Learning is no ‘drag’ for Social Work students

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Contemporary LGBTQ+ considerations were live and in-person last week with a topical lecture led by a University academic wearing full drag.

Phil Harper is a Lecturer in Health and Social Care at the University of Northampton (UON) and outside work hours doubles as a drag speaker and activist.

Rather than leave that side of their persona in the makeup box, Phil decided it was an ideal opportunity to use their alter ego to deliver an important lecture for Social Work students.

As Social Workers will meet people from many backgrounds and communities the lecture aimed to help students consider the views of people of different sexualities and gender identities by getting them to learn from someone ‘in the know’.

Following a lecture about LGBTQ+ history and considerations, the students discussed how they felt when they saw ‘Philli’ enter the room, what they learned from the session, and how they think it will help them in their future practice. There were surprising results all around.

Phil explains: “I’ve always played with gender and how I express myself, but I started to properly explore drag about a year and a half ago. It was, you may say, a lockdown hobby and gave me something to focus on and develop. The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it, so it snowballed from there.

“Drag is a broad and varied spectrum and isn’t just confined to the artists you see on TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. For instance, I class myself as ‘Beard drag’ so I don’t hide my facial hair and incorporate that into my makeup. I don’t always get up on a stage and tell cheeky gags; you’re more likely to see ‘Philli’ on a protest march or giving a political talk about LGBTQ+ issues and challenges.

“We pride ourselves on being inclusive and representing diverse communities at the University of Northampton but teaching our Social Work students in this way is a very new approach. What was great to see was how unfazed they all were as I walked in, hardly anyone batted an eyelid. I expected the lecture to be all tied up after a couple of hours, but the conversation flowed for much longer and revealed how much they threw themselves into the learning. From the discussions, it was obvious that even though ‘Philli’s’ appearance was unexpected, they were not un-welcome and certainly helped the conversation flow. It was wonderful and, who knows, perhaps ‘Philli’ will make a return!”

Peter Meech and Alice Page were two of the students who took part in the discussions about human sexuality and gender expression. Peter said: “In a way, it wasn’t a ‘surprise’ and followed what we have been taught already about always being person-centred with those we will be working with. The lecture was very much about focusing on Phil, the individual, rather than the label of ‘drag’. It was also clear that we shouldn’t assume just because you know someone from the LGBTQ+ community, that every other such person is going to be the same as them.”

Alice added: “It was the first time I’d seen someone in drag in person. It wasn’t a big thing when Phil/’Philli’ walked into the room, no one seemed to mind. Phil is part of a community I will no doubt have contact with when I quality and by taking the lecture as ‘Philli’ and letting us hear from them and ask questions allowed us, in a way, to be a part of that community. I feel so much more confident if I was to approach service users in the LGBTQ+ community and am glad to have had this opportunity”.