1 in 200 people are born intersex (that’s more common than having red hair!) but often don’t know until if/when they try and conceive.
  • Gender dysphoria can affect intersex people who have invasive surgery at birth.
  • There is a lot of overlap between Bisexuality and Pansexuality (I knew that!). Some people who come out as Bi may actually identify as Pan but not want to spend their life explaining it to people.
  • 62% of graduates who were out at university go back into the closet when they start work as they don’t know if it is ok/safe/acceptable there or not. (You can out yourself by how you answer general questions e.g. answering honestly about what you did at the weekend. You make the decision whether to do that or not depending on how safe you judge that situation to be. This bit I know!)

After the terminology exercise and feedback, we moved on to mental health. Josh used himself as an example of a person who may be perceived to be “happy” (and even receive an award for it at work) but actually simultaneously be going through a hard time. This led us to the first question.

What are the barriers to talking about mental health?

We had to discuss this in our groups and then there was some “whole class feedback”. Here is a list of everything I managed to note down in the course of this:

  • still a stigma about admitting it
  • looked at different to physical health (e.g. at the uni, NHS delivers physical health services, but mental health services are the university’s responsibility)
  • people feel they should be stronger, that mental health issues are a sign of weakness and they don’t want to appear weak
  • labels have certain connotations – a person may be suffering from from a particular issue but not actually match up with peoples’ perceptions of what a sufferer of that issue is and does.
  • people feel like a failure if they have to “admit” to a mental health issue
  • the term “mental health” is too broad to be helpful. E.g. within the NHS they wouldn’t say “let’s improve our physical health service” it would be more specific like “we need to improve our asthma-related services”
  • gender issues e.g. “I am a man therefore I cannot talk about this” (i.e. norms and expectations)
  • cultural issues/pressures (again, norms and expectations-related)
  • lack of support available

Then we had a few statistics:

  • £70-100bn is the estimated cost to UK of mental health issues
  • 91 million working days are lost to mental health, it is the most common cause of absence (UK centre for Mental Health)
  • 53% of people would not feel comfortable disclosing mental health issues to an employer (MIND)

Focusing on LGB+ issues:

  • LGBT+ people are 50% more likely to experience long-term mental health issues
  • LGBT+ people are 2 times more likely to commit suicide than the wider population
  • Bisexual men are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than the wider population
  • 45% of LGBT+ young people are bullied at school, including via social media and text: home is no longer an escape/safe space. They are often bullied for being different, which is closely to linked to gender norms/expectations.
  • Young LGBT people are 6 times more likely to commit suicide
  • Alcohol misuse is 50% higher

Focusing on Trans issues:

  • 88% of trans people have experienced depression vs 1 in 4 of the wider population
  • Trans people are faced with two challenges: dealing with their own experience and dealing with transphobia in society which may take the form of harassment in the streets, people denying their identity, rejection by friends/family/general society
  • Transphobic rhetoric/language use is on the rise at the moment because of the changes in policy being discussed currently that would make it easier for trans people to transition
  • 60% (or 66% I can’t read my writing!) of trans people have attempted suicide
  • 77% have used antidepressants

In terms of health care provision:

  • 6/10 health and social care workers don’t believe orientation is relevant (And if LGBT+ people seek care, they may have to explain themselves/educate the care worker
  • 51%of mental health workers/counsellors/psychologists don’t believe orientation is relevant to mental health
  • 1 in 10 care practitioners believe you can be cured of being LGBT+ (Though there is now a commitment from the government to ban conversion therapy as it is proven to be very damaging)

Intersectionality

  • People with BAME backgrounds are more likely to be detained compulsorily for mental health issues
  • The greater someone’s level of socio-economic deprivation, the higher the risk of suicide being attempted
  • 25% of older people have a mental health problem
  • 54% of people with learning difficulties have a mental health problem

Having considered these statistics, we moved on to the all-important question of…

How the workplace can help/support people

Again small group discussion was followed by “whole class” feedback

  • take time to ask how people are and listen to the response
  • be alert to recognising differences in peoples’ behaviour that may signify that something is not right
  • be aware that people may be putting up a front (and a knee-jerk “yes” to “are you ok?” may not reflect the true picture)
  • be careful how you talk about people with mental health issues – others will pick up on it and respond accordingly (i.e. if you are disparaging or negative, they will endeavour to hide problems)
  • #Timetoalk prompts: shouldn’t need a prompt, caring, supportive discussion should happen all the time
  • if it reaches a “crunch point”, too many opportunities to intervene have been missed – it shouldn’t get that far
  • One of our group who works in the uni health service said they have a buddy system and timetabled coffee breaks for GPs, to combat isolation/stress
  • If someone is off sick, keep in touch with them (in a supportive way rather than a harassing way!)
  • Training about mental health should be offered (awareness-raising etc)

Here is the slide of suggestions that Josh shared afterwards:

We were finally given some suggestions for promoting better mental health in the workplace and some resources relating to LGBT+ and to mental health:

The second session focused on bullying and harassment in the workplace specifically in relation to LGBT+ people. 

We started with some statistics relating to bullying/harassment of LGBT+ people in general:

Bullet point three is partly due to increased likelihood of reporting compared to before but also links to rise in populism and validation of far right attitudes that has been seen in the last 5 years.

Then we looked at statistics specific to the workplace:

We talked about  behaviour and what is unacceptable behaviour:

Homophobia

  • Still rife in modern society, common to hear language such as “poof”, “gay boy” or “faggot”
  • There is still “moral panic” i.e. a fear of LGBT+ being more acceptable having a negative effect on children (why it should have a worse effect than heterosexuality being acceptable, I’m not sure…)
  • Calling something “gay” to mean sad/pathetic/rubbish still common e.g. “This lesson is so gay”. This use of language does impact people who hear it.

Biphobia

  • People consider bisexuals to be “confused”, “greedy”, “selfish”, “going through a phase”
  • People say bisexuals should choose one or the other – “choose a side”
  • People say that you can’t be bisexual unless you’ve slept with ‘both’ genders
  • People consider bisexuals to be more likely to cheat on their partners
  • People say things like “she used to be bisexual but then she married a man” (This does not make her magically straight…)
  • People make assumptions based on who the bisexual person is in a relationship with at that time
  • Bisexual people face discrimination within the LGBT community as well as from heteronormative society

Transphobia

There are more people identifying as non-binary (or various other gender labels, other than male/female) these days. This is partly because there is now the language to express it, there is information available online and times are changing: fluidity is more acceptable among young people. (This acceptance of fluidity and increased likeliness to have a fluid identity applies also to sexual orientation, with 50% of young people identifying as something other than 100% straight in a recent survey)

  • Tends most heavily to be aimed at male to female transsexual as that is the most commonly known about narrative
  • language such as “tranny”, “shemale”
  • People might say something like “you really can’t tell, can you” – which can be hurtful because the transition wasn’t about pleasing people aesthetically, it’s about identity
  • People might say something like “oh she was such a pretty woman before”
  • People might assume that it’s “just a phase”
  • People might police the toilets – “Excuse me, I think you are in the wrong toilet”.

(This seems like a good place to share a photo taken at the IATEFL conference in Brighton this year:)

Like our classrooms should be – nice one, Brighton Centre!

  • Continued use of the wrong pronouns despite knowing the person’s preferences
  • Continued use of an old/dead name -known as “dead naming”, shows non-acceptance of the true identity
  • Asking what someone’s “dead name” was – can be hurtful/upsetting as often it is loaded with trauma for the person
  • Asking a trans person when they will have surgery – not all trans people do a medical transition

Then we considered what barriers there may be to reporting bullying/harassment in the workplace…

  • Fear of the effect on one’s career: not wanting to rock the boat.
  • Knowing that it could be explained away as “banter” (which can cover a multitude of sins)
  • Not wanting to be out to your manager
  • Not wanting colleagues to look at you differently

as well as the impact it can have on the person and the organisation. For a person, they may develop low self-confidence, become demotivated and/or suffer from anxiety/depression. For the organisation, overall it can lead to low staff morale, increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, recruitment and retention problems and possibly costly legal action/

So what can organisations do? 

  • Cultural change (takes time)
  • Policy: it should mention LGBT phobia as unacceptable specifically – it’s a lot harder to report something if it isn’t clearly articulated in company policy
  • Organise training around awareness-raising
  • Make use of inclusive messaging e.g. messages sent to all staff that send a positive, inclusive message around LGBT+ (such as the LGBT+ history month here)
  • Make sure reporting routes are clear to all employees
  • Have an LGBT employee network group

Responsibility

Who is responsible?

  • The source: the one whose behaviour is offensive
  • The target: should tell someone if their behaviour is upsetting. Discriminatory behaviour must be challenged (also among students!)
  • Any observers: there is no such thing as an innocent bystander, you should call out offensive behaviour
  • Person in authority: Managers should address inappropriate behaviour. It is the employer’s responsibility to maintain a respectful, inclusive environment.

How to call out inappropriate language/behaviour

UHT – I UNDERSTAND you don’t mean to be offensive when you say x, HOWEVER, it is offensive (and against company values?) to say x. THEREFORE, please don’t use language like that again.

Stop, Identify, broaden: Stop the harassment (if you feel threatened, you could just speak to the target so that they aren’t stuck in a 1-1 with the harasser); Identify the behaviour as discriminatory; Broaden the response by linking to company values etc.

I feel <x feeling> when you do <y action> and I’d like you to <a preference>

Having considered these approaches, we looked at three case studies:

Again, group discussion was followed by coming together.

Case Study 1

  • We thought the main difficulty in such a situation is having “a way in” to talk about it. We came up with “I’m sure you’re not trying to cause offence but…”
  • We also thought the response might depend on the environment e.g. if this was at the uni, we’d be acting in a professional capacity and know that it is against organisational values etc. Policies/training may not be in place elsewhere, so if you are elsewhere, you might flag it up to a manager
  • Flip side, if you only speak to a manager, nothing may happen, so it may be better to speak to the receptionists (especially as regardless of location, reception is public-facing so anybody could hear what they were saying)
  • Don’t just do nothing

Case Study 2

After making sure the person being harassed is ok, challenge that person by getting them to explain their statements, using “why” a lot. Challenge their thinking:

  • There are LGBT+ people of all faiths. There are inclusive people and readings in all faiths. The two are not mutually exclusive.
  • Orientation is not “a lifestyle”, it’s part of someone’s identity
  • Both people of faith and LGBT+ have experienced discrimination for that identity
  • Faith values: acceptance and love, not hatred.

Encourage the person who was being harassed to report it

Case Study 3

  • Ask James what he wants you to do/how he wants you to proceed (very important)
  • Offer support/options (e.g. confront the colleagues involved, make a formal complaint)
  • If you are a colleague, encourage reporting
  • If you are a manager, follow it up

Focus on the action

In all cases, it is important to focus on the action rather than the person. I.e. “x is a homophobic thing to say/do”, rather than “you are being homophobic”. If you use the latter, then they will immediately be focusing on defending themselves (“I’m not, I have a gay uncle, I have gay friends” etc!) and that is not dealing with the issue of the behaviour.

Don’t be complicit

It is uncomfortable to challenge but it is also important, as we don’t know who is listening or how it could be impacting them.

That brought us to the end of the workshop.

My thoughts

I feel very lucky in that my workplace (my staffroom, my colleagues etc) always feels like a very warm, safe environment. I love seeing the rainbow lanyards around! It’s a nice feeling. I love that this university is 24th in Stonewall UK charity’s list of the top 100 most inclusive employers.

I think the topic and content of this workshop also has relevance to the classroom and to us as teachers as well as as workers. Statistically, there will be LGBT+ students in our classrooms. We need to actively make our classrooms an inclusive, safe place for them. This means that if students say things that are LGBT+phobic, we, as teachers, shouldn’t be a quiet Switzerland on the issue. We should be calling it out. Obviously this gets a lot more complicated if you are working in a context which is not tolerant of LGBT+ people and/or in an institution whose policy on this is undefined. I think ELT school managers should, where possible, have clear policy around LGBT+ bullying being unacceptable and teachers should be aware of this and know that they would be supported in calling students out on it. (A teacher can’t tackle such a problem without the support of the school – if the student complains, the school needs to be supporting the teacher.) This, of course, is affected by the students as customers perception that is common throughout ELT. Training around how to deal with LGBT+ issues in the classroom may also be useful. E.g. what would you do if in a unit talking about personal relationships, a female student refers to her partner as “she”? Is it a pronoun mistake or an assertion of identity? How do you establish which it is? How do you deal with other students’ response?

I also think that ELT materials need more LGBT+ normative content (gay people rarely exist in ELT course books – as Scott Thornbury famously said, they are firmly in the course book closet), but that’s another topic for another day…

What do you think?

Questions I want to leave you with

  • Is your workplace supportive of people with mental health issues?
  • Does your workplace have policy in place to combat workplace/classroom LGBT+ bullying/harassment/phobic behaviour?
  • Would you feel able to report this kind of behaviour (would you know who to report it to?)
  • Do you think that if you did report this kind of behaviour that something would be done?
  • Have you ever attended training relating to LGBT+ issues?
  • Have you had to deal with LGBT+ phobia in the classroom? What happened? How did you deal with it? (To give an example, I remember I taught a class that consisted of 3 Arabic men and I can’t remember why it came up but at some point they were ALL spouting some seriously vitriolic opinions about gay people. This was in the UK, in 2012. I had no idea what to do and I didn’t/don’t know what that school’s policy was on the issue. It was very awkward and uncomfortable! What would you have done? Fast forward to 2017, working at the ELTC, and in my elementary group, one of my students said he hadn’t seen any gay people in Sheffield/at the university. I challenged that by asking how he knows and gently pointing out that gay people don’t go around with labels on their foreheads to tell us they are gay. Gay people are just normal people. I also included gay family images in my Smartboard materials for the unit on families to supplement what was in the course book and statistics around mental health in wider vs LGBT populations in the UK in the spread on mental health issues. That was a much more benign situation BUT it needed to be dealt with and there was scope for awareness-raising. It DOES happen, the frequency is irrelevant – that it happens at all means we need to be equipped to deal with it effectively when it does. I think it would be useful for there to be more help with how to do that.)

Sorry for an extraordinarily long post, but it’s an important topic and there was a lot of ground covered in the workshop!

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