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LGBTQ at Edinburgh in the 1980s and beyond

Climate change researcher Professor Anson Mackay on being an LGBTQ student at Edinburgh in the 1980s and advocating for inclusivity in science and academia today.

Anson Mackay riding a bike on Teviot Place in 1987
Anson Mackay as a student passing Teviot Place in 1987. Credit: Anson Mackay

Peatlands and phonelines

I grew up in the Highlands of Scotland (in a village called Tongue), with the expectation that I would always go to Edinburgh University, which was indeed where I ended up in 1984. I studied Biological Sciences, but if I'm being honest, I found it difficult to settle into academic life. While I was doing OK, the focus of my degree, pharmacology with physiology, was a poor choice on my part, and I struggled to complete my third year. But that was when I discovered botany. And I absolutely fell in love with the subject. The degree was hugely varied, from experimental work in the laboratory, to fieldtrips on peatlands and along the coastlines of Scotland. And the department was small and close-knit, and that allowed me to flourish. At the same time I was very active in the student Volunteering Service, and was a member of Nightline as well.

A community against toxicity

Being LGBTQ in the 1980s, especially in Scotland, was pretty difficult. The vilification from the government, the press, and people in general was toxic. AIDS and HIV were dominating news headlines, and then the Government brought in Clause 28, which became Section 28, and this galvanised LGBTQ people into a community to fight for our right to be respected. This was when I started to actively fight for LGBTQ rights, which I still do today, and was when I met my partner David, who was also a student at Edinburgh University at the same time, and we are still together today, some 33 years later!

AIDS and HIV were dominating news headlines, and then the Government brought in Clause 28, which became Section 28, and this galvanised LGBTQ people into a community to fight for our right to be respected.

Anson MackayProfessor of Environmental Change at UCL

Working towards equality

I left Edinburgh to do a PhD in Environmental Science at Manchester University, which led to me securing a post doc at UCL Geography in 1992, on pollution and climate change threats to Lake Baikal (Russia). I think it is fair to say that none of these moves were planned, and I just took the best opportunities that came up. I was lucky to secure a lectureship at UCL, and became a full professor in 2013. I’m also currently a Faculty Vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), which plays to my interests of working to make sure that everyone has equality of opportunity to study and work in higher education in the UK, and to ensure that our universities are diverse and inclusive institutions. In terms of my research, working on climate change impacts on internationally renowned freshwater ecosystems over the past new decades has been really exciting, and to bring this knowledge into my teaching has been incredibly fulfilling.

Anson Mackay in 2019
Anson continues to campaign for better inclusion in academic communities today. Credit: Calvin Cheung

And although I didn’t realise it at the time, my academic path has often been buffeted by being out and open as a gay man. I’ve been verbally abused and threatened at conferences, and told to “tone-down” my gayness. Equally, I now recognise that I’ve benefited immeasurably by being a white cis man, and all the privileges that that brings in UK academia. So I am currently very proud of being part of The Inclusion Group for Equity in Research in STEMM (TIGERS), and for working with others to make UCL a more inclusive place to study and work, celebrating difference within our academic communities.

Take risks and celebrate differences

I can trace both my PhD and post-doc fields to subjects learned doing botany at Edinburgh. So for me one piece of advice [to students] would be to not to settle for a course you do not enjoy, and take the risk and change if possible. Also, be proud of who you are, and celebrate difference in others; it makes for a much more fulfilling life.

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LGBTQ+ Sources - an introductory list of collections for researchers interested in LGBTQ+ history