UCL Campaign


Savitri Hensman

BSc Chemical Engineering, 1979–82

Savitri Hensman

Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka and moved to London at the age of 2. A long-time resident of Hackney, she worked for many years in the voluntary sector, mainly in equalities, health and social care, and is now an involvement coordinator in health research.

Savitri helped found London's Black Lesbian and Gay Centre in 1985. She served as community representative on Haringey Council’s Lesbian and Gay Sub-Committee and was involved in the Positive Images group and Haringey Black Action in late 1980s. The passing of Section 28 in 1988 was a pivotal moment for the UK’s gay and lesbian rights movement and Savitri took part in the fight against the legislation, marching and protesting alongside fellow black and ethnic minority gay and lesbian activists.

Christianity is an integral part of Savitri’s identity and she has written extensively on the subjects of faith, homosexuality and campaigning for a more inclusive church. Her book Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness: Same-Sex Love and the Church was published in 2015.

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In her own words

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, there was a Gay Society and some acceptance in parts of UCL, including, I think, one ‘out’ student union officer. Yet there was also open hostility and, in several departments (and most of society), lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were broadly invisible. This included the UCL Chemical and Biochemical Engineering departments, where I studied from 1979-82, one of a handful of women on my course.

I had gradually come to terms with my sexuality, after much thinking and reading. I plucked up the courage to tell my closest friend on the chemical engineering course; then, at the start of the final year, my fellow-students generally. I figured, in that rather ‘macho’ environment, it would probably be even harder for a gay man to come out than a lesbian – and, statistically, it was quite possible I was the only one of these in the whole department! Indeed I think I became the only openly LGBT person in the engineering faculty. I was relieved that there were no negative reactions, though some people were surprised.

Fellow-members of the Christian Union were probably even more taken aback. While the university church where I often worshipped was inclusive, this was (and still is) by no means universal in faith communities. However, the chaplain was open-minded and supportive and I met no hostility.

I realise how lucky I was – and, being in a large city, it was easier to get involved in LGBT circles outside too. Three years after leaving, I began work for the pioneering Black Lesbian and Gay Centre Project in London.

On changing LGBT issues

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On life before UCL

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On being a lesbian in Chemical Engineering

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This exhibition was on public display in the North Cloisters of UCL’s Wilkins Building throughout February 2019 to coincide with LGBT History Month.

Special thanks to the various UCL alumni and staff who contributed such wonderful stories and recollections.

The exhibition is Out @ UCL / LEAG production in collaboration with UCL Culture, UCL Alumni Relations and UCL Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Sandy Kutty and Bob Mills curated and collated the texts. Design by Aspel Creative.