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LGBT History Month 2020: an interview with Professor Bronwyn Parry

Talah Anderson

Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Project Intern

03 February 2020

For LBGT History Month 2020, we spoke with Professor Bronwyn Parry, Head of the School of Global Affairs and the academic Equality, Diversity & Inclusion lead for the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy, about the importance of reflecting on the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people in universities and the intersection of LGBTQ+ issues and her research.

Professor Bronwyn Parry

LGBT History Month provides an opportunity for us all to reflect on how the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people have changed. Reflecting on your own experience, why do you think it is important for universities to continue celebrating LGBT History Month?

I hugely welcome the incredible fluidity we see now in concepts of gender and sexuality, which were just not there when I was younger. When I was about 15 in Australia, I remember going to a gay women’s bar in my usual attire (probably something like a roll neck jumper and a pair of trousers). I walked in and went up to the bar and a woman turned to me, looked me up and down and said “What are you, love? What are you? Are you a butch or a femme? Looking at you, you look like you can’t make up your mind”. She was really affronted. She said: “for god’s sake, get out of here and come back when you know what you’re doing and who you are!” Ok then!

Now we have a much broader perspective on what we think different presentations of self can be. It is a process of evolution that we are all engaged in.– Professor Bronwyn Parry

Intellectually and politically, it is both important and rewarding to continually reflect on these evolutions and to think about how our conceptions change, what we come to understand ourselves to be and why, and how we understand ourselves in relation to other people, our friends and associates in society.

Your primary research areas are in policy, society and biotechnology. You have published on subjects including the rise and operation of the life sciences industry, the commodification of life forms, posthumanism, applied bioethics and legal approaches to the regulation of science. All these subjects have the potential to inform current conversations about marginalised groups. What light does your research in these fields shed on LGBTQ+ issues?

I am absolutely fascinated by how our biological selves and our relationship to something that we perceive of as a fixed “nature” are rewritten or reauthored by our engagements with technology. Traditional assumptions about where we think our “natural” bodies end and some “other” begins are challenged by work I’ve done on subjects such as organ donation and medical devices. Other research I’ve done on assisted reproduction also challenges notions about “natural” fertility as many people can’t “naturally” reproduce and increasingly rely on technologies. This forces us to reflect on what all that means for conventional understandings of things like the family and our conception of what constitutes biological relatedness and kinship.

What I am interested in is how our ontological relationship to a thing – how we understand or characterise a thing - leads us to categorise and regulate it in certain ways. If you think about contemporary debates about trans inclusion, such as the question of how we understand who trans people are, we are inevitably led down a pathway of thinking about how we, as a society, classify trans people and what this means for their ‘regulation’ or inclusion. These things have profound societal effects in the end. We are, as a species, continually evolving both socially and biologically.  Increasingly, technologies are becoming part of us in new indivisible ways - think about implants, for example - that shape how we understand ourselves, how we identify and how that affects our place in the world. Trans, I think is a way of embracing another kind of interstitial identity. Thinking through how we might all occupy liminal spaces between one binary and another is really important and revealing, as it helps us all to work on points of connection rather than difference. 

The current prevalence of transphobia in the UK and globally continues to divide the LGBTQ+ community. Last June, 34 academics signed a letter opposing greater transgender inclusion in UK universities. Over 6,000 university staff members from around the world signed a letter supporting trans inclusion in response. How might awareness of LGBTQ+ history help shape social change and future UK HEI policies, especially those concerning the wellbeing of trans people?

There are important parallels between the changes that have occurred in how people perceive sexuality and gender. We already discussed the binary between “butch” and “femme”, but another well patrolled binary was that between “gay” and “straight”. Scepticism about bisexual people was so normalised when I was in my 20s, they were another crowd who were told to “get in one camp or another”! It took many years to remove that stigma. We are now in a much healthier place re sexuality, and gender, which has historically been equally binarized, is coming to be similarly challenged. My children’s generation take a completely different perspective about trans inclusion than my own generation do, but we can learn!

One should probably not presume too much, too soon, about gender. We have a predisposition to attaching fixed gender roles to human beings very early on and for no particularly good reason, unless we devolve to an essentialist position. If we take that presumption away, it leaves a much more open conceptual field that invites people to come to their own account of how they identify. What do we lose by allowing people to remain in a gender-neutral space for longer? It doesn’t seem to be too threatening when you unpack it like that. Clinging onto a need for everyone to be classified early and neatly is probably more about the perceiver’s anxiety with the idea of not having everything formally placed, as Foucault would say, in an accepted ‘Order of Things’ than anything else!  

The theme for LGBT History Month 2020 is “Poetry, Prose and Plays”, which prompts us to consider creative approaches to LGBTQ+ - and, more broadly, human – experiences. In 2011 you collaborated with the artist Ania Dabrowska on Mind over Matter, a Welcome Trust supported photography exhibition exploring attitudes to memory loss and brain donation for dementia research. What value does a creative approach bring to social science scholarship?

The value is huge! That project was one of the highlights of my academic career and I learnt a tremendous amount working with Ania. It is rather reductive that almost all social science research is percolated down through texts. Creative and interactive engagements take work to a much broader audience and are not reductive in quite the same way. They leave more space for an audience to imbue the work with their own interpretation of what matters in what you are showing to them. Academics can be very instructive, but creative approaches teach us to allow audiences to participate; to “co-author” as much as we do.

One of our project interviewees was a potential brain donor whose wife had died of dementia. They used to knit together every evening, so he asked to be photographed in one of his favourite jumpers that he had knitted that has his wife’s favourite dog on the front of it. The picture doesn’t dictate to you what you should take away from it. It is an image that you could look at for a long time though – quite haunting.

mind over matter exhibition photograph

What are some of your favourite poems, prose works and plays?

I am really a huge fan of the performing arts. I really liked the stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s book, The Secret River, which I saw at the National Theatre, for its representation of the way in which white folks basically invaded and colonized Australia and the consequences for Indigenous Australian people and the Australian white psyche. It forced a visceral - and if you happen to be a white Australian - shame inducing engagement with the text that was so much more impactful than just reading it. There was no way you could distance yourself from the account as you sometimes can with written work. I recommend both the book and the play to everyone!

In this story

Bronwyn Parry

Bronwyn Parry

Head of the School of Global Affairs


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