Simon Blake: How will you come out for your LGBT colleagues?

The deputy chair of Stonewall argues that too many LGBT people still find it difficult to reveal their true identities in the workplace

Simon Blake
Simon Blake

It is 2017. We know categorically that when people are able to be their whole selves at work, everyone benefits. They are happier and they do better at work. Stonewall’s new campaign, Come Out for LGBT, requires all of us in the social sector to pause for thought and ask how are we doing for our LGBT employees and volunteers.

Thinking about my own experience, I glide back to 1996, when I was 22. I was in the probationary period of my first "graduate job". I was fresh-faced, eager to succeed and 100 per cent trying to hide my sexuality at work.

I was rumbled by a colleague who saw me do a double, and probably triple, take as we passed a beautiful man. My colleague said something like "he was gorgeous, huh". (I later met him in Cardiff’s gay club, Club X. We had a couple of dates. But that is a whole different and, frankly, quite exciting story that probably isn’t suitable for Third Sector.)

I had been found out. My face burned. My throat went dry. I croaked "who? I didn’t see. I was looking at the flowers" or some similar (some would argue camp) nonsense reply.

That night I went home properly fretting. After endless chat at the kitchen table I resolved to go to work the next day and tell colleagues what they already knew – that I was gay. Walking to work I had that same gut-wrenching feeling I had when I was coming out to my family.

I had come out to myself in 1990, told friends between 1992 and 1995, and my parents in 1995, but – like many people still today – I had to go "back into the closet" when I started work. With hindsight, it was truly absurd. I was working at one of the UK's leading sexual health agencies. I was running a sexual health project for young men exploring masculinity and sexuality.

My colleagues were all lovely towards me and, as with many coming-out stories, they told me they knew.

Fast-forward 21 years and the age of consent is equal, Section 28 is repealed, equal marriage is achieved and organisations are much more tuned in to the importance of inclusive workplaces. LGBT folk are working in all sectors. Sorry, anti-LGBT bigots, but we are everywhere.

Yet still we know that 44 per cent of people don’t feel confident about disclosing their sexual orientation at work. The latest data shows that 44 per cent of people go back into the closet when they start work. It’s shocking and unacceptable.

In September, Stonewall launched #ComeOutforLGBT. The campaign asks all of us to actively come out for LGBT people. It doesn’t prescribe actions; it simply challenges us to do something, to take action. Passionate, thoughtful and deliberate action.

So whatever your role, what can and will you do?

Some organisations in the social sector will have the resources to participate in Stonewall’s workplace equality index. Most won’t. But we can all come out for LGBT in different ways. Sending clear, inclusive and positive messages in your recruitment campaigns, in your welcome letters, in your inductions, in the posters you display in your offices, in your training, through your culture work, your performance and talent conversations and your support for self-organising liberation groups.

Some think the job of LGBT equality in the workplace is done. I was recently told that gay folk in the social sector have a glass elevator, not a glass ceiling. Poppycock.

All the evidence – big evidence in proper studies and small evidence (my mates, colleagues and what I see on social media) – shows that fear, embarrassment and barriers to progression still exist in the workplace for LGBT employees. And I am a white gay man. I have always worked in organisations specifically working for sexual equality. I have had amazing bosses for 20 out of my 23 working years. That hasn’t stopped the homophobia I learnt at home, at school and in wider society influencing my thoughts, but it has doubtless made it easier for me than for many others, including those who are more invisible in the workplace, such as LGBT people of colour, bisexual or trans people.

So my question to you is how will you come out for LGBT in your workplace? How will you let all LGBT folk – particularly those just starting out in their careers and those facing more barriers or greater invisibility – know they are welcome, they are wanted, they are valued and they have a vital contribution to make.

Stonewall has some pretty good advice for employers, which you can find here.

Whatever you do, make sure you and your organisation #ComesOutForLGBT.

Simon Blake is chief executive of the National Union of Students and deputy chair of Stonewall

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