Voices from our 2SLGBTQ+ community: Lesley Fellows

As part of our series of Q&As to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, we speak with Dr. Lesley Fellows
Dr. Lesley Fellows

May 17 is International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. The day was created was created in 2004 to draw the attention to the violence and discrimination experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex people and all other people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or expressions, and sex characteristics.

It also offers people an opportunity to reflect upon the importance of building more inclusive communities, including here at McGill.

 “Having a more diverse and inclusive campus community means there is the potential for all to thrive at McGill,” says Andrea Clegg, Equity Education Advisor, Gender Equity and 2SLGBTQ+ Education. “Having more diverse experiences actively represented on our campuses enhances and enriches the University’s core activities of research, teaching, and service to the broader society.”

 “We need to continue to work towards building a campus environment where all students, staff, and faculty – including members of 2SLGBTQ+ communities – can reach their full potential. I don’t think work in this area will ever be finished, and we also need to remain vigilant in ensuring that progress on 2SLGBTQ+ issues made thus far remains in place,” says Clegg.

Series of Q&As

To mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, the Reporter has prepared a series of Q&As with staff and faculty members of McGill’s 2SLGBTQ+ community. We asked them about everything from their personal experiences as students – and later staff and faculty – who identify as 2SLGBTQ+, to the efforts McGill is making to support 2SLGBTQ+ people, to how instructors can make their classrooms more inclusive.

“Building an inclusive campus community means marking internationally recognized days of significance that honour the experiences of diverse social groups that have faced adversity in higher education contexts. These commemorative efforts must centre the voices and experiences of McGillians who are members of those communities,” says Angela Campbell, Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies).

“For that reason, I am so pleased that colleagues who are members of our 2SLGBTQ+ community at McGill have agreed to share their perspectives as we mark the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia 2022. Their insights show that, while McGill is making strides in relation in relation to advancing EDI, we still have much important work left to do.

Dr. Lesley Fellows

Dr. Fellows is a Full Professor in the Department of Neurology & Neurosurgery, where she previously served as Interim Chair from 2010 to 2013. She is also a Staff Neurologist at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro) and Royal Victoria Hospital, with a subspecialty in Cognitive-Behavioural Neurology. She leads The Neuro’s Cognitive Neuroscience research group and is an Associate Member of the Psychology Department. She served as Assistant Dean, Academic Affairs in the Faculty of Medicine from 2016-2018. Since 2018 she has held the position of Vice Dean, Academic Affairs, Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences. In this leadership role, she is responsible for all aspects of the faculty life cycle, from recruitment to retirement, for nearly 5,000 McGill faculty members on campus, at McGill-affiliated hospitals and research institutes, and at other clinical teaching sites across Quebec.

Dr. Fellows’ fundamental research focuses on understanding the brain basis of complex human behaviour, with an emphasis on frontal lobe functions and decision-making. She also studies clinical disorders of frontal-executive function in addiction, obesity, and HIV infection. As a neurologist-scientist, she is interested in how “brain health”: that is, both cognitive and mental health, can be optimized for people living with chronic neurological and medical conditions. She established the McGill Cognitive Neuroscience Research Registry, a database supporting research on the neural substrates of human cognition in patients with focal brain injury.

What are some of the ways in which the McGill community is promoting EDI, especially in relation to 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion?

Formally, McGill recognizes people who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ as members of an equity-seeking group, which sends a strong message of inclusion. It also means that equity policies apply, helping to level the playing field in hiring, for example.

Informally, it is my impression that the University community has become steadily more accepting of these diverse identities. Small gestures like inclusive language, avoiding heteronormative assumptions in conversation, or thoughtful efforts to debunk stereotypes in the classroom, make a big difference.

What still needs to be done?

Canadian society as a whole has come a long way in a relatively short time in accepting people who identify as 2SLGBTQ+. However, there is still fear, misunderstanding, discrimination, and stigmatization. The University community can have an outsized impact in addressing on-going barriers to full participation for such people. For example, sensitizing clinical trainees to the needs of LGBTQ+ individuals make them better doctors, nurses, or therapists. Likewise, a teacher or a lawyer who feels prepared to work with members of this community will be the better for it.

Thinking back to when you were a student, how much progress – if any – has there been in making classrooms more inclusive to 2SLGBTQ+ students?

There has been huge progress since I was a student… which, admittedly, was quite a long time ago. McGill, and of course Montreal, were relatively queer-friendly even then. However, it was a radical act to raise issues of homophobia in the student press, never mind the classroom. I don’t recall that trans issues were on the radar, even in the lesbian and gay campus support groups of that time. I think the current generation of students is much better-informed and inclusive, whether that means fully integrating 2SLGBTQ+ classmates or appreciating the perspective an “out” professor may bring in the classroom.

How can professors make their classrooms more inclusive of diverse lived experiences among our students?

It can be tricky to strike the right balance on discussions of gender/sexuality in the classroom or other teaching settings. Even in these more enlightened times, not all professors and not all students are comfortable with such topics.

At a minimum, calling out homophobia, whether it appears in the curriculum or in the learning environment, is crucial. Setting an inclusive tone and encouraging open discussion of LGBTQ-related topics as they arise go a long way. You don’t have to be an expert to be an effective ally, and there is plenty of expertise to draw on if you want to feel better prepared.

Do we need to make space to discuss sexual or gender identity in the workplace and/or in the classroom? Why is this important?

People should feel comfortable bringing their ‘whole selves’ to work or study at McGill; this requires more than passive tolerance. People who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ need to feel that they can be themselves, and those around them need to take the same interest in them as people as they would any colleague or student.

The students we educate should feel welcome if they identify as 2SLGBTQ+, and all should feel well-prepared by their McGill educations to engage with people from those communities in their future careers. We are much closer to these goals than when I was a student, but still have work to do.

Some see diversity as a threat to power. What are the benefits, and perhaps also potential risks, of fostering and celebrating a more diverse community, at McGill and in the larger world?

Diversity is a fact. People with 2SLGBTQ+ identities are everywhere; they might be your sibling, your parent, your child, your best friend – or you. Either we can celebrate that and make the most of it, or we can force it into the closet. As a society, unfortunately we have a lot of experience with the latter approach, and it’s pretty clear that we all lose out.

I have trouble seeing a downside to celebrating diversity. It’s more interesting. It’s more fun. It may challenge us to re-think some assumptions, questions some ideas, revise some views – isn’t that exactly what we are supposed to be doing at a university?

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Jennifer Fitzpatrick
1 year ago

Thank you for providing this interview, Dr. Fellows. I am better for having read it and will keep your suggestions in mind when teaching and engaging with colleagues.