An article in the BBC has highlighted the University of Birmingham (UoB)’s past-role in organising and facilitating gay conversion therapy. The university’s stubborn refusal to apologise and take accountability for their involvement in the practice has caused justified outrage amongst the student population who have accused the university of simply not caring about LGBTQ rights.
The article brought into public light that a gay man has been demanding an apology from UoB for the past three years after he was referred to their psychology department by a medical doctor in the 1970s to “cure” his homosexuality. The procedure, which has no scientific foundation, involves administering electric shock treatments amongst other forms of physical and mental torture over a period of several months. The man claims that university staff, students and equipment were actively involved in administering the “therapy”, confirmation of which he gained after reaching out to a former postgraduate student involved. However, despite all this the university has simply ignored his demands. Indeed, even when the BBC contacted UoB for a comment, they were met by a wall of silence.
Shortly after the article was published, it was picked up and shared on Birmingham student social media groups. This attention forced the university to issue a statement intending to settle the matter. However, instead of containing an apology or shred of accountability, the statement said that UoB could not “find any evidence that this was a University sanctioned research project”, described gay conversion therapy as a “potentially harmful activity” (our emphasis) and threw in a reminder of their membership of Stonewall as a get out of jail free card that absolved them of taking responsibility.
Naturally, rather than calming things down this provoked a tremendous backlash as social media forums came alive once again with criticisms of the institution’s response. An online petition was circulated to demand UoB “acknowledge and apologise for its role in conversion therapy”. This was followed by an open letter started by the Women and Non-Binary Student’s Association UoB, which demanded not only an apology but an investigation into the extent of the conversion therapy practice carried out by the university, financial compensation for the man and any other victims involved and redistribution of university funds to support the LGBTQ community in Birmingham as reparations.
Many students pointed out that this was not a one-off event in UoB’s LGBTQ track record. In more recent memory, the university awarded an honorary PhD to the notoriously homophobic former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe. Widdecombe herself believes that homosexuality can be “cured” and during her parliamentary tenure consistently voted against equal rights measures for LGBTQ people. And in 2021, the university is set to open a campus in the United Arab Emirates, a country which criminalises homosexuality on punishment of death. Last year, UoB released a tone-deaf advice document for visiting the Dubai campus, which stated that LGBTQ staff should hide their sexuality when doing so.
Despite being an abhorrent affront to LGBTQ people, gay conversion therapy is still not banned in the UK. By sweeping their past role under the rug rather than addressing and campaigning against it, the university – a grand public institution which carries much weight – is helping hide the oppression that LGBTQ people face in this country. This is a very dangerous game to play in a world which has seen a polarisation of political views including to the far-right.
Universities like to claim they are promoting a better understanding of society by being at the forefront of human progress in technology and ideas. But the reality is that under capitalism, progress for LGBTQ rights can make way for defending reactionary pseudoscientic views and profit-making in our educational institutions. University management prioritises turning a profit to compete in our ever-more marketised education system rather than challenging outdated establishment ideas. That is why you will see them forging lucrative business deals with UAE politicians over golden shovels, but you won’t see them show accountability for attacks on the LGBTQ community carried out at their very institutions.
These revolving-door business managers cannot be persuaded to listen to student and staff interests. The only way we can ensure LGBTQ rights are defended and progressed at our institutions is for students and staff to make the decisions on campus. Only this way can we ensure that the university supports its community, including the LGBTQ members. This needs to be combined with the overthrow of capitalism, the system that promotes reactionary ideas to divide workers and student movements and forces universities to compete for profit in a market system.