This LGBTQ+ History month commemorates nearly 50 years since the first Pride event in the UK. Although there’s still a way to go to improve the experience and outcomes for the LGBTQ+ community within higher education (HE), not to mention within society in general, it’s also important to acknowledge how far we’ve come across five decades.

On the 1st of July 1972 a carnival parade of protest took place between Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square in London. This marked the first Gay Pride in a city in the UK. As Renn (2010) remarks in their review of LGBT and queer research in HE, “higher education LGBT issues cannot be fully understood devoid of its social context”. The 1970’s demonstrated significant off-campus political movement in this space, and within HE providers, lesbian and gay students and groups were becoming more visible; there was an emerging emphasis on understanding student identities in regards to gender and sexuality (Graves, 2018, The history of LGBTQ+ issues in HE).

The 1980’s HIV/AIDS epidemic and associated stigma impacted heavily on society, including education. Section 28 of The Local Government Act (1988) prohibited “promotion in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. If legislation seemed to advocate against teaching or even accepting homosexuality within schools, higher education was no different. In her paper on “Queer Theory”, Professor Vicky Gunn discusses the absence of LGBTQ figures in her 1985 university History curriculum and consequently feeling “outside of history”.

Whilst Section 28 was astonishingly only repealed in the UK in 2003, the resulting protests saw the rise of now famous groups like Stonewall, and a growing presence of LGBTQ+ student organisations in the 1990s (Renn, 2010). Empirical studies, such as D’Augelli (1992) highlighted the experience of LGBT students within HE, encouraging resulting policies and programmes to support these student groups. Qualitative studies (e.g., McNaron, 1997) raised the profiles of LGB academics, though Renn (2010) remarked that being “out” was still a “risky political and personal act”.

The 2000s brought with it a greater understanding of student experiences pre- and post-entry to HE through the use of large scale surveys and online software (for example, the Stonewall survey and UCAS application data) and research in this area has developed dramatically. Nonetheless, in her ‘Freshers to Finals’ publication on LGBTQ+ student experiences, Formby (2015) reported that ”curriculum invisibility”, as with Professor Gunn in 1985, is still a very real issue. LGBTQ+ students feel “forgotten” within the content of their learning in a variety of different subjects.

HE providers now look to ensure LGBTQ+ inclusivity in their curriculum; the University of Birmingham published a thorough best practice guide in 2016 which most notably focuses on LGBTQ+ inclusivity across a range of subjects, including in the STEM curriculum. The University of Cardiff have also published a particular case study focusing on inclusive healthcare curricula, and Goldsmiths University of London now offer an MA in Queer History.

Despite this progress, Glazzard et al (2020) report that although HE providers celebrate annual events such as Pride, host LGBTQ+ clubs and societies, and include a commitment to LGBTQ+ equality in their policies, there is still evidence in the literature that the HE curriculum does not seriously address issues around LGBTQ+ equality.

So, whilst it’s evident that there have been marked advancements in support for LGBTQ+ students over the past 50 years, it’s also clear that more needs to be done. Those, such as TASO, with a remit to improve access and success for students can benefit from understanding LGBTQ+ history and how the community’s unique experiences continue to shape and effect how they experience HE. TASO is a proud member of the What Works LGBTQ+ network, committed to building a focus on LGBTQ+ issues into our wider work. The important question now is, what do we want to achieve in the next 50 years?