I'm crouched down in a store cupboard, pins and needles starting to form in the tips of my fingers and thumbs, and I'm finding it difficult to catch my breath. I am 16 years old, a leader on a kid's Summer camp in the Netherlands, and sensing that I am becoming unusually anxious, the cupboard is the only place that allows me some privacy.
A few minutes later and the pins and needles have taken over both hands, I have sweat dripping down my brow and I'm hyperventilating. I have never experienced an episode like this and rather than my rational brain kicking in to say my breathing would eventually return to normal, I genuinely believe that I am going to pass out or die. A couple of hours later, somewhat shaken but with my breathing improved, I put the episode down to some anxiety around my upcoming exam results and told myself to move on.
These attacks continued a couple of times a year for the next five years. I attributed them to anxiety around a specific event and told myself to stop being so sensitive and to 'man -up'. In hindsight, it's abundantly obvious. These were panic attacks that were a direct result of asking myself the same simple question multiple times a day over a period of thirteen years: 'am I gay?'.
However liberal my upbringing, growing up in the 1980s when official legislation referred to gay relationships as 'pretended family relationships' and newspapers led with headlines like 'the poofter MPs' and AIDS being 'the kiss of death', I guess it wasn't surprising that an insecure teenager would be hesitant about publicly questioning their sexuality.
Society has come a long way but sadly in the UK today, 90% of secondary school teachers see pupils experience homophobic bullying, 44% of young LGBT people have considered suicide and 42% have sought medical help for anxiety or depression, which is 2-3x that of their straight counterparts. I dread to imagine the figures in the 74 countries where it's illegal to be gay.
It wasn't until a Friday evening shortly after my 22nd birthday, when driving home from work to my parent's house, I felt that all-too-common sensation of pins and needles, and I knew it was time to reveal my true self to those around me. I was very lucky. My parents, family and friends couldn't have been more accepting. In my personal life, I felt an enormous weight immediately release itself from my shoulders. I stood taller, I smiled more and not surprisingly, I never had a panic attack again. Don't get me wrong, I still suffer from the occasional bout of anxiety, however unlike others where this can be a life-long struggle, I think and hope I'm through the worst.
The following Monday morning, like 62% of Gen-Y graduates, I walked into work and went straight back in the closet. I was in the early stages of my career, I had the baggage of having dropped out of university and I was concerned that being gay would limit my career opportunities. It took me a good few years, and a new job, to finally find the confidence to come out at work. In hindsight, this was the moment that helped accelerate my career trajectory. I've written before about the many benefits I experienced; from increased productivity and heightened emotional intelligence to the ability to build long-lasting and more authentic relationships with colleagues and clients.
For good or bad, the coming out process also helped me develop an amazing level of resilience. In today's ever-changing work environment, I would argue that resilience is one of the most important character traits and as a community, it's a skill that we've developed over many years pretending to be someone we're not. Now we can put that skill to great use within our professional lives in a positive and productive way.
So why am I sharing this story 20+ years later? Last week I was on a panel for the launch of Out In Tech London and an audience member asked the simple question 'what can we do?'. On reflection, the answer was simple, we need more business leaders to tell their stories. We need today's 16yr olds to know that you can be out and have a successful career. We need today's 16yr olds to know that authentic leadership is a strength, is a differentiator and should be embraced. We need today's 16yr olds not to be afraid to come out at work. We need today's 16yr olds to know that coming out is good for business. I wish I had known that when I was 16.
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