With intimidatingly magnificent grounds stretching from the end of the High Street into St. Clements and nearby countryside, a reputation for producing Conservative politicians, and a smaller LGBTQ+ presence than colleges like Wadham, sometimes I am not entirely clear why, as a queer student, I chose to apply to Magdalen. Back in sixth form I heard it was good for Classics, had deer in the grounds, and lots of green space, and at the time that was enough for me to want to apply. Since arriving as a fresher back in 2018, I have made friends to last a lifetime, muddled through essays and exams that were apparently at least ‘good’ despite my stubborn impostor syndrome, had ridiculous amounts of fun, and most importantly felt safe and welcome.
But only a few days ago it emerged that our new college President, Dinah Rose QC, was the barrister representing the Cayman Islands in its bid to overturn gay marriage, and it’s been basically all we’ve been talking about since Thursday. When the news broke, it seemed at first like it might be a non-issue. Some students were instantly outraged, and shared a petition demanding that she either resign as President, or drop the case. Yet to me it seemed like most students were on Dinah’s side, with their main argument being that as a barrister, Dinah had to represent any case she was approached with regardless of whether it aligned with her personal views (this is known as the ‘cab rank rule’, and is essentially in place to make sure everyone gets legal representation no matter their standpoint). Their argument was that any outrage or upset caused by this stemmed from a fundamental misunderstanding of a barrister’s job, and seeing as Dinah was not homophobic herself – she was just representing a homophobic government in this particular case – the anger and offence was misdirected.
For a day or so this convinced me. Aside from this recent controversy, I really like Dinah Rose QC. As Welfare Executive last January, I was involved in the process of interviewing candidates for the position of President of the college, and so had spoken to Dinah before anyone even knew she was being considered for this job. And since September 2020 when she arrived in college, she’s helped enact positive and necessary changes in Magdalen’s JCR welfare system which myself and the other two Welfare Reps had previously considered impossible due to archaic rules and college bureaucracy, including launching a full review into college welfare to find out what needs to be changed, especially in terms of the decanal and suspension systems. She’s also fundamentally changed what it means to be President here, and has been far more visible, friendly, and engaged than possibly any of her predecessors.
However upon further consideration I realised the issue here was not that the Cayman Islands were receiving legal representation in the first place, but instead that their legal representation was simultaneously representing, leading, and living among a body of students, many of whom are BAME or LGBTQ+ and whose welfare is to an extent her responsibility. If Dinah carries on with this case, regardless of her personal views on it, we’re still living and working in an Oxford college whose figurehead might be instrumental in repealing rights for queer people in the Caribbean. That feeling of discomfort, and for some even danger, persists for many students in spite of what we’ve been reminded several times about the cab rank rule. ACS and the LGBTQ+ society have put out statements condemning her actions and highlighting the harm this has done both to queer people in the Caribbean, and to LGBTQ+ and BAME students at Magdalen and in the wider university. It’s clear that this has gone far beyond a misunderstanding of the cab rank rule, and is instead a matter of whether marginalised students feel safe, supported, and welcome at Magdalen – which, it is emerging, many do not.
Taking a step back from the situation in college, I’m also worried for prospective queer and BAME students who might have applied to Magdalen were Dinah not representing the Cayman Islands in this case, but instead will now have been put off, perhaps permanently. Magdalen is not known as having a particularly big queer community, and this controversy will probably be a huge setback to the progress we have made in recent years, such as flying the trans flag during Transgender Awareness Week. The case has already been covered in several national papers, and so many sixth form students considering applying to Oxford will see the word “Magdalen” next to the word “anti-gay” in a headline, and that will be what they remember, regardless of the details of the case or the cab rank law. Thinking back to my Year Thirteen self, hearing about the deer park once was enough to make me apply to Magdalen; supposedly out and proud but deep down still ashamed and reeling from the effects of high-school-homophobia, if I’d heard about it being reportedly “anti-gay” that would probably have been enough to keep me well away. For many LGBTQ+ students, going to university is seen as a rite of passage in which they can escape potentially homophobic or transphobic families and fully embrace themselves for the first time. Magdalen might now be viewed as a place where that’s not possible – and that makes me deeply sad.
While this has been reported on widely throughout the university already, I noticed that there’s been an odd silence coming from us Magdalen students, and wanted to at least contribute my voice as a bisexual woman who can literally see the President’s lodgings from her bedroom window. I’m still unsure about what can be done to rectify this. But I firmly believe that the trust between Dinah Rose QC and the LGBTQ+ and BAME students she is leading, representing, and living with has been broken, and needs more than an explanation of the cab rank rule to be fixed.