As a follow up from my RIBA Faces of Architecture blog piece, I got in touch with Architecture LGBT+ to discuss the opportunity to form a presence in the north east. Since then, alongside the fantastic support of RIBA North East, I organised Newcastle’s first Architects Pride Breakfast on 20 July. This event kicked off the weekend celebrations of Northern Pride, welcoming all with bucks fizz, breakfast, and the pop music we all love and have come to expect from an LGBT+ social.
Speakers were inspiring and presented topics around visibility and role models, which challenged how we all fit in to the built environment. This provided a fresh perspective for all in attendance, sparking ideas on how we can learn from one another to create more inclusive and supportive practices. These conversations are too often pushed aside for going against the masculine tone embedded in construction, which is the very reason why we need to encourage and provide a platform for equality to thrive.
Architecture LGBT+ is an independent grass roots organisation which was formed in London in 2016. It’s so important that we, as architects, have an LGBT+ network. Last year the Architect's Journal published the shocking results of its survey, which found that 59% of architects and 83% of LGBT contractors have encountered homophobic comments at work. The same survey revealed that 30% of LGBT architects are not out at work. The LGBT charity Stonewall publishes an annual Equality Index of the 100 most inclusive firms in Britain, this year topped by MI5. Architecture struggles to support LGBT+ equality in the workplace, with no practice ever making the list. Many other sectors are well represented, which indicates an obvious gap in how we work.
Nick Walker, a tutor at the Mackintosh School of Architecture and a gay architect at Collective Architecture, gave a presentation that outlined his background and life: both in and outside of work. As an employee owned practice since 2007, the office naturally encourages collaboration and social responsibility practice wide.
Speaking about the various roles and relationships we have as architects, Nick spoke on being out at work: whether that’s in practice, on site, or having a catch up with the project team at the pub. The difference between being a gay architect, or being an architect who is gay, struck a chord with the audience: who questioned if indeed our sexuality or any other diversity should define us? We seek acceptance when ‘coming out’ in new social circles in the hope there is no issue, so how do we progress and not feel the associated anxiety, stress, or shame related to this? Naming this ‘imposter syndrome’, many of us who are LGBT+ are inclined to feel tension which may or may not be there. This often results in working harder, putting in more hours to prove ourselves or, in contrast, that person may lose motivation and confidence, resulting in unproductivity. Both trigger mental health issues, presenting a need for support at work.
Collective Architecture is looking to establish mental health first aiders within the practice: a wonderful idea which resonates with everyone, not just those who are LGBT+. This issue has been heavily publicised in our industry for some time, with recent statistics indicating almost a third of UK architecture students are treated for mental health issues. At work, one in six British workers are dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression at any one time, as published by the RIBA. The idea of mental health first aiders at work is a great step in ruling out the stigma and discrimination attached to the issue.
My wonderful colleague Elly Williams joined us to discuss bisexual visibility, and how we tackle inclusion in how we work and what we create as architects.
Speaking of her upbringing, Elly discussed the shift towards a safer environment for all over the past 20 plus years. Elly was taught whilst Section 28 was in place: a piece of legislation which stipulated that teachers are not permitted to ‘promote homosexuality’, or present any homosexual relation as an equivalent to a heterosexual relationship. Aside from the discriminatory issue here, there is a huge education gap in people growing up throughout this period and not seeing themselves represented.
Moving on to working life, there is a perception that your sexual orientation is defined by the person you are in a relationship with, which simply is not the case for many. A continual process of coming out is therefore needed to reinstate and remind, sometimes even those close to you, that you are not homosexual or heterosexual.
With the presentations focused around inclusion, Elly discussed a model developed by her wife, Meri Williams. The model poses three questions to find out if where you are working is supportive to you and your career:
- am I expected here?
- am I respected here?
- can I be myself and be successful here?
Looking at ourselves as creators, our society and profession seems to have been trained to deter those in need from our spaces. For example, designing to minimise ‘anti social behaviour’ often leads to creating external space which excludes minorities who, it can be argued, have a need for these spaces the most. With homelessness on the rise nationally, today’s society is pushing these people out of shelter and public space - as we design against them. Such examples make us reflect on what it means to be truly inclusive in practice.
Firstly looking at how we portray role models in the industry, Danni Kerr talked through advertisements in the industry, and the issues around transparency. Danni talked about the need to include female role models in their natural working environment, as opposed to a ‘token’ shot wearing brand new oversized Personal Protective Equipment, or positioned beside a male figure who represents power and control, which is often the visual representation.
The importance of being socially aware and considerate was another talking point. Danni spoke openly about dealing with discrimination, and how organisations have the power to skew or simply omit information if it does not align with their views. Discussing the notion of ‘do what you love and be seen doing it’ resonates with the idea that no one should feel stripped of confidence to be their best at work. Covering everything from being able to celebrate accomplishments to working alongside a construction team, a school, and your colleagues in an unapologetic manner, Danni’s talk was inspiring and very encouraging.
As architects, we aspire to improve the world around us through our craft. Campaigning and spreading the message to better society is an extension of this, which Danni has mastered through teaching and her appointment as a RIBA Role Model.
When previously asked about her identity, Danni answered, “As a transgender person, I’m part of a very small demographic which in itself contains a rainbow of diversity. As such, I very much rely on support and understanding, not just from my LGBT+ friends and colleagues, but from my cisgender and heterosexual friends and colleagues too.”
This statement really made me think just how simple this all should be. Without the socially constructed barriers we see and live by today, would we still look at one another in prejudice? Support and understanding are basic characteristics: individual needs which are incredibly important in creating an inclusive environment.
A panel discussion following the presentations highlighted how important these events are, both in and outside of the world of architecture. It was great to see not only LGBT+ architects and people from the wider built environment in the room, but also our allies who showed up to gain insight and support. The discussions surrounded how we can implement the points raised into policy, as well as what we can do to better our profession by seeking and creating opportunities to be more visible. Returning to the topic of role models, the room ended on the notion that everyone could be more visible and stand up for a profession that is represented by diversity.
Following the event, it was great to hear the audience inspired and reflecting on the changes they can make at their workplaces. I left with a mind full of ideas and a real sense of motivation towards the issues we face in diversity and inclusion. Building on this year’s event, we look ahead to Newcastle hosting UK Pride in 2020, and how we can be bigger and better, changing the record for a more inclusive and caring profession.