The aim of the University Library blog is to connect the University of Lincoln community with information related to them locally within the institution and the Library, but also regionally and nationally. We would like to promote and communicate a variety of initiatives, resources, developments and interesting stories that are meaningful in both the local University and wider community.
As part of the University of Lincoln commitment to engage and involve students in work to decolonise the university, students are invited to apply for bursaries to conduct projects supervised by members of University staff for up to 1 month during the period 12 June – 14 July. Up to 15 bursaries are available: to support student maintenance (£200 per month / pro rata for shorter periods) and project expenses
The Decolonising@Lincoln (D@L) project draws attention to how the colonial past negatively influences our present, operating unjustly to exclude certain peoples, knowledges and ways of working. It seeks to recover silenced voices and excluded forms of knowledge and practice, and to reintroduce them into our teaching, learning, research, and administrative practices. Bursaries can be used to support any activities that align with this agenda, and which will produce outputs that can raise awareness, and inspire decolonised ways of thinking and working within and potentially beyond the university.
Students may wish to focus on identifying and/or critically challenging coloniality in their subject areas or experiences of teaching and learning practices; or to identify ways of diversifying, decolonising or internationalising the university curriculum, for example by including the voices and works of formerly colonised people, and/or ideas and practices that are not from the Euro-Western tradition. Exploratory research projects in preparation of dissertation research projects are welcome, as are experimental research approaches and conceptual studies and thought pieces. Projects may be conducted by individual students or in collaboration with others.
We are particularly keen to encourage projects that:
Support the Reimagining Lincolnshire project by uncovering hidden and neglected stories from Lincolnshire, about individuals whose contributions to the county, country and internationally have largely been forgotten
Challenge the Euro-American domination of knowledge production by revealing hidden/ marginalised knowledge that is missing from subject disciplines and practices
Involve students working in groups to gather data from staff and students about their knowledge and understanding of coloniality and decoloniality.
Develop understandings of whatstudents are asking and looking for in a decolonised curriculum
Reveal where coloniality is present in University spaces and offer ways of challenging this
Helping to Decolonise the Library by identifying gaps and imbalances in existing holdings, and/or developing a decolonising library guide for your subject area (see here for an example)
Consider how to decolonise university systems and processes e.g. training and recruitment
Suitable outputs include written reports, creative outputs, online resources, public exhibitions, blogs, zines, library reading list / event / installation, social media content/TikTok videos.
Each project must adhere to university ethical procedures, and should be supervised by a member of staff, who will advise on ethics and provide up to 3 hours of support over the duration of the project.
Students who are looking for supervisors or a student collaborator from another discipline or school should, in the first instance, contact the member of staff who acts as Decolonising champion for their school.
Last year I did a week’s work experience in the University Library and Lincoln Cathedral Library’s Exchequer Gate. During this time, I was lucky enough to view some original civil war material from the Wren Library and one item that particularly stood out to me was about Prince Rupert’s dog.
The English Civil War (1642-1660) split the country in half, Parliamentarians and Royalists fighting over the governing of their country.
Prince Rupert began his military career at the age of thirteen. He was born during the Thirty Years War, which tore his nation apart, therefore conflict was all many people of the time knew, including Rupert. He was a strong military leader until an unfortunate failed expedition, which landed him in prison in Austria. Due to his high status and romantic affiliation with his captor’s daughter, he received special treatment, such as books and then most notably the gift of his white hunting poodle ‘Boy’.
Upon returning to England, there was initial fear and superstition surrounding the dog, who was said to accompany Rupert everywhere, including into battle. Descriptions of their close relationship can be found in this pamphlet, which suggests ‘they lie perpetually in one bed’,
although the descriptions of the dog as a bullet proof witch may seem humorous to a modern audience, it reveals the superstition of the time.
Furthermore, this fear was not only of the supernatural but is intrinsically linked to the fear of women, who were blamed for all manner of failures. The words ‘woman’ and ‘witch’ are used interchangeably as explanations as to why Prince Rupert’s dog is working for the devil, revealing to us the ideologies of the time surrounding women and witchcraft.
Ultimately Boy was not weapon-proof as the pamphlet describes, as he died after being shot on the battlefield of Marston Moor, leaving a bereft Prince Rupert to mourn his loss.
The Wren Library is undergoing ceiling repairs, so the Civil War tracts are not currently available. However, Newark’s Civil War Museum is currently open see National Civil War Centre, Newark.
In 2022 during a Fake News exhibition a replica of Boy’s collar, ID tag, lead and paw print were on display.
Oonagh Monaghan (She/Her) , Academic Subject Librarian and Decolonising@Lincoln Library lead
I’m an Academic Subject Librarian at the University of Lincoln. I support the subjects of Fine Art, Design and Architecture and have worked at the University for over 20 years. Over the years I have supported various disciplines, however, over the last few years I realised I have always been an art librarian at heart! A few years back I attended the UK and Ireland Art Libraries Society (ARLIS) conference in and it was then that I began to think more deeply about critical librarianship, decolonising collections and creative innovations. During my talk today I will be acknowledging others who have been influential in my own development.
We have three libraries – one at Holbeach, one based in the Medical School in Lincoln and the main Library where I’m based. The Library is a converted railway warehouse and as you can see from this tweet, it recently featured in a documentary called ‘The architecture the railways built’ – you can also see here what the building looks like now.
I was interested in how we could relook at the history of the building itself, so I invited academic Dr Simon Obendorf to write a blog post about the building’s site, purpose and physical structure and how it provides us with many opportunities to reflect on Britain’s colonial past. Any links I refer to today will be made available so you can read more about this in Simon’s post on the Library blog.
There may be scope in the future for doing more about the colonial history of the building to highlight these aspects of this history.
One person who has been very inspirational to me is Marilyn Clarke, who is former Library director at Goldsmiths and now Librarian at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. 2
“I as a library worker seek to transgress against the boundaries imposed by racism, classism and heteronormative structures in both knowledge dissemination and organisation, as well as institutional structures” Marilyn Clarke, 2019
This quote by Marilyn encapsulates my starting point when thinking about decolonising activities. I’m very conscious of my own privilege as a white middle-class, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied person and the fact – that here we are today – three white librarians talking about decolonisation and libraries.
Recently Naomi Smith who is Assistant Library Manager at UCL ran a webinar entitled ‘Librarians for critical digital justice’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8h1AREn5t0 and talked about not skirting around issues with soft words like inclusion and diversity and instead using terms like white supremacy and institutional racism. I agree that we can get lost in bureaucratic tick boxing exercises in Higher Education. My starting point has always been from a critical librarianship position, and I don’t believe in neutrality within the library setting. Critical librarianship means for me that I’m always trying to think of my work from an intersectional and social justice perspective and also that I need to be on a continual process of learning from others.
The University of Lincoln has developed action plans within schools and colleges and has commitment from the senior management team to make decolonising a serious and long-term project. As part of this plan, professional services departments are included and the Library is central to both developing professional services understanding and also engaging with the academics and the curriculum. The initial and ongoing aims of the Library are to
Reveal coloniality of existing collections
Embrace and extend decoloniality
So, what can we do in our libraries to dismantle what is already in place and rethink the knowledge distribution? There are no easy answers and we may now actually be starting to overuse the word ‘decolonise’ and inadvertently diluting the issues that are holding up the colonial structures.
Naomi said in her talk that many libraires are simply doing inclusion work and diversifying collections, and I agree that this can so easily happen. So, we really need to think deeply about what we can do to challenge this.
My talk is not offering any defined solutions to these issues but instead I will be talking about my journey with the ‘Decolonising@Lincoln’ project and developments in the University and within the library that I hope will start more conversations.
I got involved in a lead role as soon as the University created a project around decolonisation and have worked with my colleague, Dr Hope Williard who is also a College of Arts Librarian, as Library liaison on both the University Decolonising steering and working groups.
So the library is actually involved at every level since the onset of the project.
I think this is key.
For the Library to be central to all University discussions so that it then cannot be separated from discussions around the curriculum. As you can see from the chart, in addition to the steering committee and working group, there are also College and School leads and at this level, all the other Subject Librarians are required to work with their academics on decolonising projects.
The first thing we did practically was draw together information from our own institution and from other University libraries and I have been particularly influenced by the work on the ‘Liberate our Library’ campaign at Goldsmiths https://www.gold.ac.uk/library/about/liberate-our-library/.
You will notice as well that we use the terms decolonisation and decoloniality.
There is a very good explainer of these terms and the differences on a University of Arts London (UAL) article ‘Decolonising the library: a theoretical exploration’ by Jess Crilly who also co-edited the book ‘Narrative Expansions with Regina Everitt – another recommended read. https://sparkjournal.arts.ac.uk/index.php/spark/article/view/123/190
As part of my initial research for the toolkit, I contacted Caroline Ball from the University of Derby as I had seen the great work she had already done. Caroline’s work helped me get started with the D@Lincoln tookit which is available on our Library website https://guides.library.lincoln.ac.uk/DecolonialityAtLincoln.
As the toolkit was the first thing we did, I do think we need to look at this again very soon. It has been used as a focus for the University academics and professional services staff where there was nothing else visible.
Now that the University has moved forward and is developing their central Decolonising@Lincoln website, the library content can now be revised and improved.
I also want to get away from the idea that just by diversifying reading lists we can tick off decolonisation as being ‘done’. When we initially set up the toolkit on Libguides software, I had permission to use a great reading list audit tool from Manchester Metropolitan University, but I gradually became aware that this actually potentially hindered the conversation and facilitated the tick boxing approach rather than thinking more deeply about the curriculum development.
I have also now created a separate Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Guide with the emphasis being on diversifying the collection.
So often, there is confusion about the difference between the decolonising work and the EDI work. The new EDI guide will allow us to develop the Decolonising@Lincoln Library toolkit and move away from the focus of diversifying reading lists as the main outcome of library involvement.
The bookplates in the Goldsmiths ‘Liberate our degrees’ initiative inspired me to think about a design for our own libraries and one that could be used on promotional material, campaigns, bookmarks and shelf-ends. I organised a project with the School of Design for the students to submit entries to a competition in 2022 and the judges included School of Design academics, decolonising steering group members and Marilyn Clarke who was then Director of the Library at Goldsmiths.
The competition was shared with all of the School of Design students via the Blackboard VLE noticeboards and via a publicity, using posters and social media. I also did an Adobe presentation https://express.adobe.com/video/tiVyWQG6CrNSI which I could share with students and help them understand the background to the decolonising initiatives. It was a massive effort on my part to try and get the students to feel confident to enter the competition alongside all the other work they had to do on assignments and dissertations, but by the competition deadline, we had six entries. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but I was really pleased with the thought processes that I could see within the designs. I could tell that the students had had conversations with academics had done their own research. The judging panel consisted of myself, School of Design academics, Decolonising@Lincoln steering group members and external judge Marilyn Clarke.
We eventually decided on a winner and had two runner-up prizes. I organised a prize-giving event and invited all the key stakeholders and the three students – this was covered by the Marketing team and featured on the University staff news, social media channels and on the Library blog.
So here we have the winning design by Kes Whyte which we now have as a recognisable University of Lincoln image to use on materials and on the web. I have included the Instagram handle of the illustrator as they are now out in the real world for you to follow.
In addition to the winning image, one of the runner-up images was so good that we decided that we wanted to turn this into a mural in the Library. This has taken some time to negotiate and wasn’t without problems along the way, namely a pesky plug socket which you can now see is covered with a black socket plate (we also had to work with the student to redesign the whole image to suit the space). You can also follow Rhoda, who designed this mural, if you so wish, on Instagram. Both students are amazing artists.
One of the developments I’m most proud of is our new zine collection. I could do a whole presentation on the development of the zines!
I’m very proud that our Libraries and Learning Skills department now has a growing collection of zines and these are displayed on the ground floor the the main Library.
The collection includes zines donated by zinesters (which is the name for zine makers), zines bought by the Library via sites like Etsy and those made and donated by students in the University itself.
Zines have a long history of being used by marginalised and excluded people and communities due to their DIY and self-publishing format. The aim is to provide a medium that diversifies our collections further and challenges white-centred practices which impact our collections, users and services.
I’m always keen to take an intersectional approach and develop a zine collection which I hope will begin to help us think about the voices so often not heard.
In addition to the new collection, I have developed connections with academics, students and external people who have a common shared interest in zines. We have held workshops and I’m working with academics on other initiatives as part of the EDI agenda. You can also see on this photograph that we have a vinyl sign version of the ‘Whose voice are you hearing’ design produced by a great College of Arts Technician colleague who I’ve also worked with on a zines workshop in the Library.
Co-investigators include heritage professionals, teachers and researchers from a wide range of organisations in the region, as well as staff and students at the UoL and Bishop Grosseteste University. The project seeks to uncover hidden and neglected stories from Lincolnshire, of those whose contributions to the county, country and internationally have largely been forgotten.
I have been lucky to work alongside the project on various initiatives, one of which was part of a Wikimedia UK funded connected heritage project. (https://wikimedia.org.uk/connected-heritage/ Connected Heritage projects are a collaboration between Wikimedia and heritage organisations in England and Wales.
In October 2022 we organised a Reimagining Lincolnshire: Black History Month Wikithon where participants were invited to learn Wikipedia basics and make some edits to highlight some of the stories and people with connections to Lincolnshire.
Editathons aim to address the underrepresentation of people from the Global South, women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people and other marginalised groups in Wikipedia entries and among contributors.
We had some great fun editing on the day and in particular a new article was created on Mahomet Thomas Philips https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahomet_Thomas_Phillips who was a sculptor and stone carver. The event coincided with an exhibition in the Library produced by the Reimagining Lincolnshire team.
Embedding decolonising into other events/history months/displays
I’m conscious that an integral part of decolonising is that we think about it in everything we do as much as we can. So, I have tried to integrate it in the other activities across the Library.
An example of this was the display that we had this year for LGBTQ+ History Month and which included a Talis reading list with lots of recommendations including books on global issues of sexuality, gender and decoloniality.
Moving forward we can continue to think about future projects, widening involvement and all-team engagement. Communication and sharing knowledge is so important. The plan is to:
Continue to work on individual projects and events
Next, we will be organising a whole Library team meeting where academics of the D@L steering committee introduce decolonising concepts and invite discussion
We need to move the Academic Subject Librarians project forward – this involves collating information about existing curriculum initiatives which are already taking place in different disciplines and help us share good practice and ways of working together with the academic curriculum.
We will be developing the information on our various different subject guides (on libguides) and working with the D@L champions within the schools to improve the subject discipline specific information.
The Subject Librarians will also be working on identifying sections/books within the print collection which are either
Problematic in content due to coloniality or
Identify those sections/books which highlight marginalised or underpresented voices
The aim of this is to utilise the School of Design/Library competition winning design which will be used on shelf-end and bookmarks with explanations. This will include highlighting the systemic bias of the Dewey Decimal system.
I hope to invite speakers to an away day in the future and have a themed day on decolonising and EDI issues including the difference between them.
And colleagues have started working on embedding these themes into our Information literacy and critical thinking aspects of the skills workshops. Goldsmiths also do something already around this with their ‘resistance researching workshops’ which are designed to help students think more critically from a social justice perspective.
And finally, there is also an extra zine project I am working on which still needs to take shape. I successfully secured funding for a Reimagining Lincolnshire zine with the aim to amplify hidden voices from Lincolnshire’s past, but reflect on these alongside the lives of people living in Lincolnshire today. The zine will also include reflections and responses from students and staff at the University of Lincoln and people outside of the University – these could be creative responses or reflections on the past stories – or how the colonial past has impacted their own lives today or their experiences of Lincolnshire. This is ongoing but I will get it done! The problem is I have too many ideas and not enough time!
To conclude, I referred to Naomi’s talk earlier and in particular she spoke about the fact that Higher Education is ignoring the impact around the technology we use with – assumptions made from western perspectives and our over reliance on the internet which means – we are largely ignoring the knowledge from marginalised communities. One example of this is the oral word.
When we are thinking about decolonising we need to take into account different forms of knowledge from different people and not just prioritise Western forms of knowledge. I would recommend listening to Naomi’s talk on this issue in relation to our reliance on technology and commercialisation of Higher Education.
I think the technology and the commercial aspects of the University are so embedded in everything we do, that this prohibits us from really moving forward with decolonising work. My starting point at Lincoln has been around trying to get involved in conversations and bringing that knowledge and those questions back to the Library and then trying to make some creative and practical changes to help with the conversations. I cannot claim that it would even be possible to decolonise the University of Lincoln Library in my lifetime or at all. But what I can do, is raise awareness, encourage discussion, involve students and staff in thinking about the issues and be creative about working with the collections we have.
Denver Hendricks is an Senior Lecturer in Interior Architecture and Design. He is a mixed-race Professional Architect, Tertiary Design Educator and Researcher who was part of the drive towards the decolonial and digital pedagogical transformation in South Africa. Previously he was a full-time lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, where he tought design, technology and theory. Through his innovative pedagogical approach to design education, he established the Fabrication Laboratory at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture and is the designated Development Coordinator. His focus in education is on developing collaborative 21-century curricula and research which embraces both decolonisation and digital design methods of tomorrow. Denver was Head of the Department of Architecture from 2017 to 2021 and now pursuing a PhD in alternative and innovative pedagogies. He also has almost 20 years of practice experience in public, residential and commercial architecture and urban design.
His studies include a Masters in Urban Studies, A postgraduate degree in Architecture and undergraduate diplomas in architectural technology. He won both the Housing Development Agency and PG Bison Awards during his final year of studies. He has completed short courses in material studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is an external examiner for architecture schools in South Africa, sits on examination panels and was invited to talk at institutions in New York, Italy and the United Kingdom. He also has a strong international network of academic peers.
Dr Simon Obendorf from the University of Lincoln reflects on the Library building and it’s colonial past.
“The Great Central Warehouse Library building, in its site, purpose and physical structure, provides us with many opportunities to reflect on Britain’s colonial pasts. Built on a site first identified by the Romans as an ideal harbour for their “Colony on the Lindum” (Lindum Colonia – Colony by the Dark Pool), the site was used as a hub for trade across Roman Britain and out to other parts of the Roman Empire. As the United Kingdom gained – and gained from – its own Empire, the site on the Brayford was expanded and strengthened to become a key transshipment point between water-based and railway transport. In 1907, the Great Central Goods and Grain Warehouse (our present-day Library) was opened. In its physical structure, the building embodied the global reach of Britain’s colonial power at its height. The huge 16.5m long pine beams that hold up the roof, and on which the original winching machinery was installed, were shipped to Lincoln all the way from Canada. The warehouse itself served as a focal point for an increasingly globalised trade: a building in which the goods of empire were organised, sorted and sent on to destinations across Britain and around a globe that had been reshaped by colonialism. Today, the Warehouse – and its new Library occupant – plays a similar role in collating, organising and sharing forms of knowledge. The history of this building should inspire us to ask: what sorts of knowledge “goods” are organised and catalogued here? Who is able to access and benefit from this warehouse of knowledge? Our hope is that, just as the physical form of the Warehouse has been disrupted and given new purpose by its architectural transformation into the University Library, we can transform and decolonise our collecting, cataloguing, knowledge sharing and librarianship to better reflect a post-imperial, plural United Kingdom – and to better serve the global community of scholarship, research, pedagogy and practice of which we are a part”.
Dr Simon Obendorf
School of Social and Political Sciences
College of Social Science
Decolonising is a term that you may have heard a lot about recently as it has gained traction in Higher Education in recent years. At Lincoln, several key groups have been set up to discuss what it means to us as an institution and how we are going to move forward to address the issues.
Decolonisation of HE originated as a movement 20 years ago to ensure that the knowledge and practices of indigenous people were represented in the HE curricula of post-colonial countries.
“More recently the ‘decolonising the curriculum’ agenda was reignited in South Africa in 2015 with the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, where students demanded the removal of the statue to the colonialist, Cecil Rhodes, and for indigenous knowledge to be placed on an equal footing in the curriculum with that from the global north. This agenda has gained momentum in the UK, led by the National Union of Students ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ campaign which suggests that while the Arts and Humanities disciplines have the most work to do regarding decolonisation, all subjects have opportunities to reconsider teaching matter”. Dr Neil Williams, Kingston University
So, the opposite of a decolonised curriculum is a colonial curriculum. A colonial curriculum is:
Unrepresentative because it selects particular teachings and excludes others
Inaccessible because it consequently prevents recipients of the teaching from identifying with the narrative (but appealing to the historically favoured demographic)
Privileged because it continues to ensure that this select group of people is the dominant narrative
As a University, we have committed to recognise and uphold the five principles of our One Community Values: equality, understanding, listening, kindness, acceptance. The present project of decolonising our curriculum and pedagogy flows from and embeds this commitment. This means that we should critically question the ways our scholarship, teaching and practice have been shaped and look at ways that the Library is able to contribute.Historically, the voices of Black, Indigenous and other non-White people have been silenced, misrepresented or suppressed. This is the key focus where we can engage with decolonisation across the University. We must also remember to situate our thoughts and actions around this with the intersecting aspects of gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, dis/ability and/or religion.
Everyone in the University can play a part in thinking about these issues – thinking about the sources of knowledge that have been marginalised and drawing on a broader range of voices, ideas, approaches and intellectual perspectives.
The Library is an integral part of this way of thinking. It also goes way beyond adding a few extra texts to a reading list. It is also a different but linked agenda to the work around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.
To decolonise, not just to diversify, recognises that knowledge is marked by power relations in which straight, white, hetero upper class men, still have disproportinate prominence.
From the Library, Hope Williard and Oonagh Monaghan are on the Decolonising steering and working groups. Hope and Claire Arrand are also on the Reimagining Lincolnshire group. Hope and Oonagh have attended various related conferences and events over the last couple of years and recently contributed to the University of Lincoln IMPact Journal which is a peer-reviewed, open access journal. The article ‘Critical reflections and collaborative approaches to the University of Lincoln’s decolonising projects: A library perspective‘ was included as part of a special issue on ‘Race matters: towards and Anti-praxis in higher education’ and was a reflection of the these events and how they have influenced planning and practice for the future in the Library at UoL.
Decoloniality at Lincoln Toolkit
The Library toolkit is designed for everyone in the University community to understand more about decolonisation work. https://guides.library.lincoln.ac.uk/DecolonialityAtLincoln This currently sits under the ‘Learn’ menu of the Library Website but there are plans to highlight this more during the University year.
There is no simple ‘to do’ list or quick fix to decolonise the Library but we take our starting point from thinking critically about our current practices and policies. Critical librarianship aims to put issues of social justice at the centre of everything we do.
What are we doing as part of our equality and diversity practices?
Do we represent the lived experiences of the people who work and study in the University and Library?
Do we collaborate with our users and enable exploration of the collections in new ways? What does our collection consist of?
How do we decide what is in the collection?How can we amplify marginalised voices? How can we challenge the status quo?
If we take action in our policies and interpret and disseminate what is in our collections, more students and staff will be able to understand what decolonisation is and how the Library and it’s engagement with staff and students is instrumental in the wider processes underway in schools and colleges.
Watch this space for the next steps in the Library…..
This post is the result of a talk I did for the School of Architecture and the Built Environment as an effort to process my own growing awareness of decolonising education. I wanted to share this process as a reflection and hope that somewhere something may resonate with readers.
For last year’s Women’s History Month I wrote a blog called ‘Murderous Millinery’, about the beginnings of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and the campaigns against using feathers in fashion. This postscript refers to the long overdue installation in Manchester, at Didsbury’s Fletcher Moss Park, of a statue to one of the founders, Emily Williamson, which will take place on 17th April 2023.
This fact emerged from a Christmas present, perfectly chosen and brimming with information on exceptional women, from poet Enheduanna (2885-2250 BCE) to current day Greta Thunberg.
February in the UK is LGBT+ History Month: a time for reflection, celebration, and activism by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual trans, and non-binary folk. Certainly, there is much to remember, and even more of which we should be rightfully proud. But there is also a growing need to be aware of the challenges facing our communities. The increased prevalence in public discourse of certain forms of intolerance – especially against trans and gender non-conforming people – is something we must be steadfast in resisting. We should not lose sight of the fact that LGBT+ History Month is held in February precisely to commemorate the successful campaign of activism that led to the repeal of the discriminatory Section 28 of the UK’s Local Government Act. Together we are stronger; together we can change our society for the better.
Recent controversies should also inspire us to remember the importance of solidarity. We must recognise that many people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or gender expressions are marginalised not only by mainstream society but too often within supposedly inclusive LGBT+ spaces as well. In the West, political activism has been reasonably successful in articulating rights claims and carving out spaces for social participation for particular groups of lesbians, gay men, bisexual folk and trans people (the LGBT of the acronym). But we have paid far less attention to intersectional experiences of oppression and the lives and needs of those represented by the supposed catch-all of the “+” in “LGBT+”. This LGBT+ History Month, I’d like us to spend a bit more time thinking about these issues – inside and beyond the plus. Here I am inspired by thinkers from queer of colour scholarship and those seeking to bring decolonial perspectives to bear on issues of gender and sexuality.
So, what might unpacking some of these issues lead us to consider? Firstly, it would involve acknowledging that anyone’s experience of sexuality or gender is shaped by a range of other factors: age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, migrant status, bodily capacity, class, education, location, profession, to name just a handful. For too long, much of our activism, commemoration, politics and practice in the West has centred the experience of white, Western, cis-gendered, non-disabled people. If we are truly to embrace and value diversity in our communities, we have to start by asking ourselves how diverse and inclusive they already are. There are heartening steps being taken here, from programmes combating sexual racism to the development of connections and resources regarding sexuality and gender in, by and for particular faith-based, ethnic or social groups. But more urgently needs to be done in order to make LGBT+ spaces and politics ones in which non-white, non-cis, non-Western and/or non-normative people and bodies see themselves recognised, valued and included. The Black lesbian scholar Audre Lorde famously wrote: “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.”
Secondly, this should lead to us think about the stories we tell and the experiences we centre. Whether it be the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, the election to the Board of Supervisors and subsequent assassination of Harvey Milk in San Francisco in 1977-78, the emergence of the Gay Liberation Front in the Britain of the 1970s or the rise, oppression and rebirth of queer society in Berlin during the 20th century, it can sometimes seem as if the LGBT history we celebrate and remember took place within a handful of postcodes in majority-White, Western cities, with White, cis-gendered gay men as its key actors. If we are truly to remember LGBT+ history, we must ensure that the contribution of women, drag practitioners, trans and non-binary folk and people of colour is never overlooked. To take just one example, when we consider the history of the Stonewall riots we do not celebrate and honour enough the central roles played by people like Marsha P Johnson (a Black gender-non conforming drag queen), Zazu Nova (a Black trans sex worker), Stormé DeLarverie (a butch lesbian drag king) and Sylvia Rivera (a Latinx trans person). The heroes who fought many of the early battles for LGBT+ freedom and inclusion are largely from the communities that are still, currently, under the most attack and experiencing the most oppression. We would better honour their memories by ensuring the inclusion they fought for is extended to everyone today.
Finally, I would like us to be more sensitive to terminology. Those who do not fit into the categories of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT), deserve to be spoken of more – and with more respect and recognition. These folk deserve much more than just a “plus”; they are not just an addendum after the main event. Inclusion matters. Here in the UK, we need much greater awareness and sensitivity towards those who live and identify as queer, asexual, aromantic, genderqueer, intersex, non-binary, pansexual, polyamorous, genderfluid or polysexual (and the list could continue!). There’s a wealth of rich, beautiful, fascinating history and experience that we should be celebrating and recognising.
This need for better awareness – and more sensitive language – becomes even more urgent when we widen our view. In their modern, globally circulating form, gay, lesbian, bisexual and even trans identities have emerged from very Western socio-historical experiences. Recently, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) recognised publicly that many of the terms used to describe our communities “are of Western origin, and that, in particular, the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer represent concepts of personal identity that are not universal.” They pointed to the fact that around the world people conceive of their gender and sexualities in different ways, use different terms to describe them and prioritise different things in their gender/sexuality activism. Whether it be gender liminal categories such as the kathoey of Thailand, the hijra of India, the fa’afafine of Samoa, or the two-spirit of indigenous North American cultures, or the new types of identity coalescing around same-gender attraction such as同志 (tongzhi) in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, the varieties of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation – and the terms used to describe them – are as diverse and polyglot as our planet itself. Accordingly, many NGOs and international organisations are now shifting away from using language like LGBT+ to more accurate and inclusive acronyms like SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression and Sexual Characteristics). Groups like the IOM and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) SOGIE Caucus are at the vanguard of making us think more critically and inclusively about the terms we use and how we use them. Roberto Kulpa and Joseli Maria Silva capture some of this in their piece “Decolonizing Queer Epistemologies”: “we need not only to look for ‘non-Western’ examples of the world-wide diversity. Rather, and perhaps foremost, we must reconceptualise our own practices of ‘doing knowledge’”.
This LGBT+ History Month, I encourage you to take some time to consider how those of us in the LGBT community have “done knowledge”. Whose stories have we told? What language and terms have we used? Whose voices, histories, bodies and struggles have been seen to count? Whose identities, politics and futures have been made central. And what – and who – has been overlooked or left out? We have so much to celebrate. But we also have much still to do, so many battles still to fight. Recognising and celebrating the diversity and richness of our communities is a necessary first step towards standing in solidarity with those whose voices have for too long, especially in Western LGBT activism, been marginalised, silenced, or ignored. Celebrating our successes is important. But so too is recognising that new forms of oppression, discrimination and prejudice are emerging within the UK – and elsewhere – today. Similarly, we must acknowledge that, in 2023, the legacy of British colonialism continues to shape understandings, laws and values to do with sexuality and gender in damaging ways around the world. Recognising the depth and diversity of our histories and the plurality of our communities is key to building better futures. And this will require many of us to broaden our view, deepen our understanding and be more ambitious in our goals. As José Esteban Muñoz, challenged us in his book Cruising Utopia: “We must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds”.
In the past, I have been invited to speak on behalf of the charity Mermaids [link: www.mermaidsuk.org.uk] at Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR) events at the University of Lincoln. So, it was especially meaningful to be asked to speak in my own right at the most recent, student organised TDoR event and vigil, on Sunday 20th November 2022. On Monday 20th February I have been invited to speak by the University of Lincoln’s student Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Humanities and Heritage School. Please join me!
The social impact of the COVID pandemic had emphasised the importance of connection, community and solidarity to many of us in the trans including non-binary community, where the isolating effects of prejudice and discrimination are already significant challenges. This has been compounded over recent years in the UK by a growing trend of hostile rhetoric in politics and the media, creating an environment where reported hate crimes and incidents break shameful new records year on year.
This past December, I was given the opportunity to create my own zine (available here on the Library website: Queer Love: An Invisible History) with the workshop that the lovely University of Lincoln staff hosted in the Library. Knowing little about zines, this event allowed me to unravel a rich queer history of self-expression. Much more than a booklet, the zine was a movement, an outlet, and a message to society. One in which allowed LGBTQ+ people to become fiercely visible in the face of oppression. Let me guide you through this rich cultural history as I take you back in time.