When Sidney Sussex chose to fly the Pride flag on the first day of LGBT+ History Month for the past two years, the gesture was celebrated as a symbol of its desire to be a safe and inclusive environment for LGBT+ people. But actions speak louder than words: if the college’s dedication to its LGBT+ community is genuine, it needs to actively demonstrate it, and not just hide behind vague statements of support.

Despite this supposed support, Sidney recently hosted a conference held by Christian Concern, a religious lobby group famous for its sulphurous statements. The booking was made under the name of the Wilberforce Academy, an initiative of Christian Concern “aimed at students and young professionals with a passion to serve Jesus Christ in a variety of vocations including law, politics, education, media, arts and business.”

The group has relentlessly fought against the rights of LGBT+ people under a false pretence of Christian charity. Among multiple positions, they have promoted gay conversion therapies as “help for unwanted same-sex attraction”, aggressively opposed a primary school’s policy to recognise transgender children, and justified their homophobic and transphobic stances by referring to pseudo-scientific “disorders”.

"Sidney had no obligation to help them express their views outside of what should be a debate internal to the Church of England."

In an article published last August Christian Concern criticised PrEP – a medicine reducing the risk of contracting HIV – for enabling “safer promiscuity”, blamed homosexual intercourse as the leading factor in the spread of HIV, and implied that sex without a condom between a “faithfully married man and woman” is inherently safe. In most cases, Christian Concern’s statements are simple homophobia and transphobia camouflaged as genuine ‘care’ for LGBT+ people.

Speaking on behalf of Sidney Sussex, a spokesperson stated that the views of organisations making private bookings do not reflect the values of the college. While it is reassuring to learn that Sidney does not share the positions of this group, it is also too easy to dodge responsibility on those terms. By allowing Christian Concern to use one of its venues, the college has implicitly declared passive support for the expression of their views. If the college actively cares about the wellbeing and safety of its students and staff, particularly the LGBT+ people among them, it should not be afraid to stand up for the values it claims to defend.

I disagree that this can be construed as a question of free speech. While Christian Concern’s positions are legitimate within a debate concerning different readings of the Bible, Sidney had no obligation to help them express their views outside of what should be a debate internal to the Church of England. As academic institutions, the University’s and the college’s commitment to freedom of expression is precious, especially in a time where the voices of minorities can be, and are, silenced.


Mountain View

Sidney Sussex responds to Christian fundamentalist event criticism

Nevertheless, this does not apply to a situation where Christian Concern already has access to multiple platforms of expression, for example their website, the press and events at multiple churches. Moreover, the group could have chosen another venue for their conference – for instance, one which has no particular accountability or responsibility towards its regular members. By giving them the symbolic space of an academic institution and by allowing them to dine in hall, Sidney has, passively or not, helped to legitimise their views on a broader level.

It appears that this is the second time that Christian Concern has been able to hold its conference in Sidney Sussex. Assuming good faith, I am willing to believe that the college was unaware of the views of the group on both occasions. Nevertheless, this is proof that colleges need to take responsibility and adopt a stricter screening policy regarding bookings made by external groups. Had the conference been held by neo-Nazi or Islamist activists, it is certain that Sidney Sussex would not have accepted to host it. Even under the more presentable front of the ‘Wilberforce Academy’, the college needs to accept that the group has taken actions that are directly harmful to part of its community.

Colleges like to present themselves as institutions with strong values that care about the welfare of their students. If that is genuinely the case, then they must step up and stop dodging responsibility on such important issues as these