On the 11th October it is International Coming Out Day. Over the last two months I have been talking about my coming out experiences – how I came out to my boyfriend, my mum and dad, my brothers, my dogs, my grandparents, my friends and at work.
Last week I wrote about Why I Went Back In The Closet At Work.
It got me thinking about my experiences of being gay at work and looking back now, I wish I had come out in my teaching job.
Let me tell you why.
But before I do. You need to know that homophobia and biphobia were rife in my workplace. That was what influenced my decision not to come out.
Why I Wish I Had Come Out At Work
I ran away from having any personal conversations with my colleagues. As soon as they started talking about their partner, kids, what they were doing at the weekend, I’d be out of there! I didn’t want to out myself accidentally.
But that meant my colleagues didn’t get to know the real me. I know they felt my distance from them; they knew I had put up a shield all around me and I wasn’t going to let them in. They saw the barriered version of me that I chose to show them. They knew nothing about me or my life.
That made me feel isolated. Lonely. It made me not want to socialise with them outside of work. And I dreaded the compulsory team Christmas Dinner. I was always on edge with people and worried about what they may ask me when we were alone together. I had stories made up in my head, in case they asked me anything at all about my private life. But I was exhausted. From running. From hiding. From pretending I was someone else.
With me being so distant with them, they mirrored that back to me. I didn’t feel accepted. I felt like I was sitting on a wall looking in on their conversations. I felt excluded from their world.
Because homophobia and biphobia were so prominent in the workplace, I felt like I couldn’t come out. I heard the conversations and gossip about other staff members and students that were out. And I didn’t like what I heard. I didn’t want anyone to treat me differently, to gossip about me or to back away from speaking with me ‘in case I turned them gay.’
I was told that I had ‘gay mannerisms’ in a teaching observation. After this remark, I started to suppress my natural gestures, mannerisms and was noticeably more muted in my teaching style. Over time, this started to affect my creativity with lesson planning. I questioned every lesson I put together, I ran it through my ‘heterosexual filter’ to make sure if someone else was watching me deliver this lesson, they would not know I was gay. In meetings, I was quiet and I thought through every comment I made before I said it. I felt restricted and caged and I didn’t bring ALL of my skills and knowledge into the workplace. I was scared to for fear of what may happen.
I had a fear of being outed publicly. I was scared that someone would ‘find me out’ and then everyone in the College would know about my sexuality.
Not only would that open me up to abuse, harassment and criticism, it would also impact on my ability to get a promotion. I had aspirations and I knew that if I came out, I would be saying goodbye to those.
Can you imagine all of that? Coming in to work in the morning and being in fear. On tenterhooks. Always watching your back? Showing up as a fraction of who you really are.
By coming out, I wonder if it would have set the wheels in motion for my workplace to be a more accepting, safe and inspiring place to work.
I would have loved to have been a role model for other LGBT staff and offer mentoring for them to further their careers.
All of that, is why I wish I had come out on a personal level.
With my colleagues, if I had been out at work, I think it would have opened the door for them to have a greater understanding of LGBT issues. To ask questions and find out more about life as an LGBT person.
It may have inspired them to support the students more fully and encourage them to learn more about LGBT history and challenges LGBT people face in day to day life, instead of gossiping and spreading rumours about them.
I know this would have supported their life not only in the workplace but in their interactions in society too. I imagine a ripple effect with this. My coming out would have planted a seed for them to want to learn more, be curious and ask the questions so they were more educated on LGBT life.
From the leadership team, I would have loved to see them dedicate to the roll out of LGBT awareness training across the college. To provide staff with basic knowledge, understanding and support for their work with LGBT students.
For them to encourage an LGBT employee network and LGBT student network group.
To consider inclusion and intersectionality within the college and how they could become more inclusive for everyone, not just around gender and disability.
When organisations begin working on inclusion, they tend to focus on gender and disability. Only last week was I working with a global financial provider that is a Fortune 500 company. They openly said: ”We think we are doing really well on inclusion because we have considered and adapted our working practices to ensure they are inclusive to gender and disability.”
But what about the other protected characteristics? What about ensuring everyone can bring their whole selves to work?
It is not good enough these days to consider protected characteristics in silos. Yes, ensure your organisation is addressing each of the characteristics and considering the different elements to people’s identity.
But the bit most organisations miss (including many of the Fortune 500s I work with) is bringing it all back together. For example: ensuring a disabled, muslim lesbian feels included for ALL of her identity as a whole, and not just individually for her gender, disability, sexuality, religion or race. She can’t separate any of those things from who she is. So why should you?
And lastly, the students.
I would have loved to offer support to the LGBT students.
To have started up an LGBT student network, so they could socialise and meet with fellow LGBT students.
And to be a role model and advocate for them in their learning journey.
Good Practice In The Workplace
I’ve learned so much from this experience at work, and subsequently through my work as an LGBT+ Inclusion Consultant.
Here are a few essentials for all workplaces to consider.
- Provide regular LGBT+ inclusion training and awareness raising for the leadership team, middle management and the HR team. Give them a safe space to ask questions they may not feel comfortable raising anywhere else, talk about the challenges they face and identify possible solutions.
- Get your policies, practices and procedures up to date for inclusion (and specifically LGBT+ Inclusion) in the workplace. Make sure you have robust policies and practices in place to report LGBT+ related bullying and harassment. Do these policies sit in a drawer gathering dust? Or are they actively lived out each and every day?
- Make sure you have visible LGBT+ role models at all levels of the business, including boardroom representation.
- Identify senior leadership LGBT+ allies. Get them trained up so they are able to answer questions and provide support to employees and managers.
- Support an LGBT+ Employee Network. Create a safe space for LGBT+ staff to come together, discuss their issues, support each other and offer their own potential solutions. Check in with them regularly.
- Encourage a safe space to have conversations about gender and sexuality in the workplace.
- If you are going to insist on taking data, make sure your systems reflect a more diverse population. Having gender binary options only is not good enough in 2019. Offer alternative options that represent the LGBT+ community. Do you need to upgrade your data collection systems, your CRM or till system?
Training for managers is key.
- Every single manager needs to be fully LGBT+ trained. They need to know how to effectively deal with LGBT+ related issues, questions and unconscious bias. They need to know the right language to use, understand the issues LGBT+ individuals face and be empowered to challenge inappropriate behaviour. They need to know how to support LGBT employees and customers.
- Encourage managers to be LGBT+ allies and provide training for this.
- Set up an LGBT+ Employee Network. These are powerful. As well as being a source of support for the individuals within the network, they can advise on internal policy decisions and the business’s marketing plan. They can act as an advisory board working with the marketing and product teams to develop LGBT+ products and services and provide critical feedback on your communication strategies.
- Regular bespoke staff training/awareness delivered by an LGBT+ person and specialist (this is essential – don’t have LGBT+ training delivered by a heterosexual person). As a minimum this should raise awareness on issues faced by LGBT+ individuals in their lives, unconscious bias and appropriate language to use. The issues faced when accessing your products and services and how to support an LGBT+ customer.
- Provide a resource bank of training materials for employees – to educate on bi-visibility, trans inclusion, how to deal with homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and many more LGBT+ areas!
What would you add to this list of Good Practice for LGBT Inclusion?
Next Steps For LGBT Training For Companies
Is it time to review your training?
To get an LGBT trainer to update or upgrade it?
Or maybe even devise something that is more bespoke and fit for purpose.
For more information on the LGBT training I offer for companies: https://www.ginabattye.com/lgbt-training-for-companies