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Birmingham defends ‘outrageous’ advice to gay staff in Dubai

Image: HelloRF Zcool, via Shutterstock

LGBT+ staff travelling to Dubai campus told to hide social media and change family details

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has criticised the University of Birmingham for its “outrageous” safety advice for LGBT+ staff travelling to Dubai, where it is building a new satellite campus.

On 28 November, a University of Birmingham Twitter account shared a photograph of staff breaking ground at the site of the university’s Dubai campus last week, to mark the start of construction. The facilities are due to open in 2021 and will form the second part of the campus.

Responding to the post, University of Birmingham academic Amy Burge shared advice from the university’s Rainbow Network of LGBT+ staff to help academics stay safe in Dubai. “Just a reminder that the University of Birmingham is advising its staff to conceal their sexual identity ‘for their own safety’ in order to travel to their Dubai campus,” she wrote, before sharing the document.

It advises staff that “if your next of kin is registered as a same sex partner, consider changing this to another family member for the duration of your trip to Dubai and changing it back when you return”. It also tells staff to make social media accounts private to hide advocacy for LGBT+ equality, and to leave any electronic devices with LGBT+ supportive material at home.

Tatchell, a prominent human rights campaigner and director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, told Research Professional News that travelling to the Dubai campus could put LGBT+ employees at risk, regardless of whether they followed the advice.

“It is outrageous to suggest that gay staff should censor LGBT+ content in their social media posts and not list a same-sex partner as next of kin,” he said. “No amount of advice can ensure that LGBT+ staff will be safe in a country where homosexuality is illegal and can be punished by imprisonment and execution.”

Tatchell stressed that even “minor displays of affection” could lead to gay people being arrested in Dubai, and highlighted that heterosexual employees who cohabit also face dangers. But the University of Birmingham said it had to balance its “strongly held commitment to equality and diversity” with increasing its “global activity and presence”.

A spokesman for the university said: “As the university increases its global activity and presence, the challenge remains how to translate our strongly held commitment to equality and diversity in countries that have significant legal, social and cultural differences to the UK. Our approach has been to find common ground between our commitment and the equally important need to ensure, as far as is possible, the safety of our staff and students.

“Our focus remains on supporting their safety and wellbeing, wherever they work or study. We take extensive steps to avoid unintentionally outing LGBT+ employees and students, or their partners, when working globally, as is consistent with best practice and external (e.g. Stonewall) advice.

“The top tips document has been produced by the Rainbow Network, following extensive discussion with members and the University, to provide helpful guidance, adding to the range of other advice provided by the university.”