On UCL’s LGBTQ+ Action Plan: A conversation with Equity & Inclusion Officer Ahmad Ismail

Image of Pride Flag on UCL’s Portico building
Image of Pride Flag on UCL’s Portico building
VPEE Student Journalist, Neeharika Nene, sits down with Students’ Union Equity and Inclusion Officer, Ahmad Ismali, to learn more about UCL’s LGBTQ+ Action Plan and the progress to date.

In my first Gender and Digital Media class last semester as a postgraduate student, the lecturers requested us to each grab a name card and write down our name and preferred pronouns on it. Through school, three years of my undergraduate degree and multiple workplaces, that was the first time I had been actively asked about my pronouns, and it felt validating.

Institutions can only enact such initiatives when they have taken some effort to understand the smaller and bigger aspects of inclusion and why they make a difference in creating a safe space for everyone. I learned about one initiative (albeit on a more overarching level) late last year when I read about UCL’s LGBTQ+ Action Plan.

The plan is a comprehensive document outlining various areas of the LGBTQ+ student and staff experience that require shedding light on, including communications, awareness, visibility, leadership, and empowerment. It is a culmination of efforts to understand the experiences of LGBTQ+ staff and students, policies and legislature within higher education, internal data and surveys, among other aspects.

Despite the plan being quite detailed, I was curious about how it began and what went into putting it together. What were the big, unanswered questions, and how were they to be tackled in a university as large and diverse as ours? So, I was thrilled when Ahmad Ismail, UCL’s Equity & Inclusion Officer agreed to speak to me about the plan and the process.

First and foremost, he shares that the development of the action plan can be traced back to two and a half years ago, when UCL cut ties with Stonewall - an LGBTQ+ charity that assesses workplace diversity, equality, policies, and schemes. The plan itself came out of the LEIG - The LGBTQ+ Equality Implementation Group.

They inform me, "The LEIG had membership from across the university - students, representation from EDI (Equality, Diversity, & Inclusion) within UCL, and from departments and faculties, all’on a voluntary basis. It was established to try to pull together what is missing after UCL’s exit from Stonewall, and they put forth points that ended up being the action plan."

While that was the broad, overarching aim of the plan, Ahmad shares that it can also deal with quite specific areas. They were also starting to think about things like the Disagreeing Well events, for instance, because that can be quite contentious and we’re working to create an environment at UCL that is free from hate speech or discrimination. So we are now translating that into community guidelines that we can use for external speaker events."

For instance, Ahmad recounts their trip to Northern Ireland with fourteen students as part of the Students’ Union’s Impartial Chairs program.

" "We talked to communities in Belfast and Derry about the Troubles, learning how different divided communities live with and talk to each other. With events like these, we do ensure that academic freedom is encouraged, but everyone feels safe at the same time. We want constructive dialogue, not arguing for the sake of it."

When any policy or plan has such a large scope and aims to encompass a variety of issues, it involves insights from UCL’s LGBTQ+ students and staff about some of the more difficult experiences and how they can be tackled. Of course, the biggest concern that came to Ahmad’s attention was the disappointment over UCL cutting ties with Stonewall. "It felt like the university was throwing us LGBTQ+ students and staff under the bus."

But the other significant challenge that is unique to an institute as huge as UCL, is that a lot of important work takes place in silos and does not reach the wider student and staff body. Ahmad shares, "Part of the action plan’s campaign work is raising awareness of all these great things that are happening because someone in the Bartlett School, for example, may not hear about what’s happening in the history department, even though it might interest them."

Ahmad further divulges that one of his main focuses is making it easier for people to change their pronouns in UCL systems, which is a challenge that many have reported. They share, "You change it on one system, and then there’s six other systems. So it’s hard, partly again due to how big UCL is. I believe they’re doing an audit of all the systems for this. Additionally, we have also been conducting a survey on transgender students’ experiences moving into accommodation at the beginning of the year, based on which we’re trying to make accommodation more inclusive."

Moving forward, Ahmad also shares that they want to view things intersectionally. "People aren’t just LGBTQ. Someone who’s LGBTQ and black may still not feel like they belong in the Black & Minority Ethnic Students’ Network or the People of Colour Network or the LGBTQ+ Network."

To me as a student, the action plan already seems to encompass so much and visualise the creation of a truly inclusive space at UCL. But as is evident from the history and context that Ahmad retraced during our conversation, there is always room to expand the scope even further and understand concerns as they keep changing. No identity is static, and the needs of every community on campus will evolve with the times. Which is why Ahmad says that re-evaluation of policies is at the heart of such initiatives.

"UCL has been around since 1826 - the Victorians weren’t very LGBTQ-friendly," Ahmad says. "There’s still a lot of things that carry on, in terms of structural issues. That’s the starting point. But it’s really important to look at everything because you can’t just have one person within the department working on inclusion - it has to be considered every step of the way."

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