Voices from our 2SLGBTQ+ community: Lloyd Whitesell

As part of our series of Q&As to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, we speak with Assistant Professor Lloyd Whitesell
Lloyd Whitesell, Professor in the Schulich School of Music

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.”

Lloyd Whitesell

Lloyd Whitesell, Professor in the Schulich School of Music, is a leading figure in the field of queer musicology. He coedited the book Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, which won the Philip Brett Award for outstanding LGBT musicology. Other interpretive studies include The Music of Joni Mitchell and Wonderful Design: Glamour in the Hollywood Musical. A new research project explores queer aesthetics by way of important creative personas (e.g., the Monster, the Trickster, the Dandy). He currently chairs the Committee on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the School of Music.

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

When I first came to McGill, I was interested in what kind of support there was and how people could get involved. Right away, I found out about the Senate Subcommittee on Queer People and different equity initiatives. At the time, there was the SEDE office, which was available for support and awareness workshops. And now, of course, there’s the Equity team.

More recently there are events like the Queer History Month event and the Lavender Graduation celebration. There have always been committees that you could be involved in.

In my own academic research and teaching, I’ve been involved in the Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. I feel like I have a group of fellow travellers there who are very interested and open and active working in Queer research and feminist research. I’ve always felt very welcome.

There is a recognition that there is more work to be done, but the support has seemed to grow and grow over the years.

In that regard, I have been the chair of our EDI Committee at the School of Music, which has been going on for a year and a half now. One of our top priorities has been responding to those students who had experienced barriers or a hostile climate in classrooms.

Our Jazz Program developed a pioneering set of guidelines for how the faculty and students should interact. The EDI Committee then created similar guidelines for the whole School of Music. [Within those guidelines] is a section on gender and sexual identity, some key principles and resources that professors can use to educate themselves. It’s a standard of conduct that we can refer to whenever we need to.

What still needs to be done?

I feel in the context of Music, maybe there is a greater awareness of different sexual orientations and gender identities than in some other contexts at McGill.

I don’t know if it’s true, but I feel like people have been rubbing shoulders, and having queer friends – there’s a different sense of gender expression. I don’t know if it’s a little Utopia or what, but I feel very comfortable as a queer person in the School of Music.

There’s nothing that I’ve had to fight for as far as visibility or being respected is concerned.

But one thing that I think needs to be improved – even with someone like me, who’s aware of a lot of the issues – is that transgender issues are still something that we’re at a more basic level as far as having awareness.

I can remember several examples from my own classroom where an issue with a transgender student came up and I was not prepared. And I thought “Boy, if I’m not prepared – after having thought about these issues and taught these issues – then it shows you that we have a way to go.”

I think professors should educate themselves or there could be workshops raising awareness of potential vulnerabilities for students who might be going through transitions.

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

Well, we’re talking the 1970s, so things have changed, obviously, in the wider culture.

When I was in College in the late 70s and early 80s, I remember some clueless professors. One in particular, who would [commit] what they now call microaggressions – which is just basically ignorance.

It was a humongous biology class, maybe 400 students. This professor was talking about reproduction and sexual attraction. And he said “if you don’t believe me, any girl just turn to the boy next to you…”

That kind of ignorance was sort of par for the course for the time.

But since then, the culture has changed and the academy has changed. Now there’s Queer Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, etc. It has become domesticated.

When I was getting into the job market in the 1990s, there was a sense of professional risk. Do I have to change my CV when applying to a school [in a more rural area, for example] and cover some of the Queer Studies work I was doing?

I had to figure out where I could be myself and where I had to change things. That is not the case anymore.

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

One big thing is representation. Who are you talking about? Who’s on your syllabus? What are you asking students to read? Or in my case, what composers are being represented?

How diverse is the scholarship that you’re getting into? I remember hearing a talk by a black music scholar who said we need to be activists in citation. Footnotes are places of activism.

In Music we’re definitely going through an exercise thinking about what do we want our curriculum to look like? And that includes programming, pieces on concerts, and on recitals. But, also, what constitutes a history survey, what gets included?

But maybe it’s easier for some fields than others. I’m not sure how you deal with representation the same way in math, for example.

The other big thing is thinking about if the norms included in your discourse. For example, if you’re discussing some kind of life experience, be aware that you might exclude a whole bunch of people just by the kind of scenes that you talking about.

It’s an ongoing educational process for professors, myself included. There’s no set of tricks that’s going last. You have to keep learning how to think differently.

I find it very rewarding. Sometimes it’s very humbling, when you realize, oh, I failed today.

But take it as a chance to educate yourself. That’s why I’m in this profession, because I am always learning.

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

I think it is important because, first of all, you want to give the students a chance to try out new ideas and to debate. I think both debate and disagreement are essential. You want to have a safe place where you can tussle and where some people are going have really strong opinions [that differ from yours].

If you have students who are coming into their activism, they’re going to have really strong opinions. Oftentimes you’ll get challenged by students – which is great. You may think you have the experience of age, but there are always new issues that you don’t know about where students might challenge you.

And in fact, you can learn, because it’s a two-way street.

This kind of space is important because there are all kinds of on-going questions about sexual identity, about people’s rights, about diverse representation, about the relation of intellectual work to ideological alignment or political activism.

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?

I’ll start with the good news.

I think the more diverse your curriculum is, and the more diverse your classroom, the better thinker you become. I’ve read somewhere that the best teachers are the ones that are more inclusive.

I also think that you can build better teams. The less diverse you are, the less inclusive you are, the less varied your teams will be. You’re just going along the homogenized path.

I see value in challenging preconceptions, and that happens when you have people with different life experiences.

But that doesn’t mean it comes without risk.

We actually had a period in Music when we were talking about curriculum diversification which at times was very painful. The conversations we were having were very uncomfortable and it felt like people were being divided.

But I think discomfort is a sign of health. You’re not going to get to a new awareness without that discomfort.

Some people haven’t had to rethink their preconceptions. Then, all of a sudden, having it all be dumped on them at once, it may feel like we are saying we want to cancel Western culture or that [everything] they’ve done during their career is worth nothing.

And that is part of the discomfort. But I think it’s a necessary stage to get through.

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Julie Cumming
2 years ago

Thanks, Chip! It’s great to hear about how things have changed and also strategies for going forward — embracing discomfort as a sign of progress, and footnotes as activism!