Supporting the University's Pride Scholarships

Peter Workman stands in front of the Great Hall

Peter Workman (French with Spanish 1983) reflects on his life, his time at Leeds and his support for the University’s new Pride Scholarships, which will research and tackle the forms of discrimination faced by LBGT communities around the world.

I have had a life-long association with Leeds: I was born in a nearby town and I spent the happiest years of my childhood in the city. My father’s job eventually took my parents back there, and for over 30 years I have owned a flat in one of the outer suburbs.

And then, of course, there is the University, which has a special place in our family history; both my mother and a cousin of mine studied languages there, and when it was my turn to choose a ‘grove of academe’ I hadn’t far to look: Leeds offered a course – French with Spanish – that appealed to me and I was able to return to my Yorkshire roots.

I went up in 1979, by which time the ‘Swinging Sixties’ had well and truly fizzled out. The 1970s had been a troubled decade, with the 1973 ‘oil shock’, industrial unrest leading to the infamous ‘three-day week’, rampant inflation and a succession of weak governments beholden to the trades unions.

Leeds had obviously taken a battering and the city had a distinctly provincial feel and a dog-eared, down-at-heel appearance – there was certainly no Victoria Quarter in those days. But the University felt homely, even village-like, perhaps because it is concentrated on a single site incorporating what were once residential streets.

Woodhouse Lane offered facilities catering for a student’s every need. To feed the mind there were numerous second-hand booksellers, together with a branch of Austick’s – a Leeds-based chain of bookshops now long consigned to history. To feed the stomach there was Ainsley’s (purveyor of Yorkshire parkin, teacakes and other forms of comfort food), a fish and chip shop nicknamed Sweaty Betty’s (where a bag of chips was yours for the princely sum of 12p) and Nafee’s curry-house serving up curries for 70p. Precisely what went into the generically-titled ‘meat curry’ was never specified.

I quickly settled into my course work, which I found both challenging and stimulating. The French Department was large (with two professors, over twenty other academic staff and the highest-ever student intake in the year I started) and hence slightly impersonal. By contrast, the Spanish Department was considerably smaller, even intimate.

If I had to single out members of the teaching staff who had the greatest impact on me, they would be Philip Thody and Patricia McDermott. The former was Professor of French Literature; equipped with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Gallic, he is the only person I have ever known who could lecture informatively and entertainingly for a whole hour without reference to notes. The latter was a senior lecturer in the Spanish Department; she specialised in the 19th- and 20th-century Spanish novel and had a remarkable ability to breathe life and provide insight – sometimes startling insight – into what had appeared at first sight to be the driest and dustiest of texts.

I have regrettably little to say about University social life. In my first term I lived in Devonshire Hall, where I overheard a fellow student and a couple of visiting friends of his – all of them self-proclaimed Christians – discussing ‘queer-bashing’ as a potential form of evening entertainment. Being ‘queer’ myself (more about that later) I decided to move out of hall and seek refuge with my parents, who by that time had returned to Leeds. So my social life revolved more around family and the Leeds-based friends I had kept in touch with since childhood, and less around the University.

After graduation I spent a further three years in academia pursuing a mixture of study and teaching at Sheffield, Exeter and Cambridge universities, but for various reasons I couldn’t see a career for myself in higher education – so after a brief and most unhappy foray into school-teaching I entered the Civil Service. A rather inauspicious start at the Doncaster VAT office proved to be a stepping-stone into the career for which I was really destined.

VAT fell within the remit of what in those days was called HM Customs & Excise, which had a small translation service based at its London HQ. After two-and-a-half years of tax work I transferred to the translation service and from there to one of the ‘big prizes’ in the translation world: a job as a translator at the European Parliament in Luxembourg. After 18 years’ service there I transferred to the European Commission (still as a translator and still in Luxembourg) and I am currently working part-time in preparation for retirement.

My career as an EU translator has enabled me to ‘spread my linguistic wings’ and take up a number of new languages (including Czech, Finnish and Turkish) to add to the French, German and Spanish that I started at school. It has also given me extensive insight into the workings of the EU – a body far from perfect but a welcome alternative to the bloody conflicts that have periodically stained Europe’s history. To me, Brexit came as a blow (to put it mildly), but I have found my personal salvation in the form of an Irish passport: my father came from Northern Ireland, which entitles me to Irish citizenship. As an expression of gratitude towards my new homeland, I have started learning the Irish language.

I mentioned earlier that I am ‘queer’. In my youth, that word was a pejorative and rather offensive term for a gay man – but in the intervening years it has been reclaimed and rehabilitated by the LGBT+ community and is now used generically to refer to people of non-mainstream sexuality.

During my time at Leeds I knew that I was gay – but I was too shy, nervous and inhibited to ‘come out’ and join the GaySoc, even though I was acquainted with one of its members. Ever the late developer, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I felt able to ‘embrace’ my sexuality – but since then I have made up for lost time by becoming active in ‘queer’ groups, in particular the EGALITE staff association that serves the needs of LGBT+ folk working for the EU institutions.

I used to assume that LGBT+ matters were very much a ‘minority pursuit’ banished to the periphery of society’s more pressing concerns. I am aware that ‘Queer Studies’ is a recognised academic discipline these days – but even that knowledge could not have prepared me for the astonishment I felt on learning that the University is planning to fund no fewer than 25 ‘Pride Scholarships’ for PhD students wishing to research the issues facing the LGBT+ community across the globe.

I can quite imagine that, in certain quarters such as the right-wing political fringe and sections of the tabloid press, this project will be dismissed out-of-hand as a total waste of money, as ‘woke-ism gone mad’, as an exercise in ‘pink-washing’ intended merely to burnish the University’s liberal credentials. But there are countries in the world in which being gay is literally a matter of life and death.

In my view, the ‘Pride Scholarships’ are to be applauded as a serious effort by a major academic institution to address the situation of people throughout the world who – solely by reason of what might be termed their ‘sexual non-conformity’ – are prevented from leading their lives as they wish, without fear of ridicule, blackmail or persecution.

Historically (Ancient Greece notwithstanding), any sexuality other than the ‘norm’ has at best been dismissed as frivolity: popular TV entertainment for my generation featured the flamboyant drag-artist Danny La Rue and the foppish Mr Humphries in the sitcom Are You Being Served? At worst it has been treated as a criminal offence, with sentences ranging from imprisonment (the fate of male homosexuals in the UK until 1967 and still standard practice in the less liberal parts of the world) to the death penalty – still the punishment for gay men in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Yet sexuality of any stripe lies at the very heart of what it means to be a human being. Despite all attempts to categorise the various forms that sexuality appears to take (whether heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, intersexual, asexual), the ways in which sexuality is experienced and expressed in practice are as many and varied as the countless individuals who walk this Earth. To invoke a purely culture-based precept as grounds for denying consenting adults the right to live their sexuality as they wish is to deny them an integral and fundamental part of their identity – yet such denial is still the everyday reality and experience of the LGBT+ community in well over half of our planet’s countries.

In a world in which self-realisation is increasingly recognised as a legitimate human aspiration, there can be no place for barriers built essentially on ignorance, prejudice and superstition. In too many countries those barriers are all too real – and if the Pride Scholarships can contribute anything to breaking them down, they will have justified all that is to be invested in them in terms of time, money, effort – and hope.