The University of Birmingham is facing criticism after telling its LGBTQ+ staff to hide their identities when traveling to its new Dubai campus.
According to a guide created by staff and PhD students at the U.K. college, queer and transgender staff members are urged to not wear clothes or accessories which could be considered a “form of LGBTQ+ advocacy.” Staffers were also told they shouldn’t disclose their sexuality or gender identity publicly on social media.
While the university’s intentions seemingly were in the right place, as the document was intended to safeguard LGBTQ+ staff from violence and harassment, critics say the execution was clumsy, at best.
“Before entering into these kinds of partnerships, universities need to set out clearly how they will protect their staff and ensure all their campuses are safe for all staff and students. Not to clumsily ask staff to keep their head down and stay out of trouble,” Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, told the U.K. newspaper The Independent.
“This advice highlights a disregard for [LGBTQ+] staff and is a dereliction of the university’s duty to stand up for human rights and academic freedom,” she added. “The advice looks like an afterthought from an institution concerned about chasing money with staff as shock absorbers.”
A spokesperson for the Rainbow Network, a group of LGBTQ+ staff and PhD students at the university, told The Independent that the reason for creating the list was to “support the safety and wellbeing” of the school’s staff and its student population.
“This does not compromise our overarching objective of creating a workplace where everybody is free to express their identity freely without fear of consequence,” the group claimed.
A University of Birmingham spokesperson added that the controversy reflects “the challenge remains how to translate [its] strongly-held commitment to equality and diversity in countries that have significant legal, social and cultural differences to the U.K.” as the college continues to expand its global presence.
“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,” the representative said. “Our focus remains on supporting their safety and wellbeing, wherever they work or study. We take extensive steps to avoid unintentionally outing [LGBTQ+] employees and students, or their partners, when working globally, as is consistent with best practice and external advice.”
The university maintains the guide was drafted “following extensive discussion with members and the university, to provide helpful guidance, adding to the range of other advice provided by the university.”
LGBTQ+ rights are extremely suppressed in the United Arab Emirates, where any sexual relations outside of a heterosexual marriage is considered a crime. Punishments can range from a prison sentence, flogging, execution, fines, and deportation. Adultery and fornication are also crimes punishable by death.
In October, a British man was sentenced to three months in prison in Dubai for touching another man to avoid spilling a drink.