You make me feel mightly real
The thriving LGBTQ+ community at UCL provides support and a forum for discussion. Four alumni talk about their experiences.
Words Sarah Woodward Illustrations Andrew MacGregor
William Jensen-Diaz (BEng 2011; Master’s in Project Enterprise and Management 2012) (MSc International Public Policy 2016)
Coming from Mexico, where I found it easy to be open about being gay but was in a tight-knit network, I was impressed by the diversity of the people I met at UCL. The first thing I did when I arrived was to join the active LGBTQ+ Society.
Listening to experiences from around the world opened my eyes to the issues others face. I met students from the Middle East, where you still cannot be open in public about your sexuality, and I learned about the mental health issues many LGBTQ+ people encounter.
Of course, it wasn’t all about being gay – at my first LGBTQ+ Society event, I met a PhD student who went on to help me with my work on my Master’s degree. I found that the LGBTQ+ Society was always on the lookout for potential allies, however unlikely, so I learned how to engage and use social media to reach out and create a community.
Now I am setting up a LGBT network at my workplace and am Vice-President of UCL’s alumni association in Mexico City. In June this year, we marched at our local Gay Pride alongside the staff from the British Embassy and Council, including the Deputy Head of Mission. It’s something of a tradition in Mexico City and the Ambassador joined us last year. That’s not something I could have foreseen when I was being teased as a schoolboy. And I wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t gone, on a Chevening Scholarship, to study in London.
Michele Raithby (BSc Anthropology 1978)
In my first year at UCL I didn’t really know what I was in terms of my sexuality, except that I didn’t feel terribly female. Nowadays I would probably identify as a ‘+’, questioning or perhaps as bisexual, but gender terminology such as ‘non-binary’ didn’t exist back then.
Growing up, I had an aunt who wore men’s clothes, had short-cropped hair, only ever had female friends and worked as a butcher – but there was no name for her ‘type’. It was only when I came to London that I met people who identified as gay.
One of the first friends I made on my course was Dave, who wore a badge saying ‘How dare you presume I’m heterosexual’. We were asked to entertain some students from the Soviet Union and bearded Dave decided to wear my only dress, a maxi cheesecloth number with blue flowers, with his Doc Martens. The Soviet students’ minder told us that ‘people like us’ were usually ‘kept in hospital back home’.
I started going to the Gay Soc discos and remember once we were told not to go home from Angel tube as the National Front was waiting for us. I was also chased and abused by some members of the public coming out of the Gay’s the Word bookshop. At the time I had a boyfriend and I went on to have a 20-year heterosexual relationship, which ended when I left for a same-sex relationship.
My own path to self-identification has been long and slow, but my eyes were first opened to all the possibilities during my time as an undergraduate.
At UCL, I went to my first gay club and was amazed to see two guys making out – you don’t get that very often in Newfoundland where I grew up
Conor McKeever (MSci Chemistry 2012)
Coming to UCL was the first time I had met openly gay people, people who were comfortable in their sexuality.
I grew up in the Cotswolds, where it was not exactly homophobic, but I would not have felt comfortable announcing I was gay. So, I arrived at university shy and in the closet, my sexuality always on my mind. But after I came out, in my third year, I discovered it was no big deal. Everyone was very accepting.
I went on to do a one-year Master’s project in a very diverse and welcoming lab where I worked with successful scientists, many of whom happened to be gay. They weren’t constantly talking about it, but they showed me it is important to be able to be yourself in the lab. It was wonderful to see well-adjusted people who were making their mark on the world without having to hide their identity.
Now I want to help others be open about their sexuality, through things such as the annual LGBTSTEM Day. From my own experience, it can be more difficult for scientists to come out, because you bring less of your personal life to work than in the arts. No-one should feel pushed, but everyone should be able to be themselves and feel comfortable with it. Coming out defined my own UCL experience – in a very good way.
Michael Farrell (MSc Naval Architecture 2017)
I see myself as a very square person, timid and introverted. I was a late bloomer, coming out in my early 20s. My parents were very accepting, but I didn’t feel I’d pushed the boundaries.
When I arrived at UCL, I was determined to go out and try new things: I went to my first gay club and was amazed to see two guys making out – you don’t get that very often in Newfoundland, where I grew up.
I went to a gay networking event that I’d have been horrified to go to before; I went to my first Gay Pride; I became Student Academic representative for my class; I played saxophone in a band for the first time in more than five years; and I started dating and had my first proper gay relationship.
I was attracted to UCL by a great course that provided me with the skills I need to progress my career, but I also wanted an opportunity to find out who I was. Here I found a place where you stand on the merits of what you do, not who you are.
I benefited from the teaching of one faculty member who was the most comprehensive and capable expert on naval architecture I encountered. They also happened to be queer, but that alone didn’t define them.
That’s the way I feel too, and at UCL I got the best of both worlds. I acquired the ability to think and perform in my professional life, and I made an important transition in my personal life.
Having spent a year going beyond my comfort zone, though, it is difficult to return to a more settled existence back in Canada, liberal though the country is. I love that in London you can cartwheel down the street and no-one notices!
UCL is investigating the possibility of setting up an LGBTQ+ group for alumni, and is interested in hearing from anyone who would like to be involved. If you would like more information or would like to be part of such a group, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org