This Sussex Life: Dr Sharon Webb, Digital Humanities lecturer: “Pride means a protest"
Pride means a protest. Of course it is a celebration, but for me it should be a protest. I’m from Dublin, where Pride marches still seem to be more political. In the run-up to the 2015 Marriage Equality Referendum in Ireland, there were so many marches and protests in addition to Pride. That was a stark declaration of Pride having a political agenda or presence. The referendum was a big step but, in the weeks running up to the vote, we genuinely feared it wouldn’t pass, and if that happened, how could we live in a county where people were against who you are? But then Ireland became the first place in the world to legalise gay marriage by public referendum, which was incredible!
Pride isn’t necessarily a safe space all the time. I’ve had homophobic abuse during Pride, which is rather telling in terms of what we perceive the event to be about. It has become more of a free party (actually, it’s not even free, which is part of the problem) than a protest. A lot of people don’t know why they are there. There are still LGBTQ+ rights that are being encroached on our doorstep. It’s not as if, hey it’s done. Because it isn’t.
I didn’t come out until I was 25, and I have often wondered whether that was to do with growing up in Catholic Ireland. Homosexuality was only decriminalised there in 1993, when I was 12. Nobody ever talked about homosexuality, or being gay or lesbian. I was completely oblivious, but it could also be to do with having a working-class background and being educated in a Catholic convent. My Mam was amazing when I came out. She is Dutch, and quite liberal, and is in no way religious. My Dad is Catholic, but we were brought up questioning Catholicism. It was a good balance.
I went to university In Ireland as a mature student, and that’s when I realised I was gay. I did a degree in history and computer science, not thinking of the trajectory of my career. Before that I was a database manager, but I didn’t want to sit behind a desk being a programmer. In my Master’s year I came across a thing called digital humanities, which is what I do now. I have always loved history, and I wondered where it would lead.
I’ve been at Sussex since 2015, and for the past year I’ve been working with community archives and projects, including Queer in Brighton. We’ve been looking at the long-term digital sustainability of those archives and how the University can support these significant resources. LGBTQ+ voices were marginalised in the past, we want to make sure that they, and other marginalised voices, are safe-guarded for the future historical record.
There is an amazing history of Pride and protest at Sussex. In 2017 two JRA students, supervised by Professor Kate O’Riordan, carried out a research project on the history of the LGBTQ+ Society on campus. They were amazed to find out about gay rights protests at the University in 1972, and of the first Brighton Pride in 1973. It wasn’t until 1991 that Pride came back to Brighton, but all through the 1970s and 1980s Sussex students had coming-out weeks, kiss-ins, mock weddings in Library Square. So there was a lot of activism that was going on here. It still continues.
Students really push the boundaries. They make us think about our position and are very vocal when they are not happy. The LGBTQ+ Staff Network and the Trans and Non-Binary Staff Network are very supportive and we’re fortunate that we have people in senior positions at Sussex who are very visible in terms of their queer politics and identity. There’s a lot going on and as a work place we remain critical about important issues that revolve around communities and every identity: cis, trans and non-binary.
I’m taking part in the march because of the University’s history and the role it has had in queer politics in Brighton and on campus. The LGBTQ+ society has been going for more than 40 years – starting as the GaySoc and gradually changing and adapting, sometimes not without controversy. But it does reflect the wider society as a whole and the symbiotic relationship between students and staff. After the march I’m taking part in the DIY Pride in Queen’s Park because, well, Pride is a Protest!
This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.