A rich history: reflections from the Cambridge LGBT+ community

Cambridge has always been home to LGBT+ staff, students and alumni, even if they haven't always been visible. Members of the LGBT+ community such as Alan Turing, Sue Perkins, Ali Smith, EM Forster, Ian McKellen (to name a few) have signed their names in matriculation books across the collegiate university for centuries.

While LGBT+ staff and students have been present at Cambridge since its foundation, it is fair to say that the University has not always embraced that aspect of their identity. Ian McKellen has noted that the LGBT+ scene was non-existent when he was an undergraduate during the 1950s: “I didn’t identify one other gay man at St Catharine’s….  we all came out after Cambridge. There were no places you could go… no clubs, societies, no debates about it.”

Thankfully attitudes shift and nowadays, LGBT+ history month is observed across the University. The rainbow flag – the international symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community – has become ubiquitous around Cambridge in February, and colleges and departments host a range of events, from socials to lectures.

To mark the occasion, we asked LGBT+ students, staff and alumni to talk to us about what the month means to them.

Steven Friel

Alumnus (Jesus 1996) and co-founder of Cambridge LGBT+ alumni group

"I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Cambridge in the late 1990s, but, while it was a tolerant place for LGBT+ students, it wasn’t particularly embracing.  I was out at Cambridge, but many of my LGBT+ friends were not. I felt confident expressing and celebrating my Northern Irish, working class identity, but not my sexuality. I wasn’t in the closet, but often felt like I might as well have been.     

"I remember sneaking away from Cambridge to visit the London gay scene. I knew to keep a look out for the rainbow flag symbol at bars and restaurants, a sign that I was in friendly territory. It is great that so many colleges will fly the rainbow flag during LGBT+ history month. All students should know they are in friendly territory.  

"I studied law at Jesus College from 1996 to 1999. As part of my degree, I wrote a dissertation on gay fathers. My husband Scott and I are now the proud (gay) fathers to a 9 year old son and a 7 year old daughter."

Portrait of Steven Friel

Tom McGachie

Current student

"To me, LGBT+ History Month is an important part of discovering (and rediscovering) LGBT+ narratives that have previously been inaccessible or even erased by a culture of keeping to the status quo.

"Exposure to LGBT+ culture during my formative years in school was for the most part plagued by a deafening silence, a refusal to even acknowledge the existence of people that diverged from the heteronormative structures I had been taught to live by. Unfortunately, young LGBT+ people are still being let down by the education system, and so this month is all about not only having the opportunity to educate others in a way that was not possible in school, but also about expanding my understanding of my own identity and the complex history that lies behind it. "

Portrait of Tom McGachie

Krishnaa Mahbubani

Senior Study Manager for CBTM in Haematology and Post-doctoral Research Associate at Pembroke College

"To me, the rainbow flag symbolises a level of acceptance, the quiet recognition that it is okay to be who you are. 

"I have never been particularly proud or open about being part of the LGBT+ community. I come from a culture where I am often referred to as 'different', or 'odd' when it is not just ignored. I arrived in Cambridge very much in the closet (I'd say the deep dark caverns, if I am being honest about it). My own gradual acceptance and ability to share this with people around me is very much reflected in the number of rainbow/pride flags that fly across Cambridge. 

"Every time I spot one in a place I never have before, I smile, gain a quiet confidence, stand half an inch taller and am a little more certain and proud of who I am."

Portrait of Krishnaa Mahbubani

Mat Maddocks

Alumnus (Jesus 1996) and co-founder of Cambridge LGBT+ alumni group

"I came out in my third year at Cambridge and was really lucky to have a positive coming out experience, which I know isn’t the case for everyone.  At Jesus we had an LGBT group for students and I had several LGBT+ friends, including Stephen Friel, whom I co-founded the LGBT+ alumni group with. There was also a gay bar called Town and Gown (now sadly closed) and a monthly LGBT night called Dot Cotton (still going after 25 years) which meant there were opportunities to mix with the wider LGBT+ community in Cambridge.

"It is easy to take the liberties we have today for granted, especially as there is so much that our community is still fighting for. LGBT+ history month is important because it can show that actually, we have made massive strides and even if things aren’t perfect now, they are a lot better than they were 50 years ago. An awareness of our history can also provide us with role models - something that is really important for everyone but especially for the smaller, historically less-visible groups within the LGBT+ community."

Portrait of Mat Maddocks

Maia Eyre-Morgan

Current student

"LGBT+ history month to me is a reminder that we have always been here, and though it may not be the easiest to piece together, this community has a rich history. People sometimes judge LGBT+ identities as being a recent trend, and especially as a non-binary person that can hit me hard every now and again. But we've always existed. Whether those who came before us helped fight for our rights or simply went about their lives, being reminded of our history is important and affirming.

"Seeing this month become more widely celebrated, especially by the place where I study, is really great. But this month should also remind us that there is still more we can do, and that we can have an impact as those who came before us did."

Portrait of Maia Eyre-Morgan

Gediminas Lesutis

Research Associate in Geography and Research Fellow at Darwin College

"In his book Blindness José Saramago writes that ‘inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are’. This claim strongly resonates with how I feel about contemporary identity politics.

"Although social movements based on markers of one’s identity are extremely important in advancing social justice, I do not feel that the labels we ascribe to ourselves and each other can truly reflect beautiful, complex, sometimes contradictory intimate and public lives that we lead. Therefore, whilst being aware how social and political structures render us different and slot us unequally into power relations, I try to live my life in a mode of post-identity politics that acknowledges the inevitable arbitrariness of identity labels and that it is not always necessary to use them.

"Of course, I am aware how privileged I am to live like this, and that this way of being in this world is only possible because of painstaking struggles that the LGBT+ community has endured in its struggle for social justice. 

"Therefore, LGBT+ month always makes me reflect on the broader historical context of my own politics, as well as reminds me that my privilege of feeling that to some extent I can live beyond identity politics is not a given, but an outcome of continuous social struggles.

Portrait of Gediminas Lesutis