“Some barriers are invisible”
Fieldwork is important, but we must recognise the manifest risk it poses to LGBTQ+ people, argues Prof. Chris Jackson
As the old saying goes, “the best geologist has seen the most rocks!” This statement superficially makes sense; if you’ve seen many rocks, you can draw on those experiences to… erm… identify and interpret more rocks. But geoscientists rely on numerous skills to determine the structure, composition, and evolution of Earth and other planets – skills that span a bewildering range of disciplines and scales.
Fieldwork is undoubtedly important and is a core element of many Earth science courses. There are, however, numerous barriers to fieldwork. Some are obvious, such as those related to coping with the sheer physicality of fieldwork. Many more are less obvious, such as the requirement for safe conditions under which to change sanitary protection. And some barriers are perhaps invisible, such as sexual orientation and gender identity.
Why might sexual orientation be a barrier to fieldwork? Queer people are as able to deal with cold weather and boulder-strewn slopes as non-queer people, aren’t they? I’m not questioning this, but rather highlighting that there are still about 70 countries where being gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender is illegal, and many more with minimal protections against discrimination towards LGBTQ+ people. This is nothing to do with having sex; this discrimination exists simply for being (or perceived as being) a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
For example, in 2014 a British tourist was arrested in Morocco after authorities searched his phone and found images used to prosecute him, while the arrest, torture, exile to Canada, and eventual suicide in 2020 of activist Sarah Hegazi was triggered by her waving a rainbow flag in Egypt. The stress felt by LGBTQ+ people in these locations is not conducive to teaching and learning, presenting further barriers.
Holding field courses in such countries presents an unnecessary risk. In most cases, other suitable field locations exist that support attainment of the learning objectives. We must select such alternatives to promote an inclusive learning environment, to the benefit of an individual course and the wider community that our graduates will join. Deciding not to hold a field course in a location that is unsafe for LGBTQ+ geoscientists is not a political or value statement on a country or its citizens. We have a duty of care to our colleagues and students.
Additionally, universities or staff in the field may not be able to immediately assist or repatriate employees or students who run into trouble overseas. Such restrictions highlight the fact that many institutions do not have field-course risk assessments explicitly covering LGBTQ+-specific risks; even where such assessments and related evacuation policies are in place, they remain untested.
Like many geoscientists, I do not see a future where fieldwork is not a core element of the geoscience toolkit. However, we must be aware of and work to remove the barriers to fieldwork placed in front of all members of the geoscience community.
Prof. Chris Jackson, Chair in Sustainable Geoscience, University of Manchester