Why Policy Matters: Love Your Nature

RSPB Starlings LGBTQIA+ network and allies at London Pride march, (c) Adrian Thomas (rspb-images.com)

In today's Why Policy Matters blog, RSPB Director of Policy and Advocacy, Jeff Knott celebrates Pride month and the work of the RSPB Starlings network to make the conservation community safe and inclusive.  

June is Pride month, an opportunity to celebrate the amazing contributions of members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Here at the RSPB, the mission of our RSPB Starlings network is to foster a positive, safe and understanding working and volunteering environment for LGBTQIA+ colleagues. We're working to build and enhance the RSPB's external reputation as an advocate for equality and diversity.

In many ways, I’m absolutely the wrong person to be writing this blog. As a heterosexual, white, middle aged, middle class, cis male, I have pretty much every privilege you can imagine.

But I wanted to send this message, to reflect on the importance and the value of allyship. Very roughly, allyship means taking on the struggle of an underrepresented group that you are not part of, as your own, and taking action to support that community.

RSPB Starlings LGBTQIA+ network and allies at London Pride march, (c) Adrian Thomas (rspb-images.com)

I’m really proud to work for an organisation which values and supports our LGBTQIA+ staff. Every time we say so publicly, the vast majority of comments are supportive, but there are always a vocal minority of commenters posting some variation of the following predictable themes;

Are you saying the countryside is homophobic?!

What’s this got to do with birds?

When’s straight white men month?!

It’s all virtue signalling rubbish

You’re all a bunch of woke idiots!

And if you look at who are making those comments (well the ones not hiding behind an anonymous online account), most of them look a lot like me. While I have no way of knowing for sure, I’ll bet the vast majority of those comments come from heterosexual people who are lucky enough to have many of the same in-built privilege as I do.

So I want to take a few paragraphs to talk directly to those people who might be poised over their keyboard to write some variation of those words here.

I’ve been on my own journey with the issue of discrimination and exclusion in conservation. I hope I’ve never been actively homophobic (although I’m sure I’ve used language in the past which would make me wince now), but for far longer than I’m proud to admit, I viewed it as someone else’s issue. I wasn’t discriminatory, I didn’t see discrimination, so surely that was enough? There is one particular incident which sticks in my mind which typifies my approach. Sitting on a panel, there was a question about representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in conservation and I remember leaning over to the person next to me (also a heterosexual, white man) and whispering “I’m not touching that question with a barge pole”. He chuckled, I chuckled, we said nothing and the questions moved on. That moment sticks with me because of how wrong I was.

There was and still is a fear factor for me in writing this blog. The risk of saying the “wrong” thing plays on my mind as I suspect it does for many potential allies. It’s taken me time to realise that saying the wrong thing is nowhere near as damaging as saying nothing. I used to think my that silence made me part of the solution, a sort of close your eyes and it will all go away approach. In reality, it made me part of the problem.

Equity, diversity and inclusion are challenges for all of us. Since then, I’ve consciously spent more time listening to the lived experiences of friends and colleagues. In Pride month we’re focussed on LGBTQIA+ colleagues, but of course this also includes ethnic diversity, the experiences of women, the disabled, neurodivergent individuals, parents, religious groups and many others. What I heard shocked me. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but that is that privilege seeping in again. For all the progress society has made and conservation organisations have made, we still massively lack diversity in our ranks and the truly inclusive culture to support that diversity. No that’s not the same as saying “the countryside is homophobic/sexist/racist”, but it clearly points to structural factors excluding many of these groups.

Why does that matter, or to put it another way, what’s it got to do with birds and conservation? Well there’s a couple of ways of answering that question. Nature has no borders and neither do we. It takes a great team to save nature. One that reflects the diverse communities in which we work, and with a wide range of skills and experience to make it happen. We want to motivate a movement of nature lovers in which everyone is welcome, including members of the LGBTQIA+ community. As to save nature, we need everyone to care. That’s the logical, practical answer. However, just as importantly, we should act because it’s the right thing to do!

In 33 of our Birdlife Partner countries, it is still illegal to be gay, and people live in fear of persecution and discrimination just because of who they are. There is a long way to go and in the same way nature needs everyone, so do our LGBTQIA+ friends.

This year our Starlings group will be at be marching at four pride parades and would love for you to join them! Armed with our spectacular “Love your Nature” banners, flags, and rainbow kites, we’ll be standing up with over a million others to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community; promote acceptance diversity and inclusion; and take a positive stance against discrimination.

RSPB Starlings LGBTQIA+ network and allies at London Pride march, (c) Adrian Thomas (rspb-images.com)

This year we will be taking part in:

If you'd like to join us at any (or all!) of the above Pride events for what I can guarantee will all be dazzling days of love and positivity, please email us for further details at starlingsRSPB@rspb.org.uk. Places are limited and will be allocated on a first come first served basis.

This is real and it matters. Its not just virtue signalling and if it’s woke, well then I’m very happy to be called that. As someone who has every inbuilt privilege, I have the luxury of deciding if and when to engage with this issue. For LGBTQIA+ colleagues and friends, they can’t make that choice, having to live with discrimination every single day. Its on all of us to help change that. It took me too long to realise that, but I’m here to make up for lost time.

So to any members of the LGBTQIA+ community reading this, we see you, we cherish you, we love you.

To all the allies out there speaking up for LGBTQA+ rights this Pride month and every day, thank you and let’s keep supporting each other to do the right thing.

And to anyone hovering over the keyboard, thinking of saying they’ve never seen it, and this is all woke nonsense, we need you too. I know it can be hard, but spend some time listening to the lived experiences of members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Really listening. Not just to respond, but to genuinely understand. Then let’s think how we can make the conservation sector even more welcoming. It starts with Pride and Starlings, but it goes way beyond that. Like the murmurations this amazing bird forms, the more of us who join, the safer we will all be. And that’s something we can all help with.

 RSPB Starlings LGBTQIA+ network and allies at London Pride march, (c) Adrian Thomas (rspb-images.com)