Dr Clara Barker is one of the most prominent role models for LGBT+ issues in Oxford. Currently chair of the LGBT+ Advisory Group, she is Dean for equality and diversity at Linacre College and won the Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Role Model Award in 2018.
She has written many articles and delivered numerous talks on LGBT+ issues and diversity in academia, including a TEDx talk. In the city, she runs an LGBT+ youth group and a support group for parents.
However, the transformation of Clara Barker is not all about gender. She has come a long way from ‘high school drop-out’ to achieve her doctorate in materials science and become Manager of Oxford’s Centre for Applied Superconductivity and a member of the Royal Society’s Diversity Committee.
LGBT+ Month is a good opportunity to remember there is a long history of LGBT+ people. We are not new. LGBT+ have always existed and it is good to celebrate our role models and where we have come from – but also acknowledge that we still have a long way to go.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a small council estate in north Manchester. There, nobody finished school, never mind went to university. But my sister and I both got into the local grammar school with scholarships as my mother wanted us to have the best start she could give us.
When did you start to feel different?
At primary school I didn't fit in. I was the kid that was bullied. Things got better at high school, but it was at the time of Section 28, so I had no LGBT knowledge whatsoever. There was no information.
Did you have any role models or anyone to turn to for support and advice?
Absolutely not. There was a complete lack of understanding.
I was severely depressed throughout school because I knew there was something about me, but I didn't know what it was and thought ‘I've got to hide it.’ I didn't have anyone to talk to, so I ended up with really bad mental health.
I actually dropped out of school before I finished my A-levels. It was only after a number of years that I felt able to do a foundation degree at Manchester Metropolitan University.
When did you begin to understand your situation and how to move forward?
It started with access to the internet in 2000. That year I went to Glastonbury, saw David Bowie and bought my first computer. Then I could chat on message boards, and in later years watch YouTube videos, see different people sharing their stories and hear their voices. That’s when I started to realise that these are just normal people who were transgender. Being able to see someone like me was what I needed. It was so important.
Throughout my studies I was going to counselling, but I could never tell them what was actually wrong. During my post-doctorate positions in Switzerland, I found a counsellor who specialised in trans patients. I sent them an email, saying: ‘I've never been able to admit this to anyone; this who I think I am.’ That email stayed in my outbox for weeks, but once I sent it, the word was out.
The counsellor put me in touch with people so that I could start medically transitioning.
From that point onwards I started telling family and friends and they accepted me. I'm very lucky. That's a privileged position. I know it's not always the case.
What advice would you give to somebody at the beginning of this journey now?
Find people you can talk to, whoever they are. Friends, family or a support group on the internet.
Find the people you can trust. If that means people you can trust but who don't understand, that is still a first step. Then find people that do understand. Get support, get peer support.
In last year’s Nature profile, you said: ‘Oxford was the first place where I could be myself, where I’ve enjoyed being in the laboratory, because I was no longer pretending or hiding – I was accepted for being me.’ You made a fresh start when you came to Oxford?
My postdoctoral position abroad ended. I set the day to start afresh.
The support I have in the lab means I can get on with my job without hiding anything. It's amazing how emotion burdens affect your output in the lab.
Oxford is a really nice place to live. I feel extremely safe and am proud to be such an integrated part of this community. Because it is small, I have contacts all over Oxford – and Oxfordshire. I get messages from youth centres all over the county, I work with the councils and the police and know my MPs. This is uniquely related to the size of Oxford; it is not something that you can do in a bigger city.
Oxford is such a fantastic university. The research being done here, the people I work with, the people I meet are just phenomenal. We have some amazing heroes here in Oxford. For example, I might see Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell: she is an incredible scientist and I think ‘Wow, I have just walked past her.’
You manage the Centre of Applied Superconductivity. How would you describe this to a layman?
We're making superconductors. They’re materials that allow electric current to flow with no resistance below a specific temperature and are used in MRI scanners in hospitals, particle accelerators like at CERN, fusion generators such as JET in Culham and applications like maglev trains.
You were awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Award in 2018. How did that make you feel?
It was really nice to win that award and it was the first round. It shows that people in the University really appreciate the work that I've been doing.
You also won the prime minister’s Points of Light Award. What was that?
The award is for voluntary work and doing good things in the local community. I got a certificate and a Christmas card from the prime minister and invited to the Downing Street Pride Month garden party.
What would be your perfect day?
Outside the science lab, I would be hiking or climbing. That would have to be in the North of England – it is a bit flat in Oxfordshire. Then board games with friend, I review board game on YouTube. That is the one place where I am who I am. I don’t talk about being trans, I am just the person who likes board games.
In the last few years, I've concentrated on outreach and equality in STEM. I want to re-establish my independent research. I am trying to get funding and have a fellowship application. I have ideas for how we can use superconductors and I want to try them. I excited and it's another transition.
What does LGBT+ History Month mean to you?
LGBT+ Month is a good opportunity to remember there is a long history of LGBT+ people. We are not new. LGBT+ have always existed and it is good to celebrate our role models and where we have come from – but also acknowledge that we still have a long way to go
LGBT+ History Month is a month-long annual celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) history and an opportunity to raise the visibility of these lives and experiences.
Find out about the University's LGBT+ Staff Network
Find out more about the Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Award 2022
Clara's 2022 LGBT+ Lecture: Thoughts on separating artist from the art; the scientist from the science