Chester Zoo

Pride: the changing LGBTQ+ landscape, from lecturing to Chester Zoo

Posted: 19th June, 2023

This month, in celebration of PRIDE and BIAZA Generations of Pride, we are giving space to LGBT+ voices from across the BIAZA membership. The PRIDE blogs will provide a snapshot of the experiences of LGBT+ people working in the zoo sector and highlight diversity across the animal kingdom too.

I have been lucky enough to work in two sectors that provide a supportive environment for LGBTQ+ people, though it hasn’t always been so. In my early career as a university lecturer in the late 1980s/early 1990s the misinformation and misrepresentation around the AIDS epidemic set back the path to equal rights and opportunities. This certainly delayed my coming out as a young gay man which led to periods of depression and anxiety. Although not necessarily openly homophobic, conservation biology was, like all other scientific sectors at the time, lacking any visible LGBTQ+ role models or allies. I had a number of supportive colleagues in my inner circle but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that I felt truly able to be myself at work. That said, more recently universities have been at the forefront of developing inclusive policies towards the LGBTQ+ community. 

It was around this time that I also first started working with the zoo sector when I teamed up with Roger Wilkinson in his role as head of conservation programmes at Chester Zoo to turn my field research on broadleaf forest birds in China into conservation action on the ground. Chester Zoo were always welcoming and inclusive and my sexuality was never an issue. Field trips to China required cultural judgements about how safe it was for me to be open with our Chinese collaborators and colleagues and Roger’s understanding and support with this was invaluable. More recently after I joined the Zoo team as Science Director of the zoo I have actively participated in developing our inclusive approach to LGBTQ+ staff and partners which has been a hugely positive experience. Chester Pride 2022 was an emotional moment for me. Our Chester Zoo group of over 70 colleagues and allies was one of the largest of the local business organisations on the march. That I would be marching shoulder to shoulder with so many colleagues at Pride in 2023 was unimaginable when I started my career in the early 1990s.

The collaborative nature of the zoo sector across the globe in its conservation work does present challenges in terms of acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and lifestyles in different countries and cultures.  This is where zoos and aquariums in the UK have the opportunity to lead by example. Indeed, positive role models and celebrated examples of the progress we have made are crucial to LGBTQ+ people wherever they are.  Neither were in evidence at the beginning of my career and the conservation sector felt to me like a lonely place as it must still do to so many LGBTQ+ conservationists around the world. The more we can do to celebrate LGBTQ+ visibility and diversity in zoos and aquariums the better it will be for all who work in them.

Simon Dowell, Conservation Science & Policy Director, Chester Zoo

All blogs reflect the views of their author and are not a reflection of BIAZA's positions. 

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