The story I tell the students in the schools we go into is about feeling 'different'. Regardless of whether you are LGBT or an ally it is something we can all relate to:
I came out at University and it was great. I was out to friends, family, lecturers, doctors just about everyone and I was much happier for it.
However when I started my first full time job for a large bank I went back in the closet. This felt different. It was a job. This was how I paid my bills. More than that, it was the prospect of a career and I didn’t want mess it up. When I first started it was legal to sack someone for being gay. One of the first things I did on joining was check the bank’s Diversity and Inclusion policy. I was relieved to see they were committed to equality. However, although I knew they couldn’t sack me, I was worried that if my colleagues were homophobic then my job might become so unbearable I’d have to leave. Some of my colleagues had made derogatory remarks about lesbians and although I now know my colleagues were not homophobic, there was a lot of homophobic ‘banter’. So I hid my sexual orientation and I hid my relationship. My colleagues would share information about their families and partners but I didn’t share much at all for fear of ‘letting slip’. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried playing the pronoun game (not using ‘him/her’ or ‘he/she’) but if you haven’t, try it. Just for an hour - it’s exhausting! I guess my colleagues thought I was being evasive and not sharing personal info back must have made me look cold and uninterested when nothing could be further from the truth. Ironically the thing that I was doing to bond with my colleagues was preventing me from doing exactly that.
Eventually I had enough and I decided to bite the bullet and come out. Nothing bad happened. The sky didn’t fall in and my worst fears weren’t realised. It was OK. But it was just……OK. Not hiding and being yourself are different things. So I joined the bank’s LGBT network. I assumed my experiences were common place and my ideas of what we could do better were obvious. I quickly realised that they were only obvious to me because they were my ideas. It turns out no one else had thought of them or if they had, they hadn’t voiced them.
One day we had a focus group where LGBT employees were asked if the bank should do an advert featuring an LGBT couple. Of course we all said yes and I asked if we could use a female couple as people tend only to think of the ‘G’ in LGBT and there is a real lack of visibility for bi and lesbian women. Just a few weeks later I was speaking to a colleague and she informed me that the bank were producing an advert with an LGBT couple in, our feedback had been taken on board. I asked if the couple were male or female and she confirmed that we were using a female couple. Imagine how I felt at this point. I had shared my views as a lesbian employee and I had been listened to. Not only listened to but a large corporation was spending time and money on an advertising campaign which incorporated the feedback of my LGBT colleagues and me.
The advert was a success. One viewer wrote a heartfelt letter about how rare it is to see normal, everyday portrayals of lesbian and bisexual women in adverts and how we had ‘made the proverbial closet a less dark and isolating place’. She was considering becoming a customer so it would seem that LGBT customers were feeling valued and that meant the bank was getting business out of the advert and enhancing its reputation too. My colleagues and I were really pleased to know that our experiences were being heard and were being used to make the bank a more inclusive place for colleagues and customers alike. The advert even won an award!
From there I went from strength to strength. I became the Global Co-chair of the network which involved leading 1,400 volunteers from all over the world. I found myself in discussions with the bank’s executives, gave a talk in Japan and really enhanced my leadership skills. It turns out that the thing that I had been hiding, far from being a problem, was making a positive contribution. The customers were happier, my colleagues were happier, the bank was happier and I benefited hugely- a win win win win!
I usually finish my story with two things to think about:
- As an individual: What kind of life do you want? Will you take the thing that makes you different and chose to hide it or will you allow it to be the thing that makes you stand out in the best possible way?
- As friends: What environment do your words and actions create? One where people feel the need to hide or one where they can be themselves?
I’m pleased to say the law on discrimination has changed to making sacking people on the grounds of sexual orientation illegal. However laws don’t change society, we do. Only when we act differently do things really change.