On the 7th of April 2022, Cultural Exchange Ambassador programme held a day trip to the University of Birmingham with the opportunity to learn about the city, and its history and gain new knowledge about equality, diversity, and inclusion from a different perspective. The day started with a tour of Birmingham cemeteries where we got to explore queer history. Afterwards, we got to experience the multicultural people’s history and struggles in Birmingham and the UK through photographs and films in the library of Birmingham. Later, we got a look at the University of Birmingham archives, which had pictures, newspapers, religious works, and other similar pieces of historical memoirs. Lastly, we had an opportunity to network and make connections with people working at the University of Birmingham, and gain more insights into their work, experiences and knowledge, alongside -sharing our perspectives about the world, history and other similar topics.
The queer history tour in two of Birmingham’s most well-known cemeteries was something that touched us all on an individual level. This is because, coincidentally, all three of us are part of the LGBTQIA+ society. Therefore, we felt it necessary to talk about our different experiences and perspectives on this topic.
“As a queer person myself, I grew up in a relatively conservative country, though not illegal, it was rough. The queer people’s history is a history of oppression – where this walk in the cemetery provided a dissection of the lives of the queer people living in the Victorian era. I appreciate that this tour did not overtly emphasize the suffering, but rather a celebration of their life. This perspective is important as it sowed the seed of hope, rather than one that is born from spite.”
“As an individual that had a very long journey of trying to figure out their sexuality and gender, the tour of queer history was very eye-opening. Growing up, I never could learn about queer people, as my country, during the Soviet Union, made it illegal to be part of the LGBTQ+ community and all of the writings and knowledge were deleted from our history. It was nice to see people who went through the things that they did, so we could have more inclusive and accepting living conditions, and to learn what I and other queer people in my country could do to create change.”
“I was brought up in a very accepting environment, compared to most other families and countries, when it comes to being queer. As a result of that I never myself experienced any issue with coming out as bisexual or saw people being harassed for expressing themselves as being queer. I think that led to me being blind to the fact that it is still very much a group of our society that is being discriminated against and has been for a very long time. The tour reminded me of where we, as queer people, come from and the journey that was made to come to a place where I could live in such ignorant bliss. These kinds of reminders, therefore, seem crucial in my eyes to keep people aware of what has happened and is still happening when it comes to discrimination, towards all kinds of minorities, not just queer people.”
To educate us about the multicultural city that is Birmingham, we got a tour of a photo exhibit in the library of Birmingham that depicts how the multicultural society there came about and evolved. The origin lies in colonialism and slavery, as to be expected in the United Kingdom, which was the most far-reaching colonizer. What was astounding to us is how you could see the evolution of non-Caucasian descendants as being perceived and depicted as animals or objects from the start to being perceived as actual human beings towards the end of the exhibit. The first photographs were solely descriptive of their appearances, it was as if you were watching National Geographic. In the later images, you can see more family portraits, graduation videos etc. of these non-Caucasian descendants, a much more humane and respectful depiction of them and their cultures. It was clear that they also chose to be in these later images and were even proud to pose. It was shocking to have a visualization of where these people came from, concerning their rights and respect towards them, even after slavery was abolished. And even though they have come far in that fight, we see that their descendants today are still fighting for equal treatment and the end of institutionalized racism, which to some Caucasians can seem invisible or nonexistent. For these latter Caucasians, it is so important to be made aware of what racism looks like in pictures, then and now, so that they cannot claim that it is nonexistent and to see with their own eyes the difference between the two time periods, but also the difference between the depiction of Caucasians and non-Caucasians throughout history and still, in modern-day media. Education and visualization about these issues are so important and all universities should work towards this in seminars, exhibitions etc. because they are forming the next generations and their education should touch on as many social issues and their history as possible, as to prevent history from repeating itself.
The archive shed some insight on the importance of retaining historical material for history: regardless of the perception of those materials. These are important as these materials provide a channel for the future generation – ourselves included to be included in the process. These materials allow us to have the space to confront our past so that we would not have the same mistake as before, digitalisation effort has been made to improve the accessibility of the database. In the middle of our tour and at the end we got an amazing opportunity to speak with the representatives of the University of Birmingham and the people who were giving us the tours. This gave us a chance to discuss what we saw during the day and the things we learned and go more in-depth into each topic of the trip. We got a possibility to have a talk with the historians that were researching the history of queer peers of Birmingham and hear about how they decided to explore this topic, how they learned about it and why it is important. Besides, we got to meet students and lecturers from the University of Birmingham and learn about them, the university, and how it is different from UvA.
We learned a lot throughout this day and just in general by educating ourselves about the history and stories of minorities, intercultural relations etc. This leads us to believe that allowing others to educate themselves about this is so relevant. One idea we had to come to this is a communal database of archives across different universities with different translations available. It feels so important for students to not only be able to access the history of their country or environment, but also that of others. Another suggestion we would make is to give free seminars about, for example, queer historic figures. It would be especially interesting to know this hidden side of well-known figures that are portrayed as straight or not part of queer history in any way, even though they were. Representation in modern-day media, but also history is so important for ethnic and other minorities to feel comfortable and accepted in this society.