In LGBT+ History Month, Peter Molyneux discusses instilling awareness and equality in the places we work.
One of my highlights of last year was attending the opening night of The Normal Heart at the National Theatre. It was quite sobering to discover that I’d last seen the play 36 years ago when I’d attended the opening night at the Royal Court. So, I was interested to see what I made of the play and how relevant it felt in 2021.
It addresses how you translate justified and understandable anger into meaningful change
Set in New York in the 1980s, The Normal Heart is about the early days of the AIDS pandemic and the official indifference to the rising numbers of mainly gay men who were falling ill and dying of this mysterious new disease. Central to the story is the tension between activists and leaders and one of the key questions it addresses is how you translate justified and understandable anger into meaningful change. The Normal Heart illustrates the interdependency between, what Sarah Schulman refers to as, ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ leadership. Traditionally, activism is seen as coming from outside to impact on the organisation or institution. However, activism can also come from within organisations.
Activism is a term that for some has connotations of protest and disruption while for others it evokes ideas of passion, belief and inspiration. Perhaps it’s more helpful to think of activism as a way in which diverse voices can challenge the status quo – or defend that status quo from attack. After all, as Audre Lorde says: “It’s very difficult to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools”.
Opening up organisations to the outside world
Increasingly, it would seem, staff want to hold their own organisations to account for the way in which they are responding to environmental issues such as zero net carbon or issues relating to gender identity. The issues that activists raise are very rarely straightforward for organisations and require psychologically safe space and time to allow for proper engagement with the issue at hand – something that is in short supply in healthcare organisations.
It is no longer a question of ‘whether’ to engage but one of ‘how’ to engage
Boards in the NHS have relied on a strategy of abstention and neutrality – based on the belief that taking anything short of a neutral political position will put relationships with stakeholders in jeopardy. But we are quickly learning that in the social media age this no longer works the way it once did. It is no longer a question of ‘whether’ to engage but one of ‘how’ to engage.
Going beyond fine words
This is not to say organisations should respond every time that a political issue comes up, but it does mean we need to recognise when an issue is important to our patients and/or staff and respond accordingly. This means going beyond fine words – which as we know butter no parsnips – and genuinely engaging in dialogue. It relies on seeing leadership that takes place across the organisation. It relies on harnessing people’s passion and allowing their activism to drive transformation and creativity.
Being inclusive and creating a sense of belonging means embracing the activism within our organisations and being activists ourselves
Those of us working in HIV/AIDS were fortunate to find allies. I was fortunate to find allies – often in places that I didn’t expect to find them. Allies who were willing to take risks and to withstand criticism. Allies and leaders who were able to engage with activism and deliver meaningful change. This is just as relevant now as it was then.
Being inclusive and creating a sense of belonging means embracing the activism within our organisations and being activists ourselves.
Peter Molyneux is chair of our Health and Care LGBTQ+ Leaders Network, and chair of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.