The 11th of October is marked in my diary as the day I get to tie up 49 other senior leaders from my company. Thankfully for our reputations, it's all rainbow ribbon and bows and not anything more sinister, plus it is for a good cause: a photo shoot to show all our colleagues worldwide our support of Coming Out Day and LGBT+ equality.
Coming Out Day was founded in 1988 with the idea that the most basic form of activism is coming out to family, friends and colleagues, and living life as an openly LGBT+ person. But according to UK LGBT+ charity Stonewall, nearly two thirds of LGBT+ graduates who were out at university go back in the closet when they start their first job. In addition, two in five feel they can't come out to their managers and three quarters with clients or suppliers.
I was shocked and saddened by these figures. I hadn't realized that being in the closet at work was still a fact of life for many LGBT+ people. One of my uncles was a serving US Army officer during the "don't ask, don't tell" period. He loved his job and was proud to serve his country. Sadly, when it became clear that he was gay, he had to leave the military and, thus, lost his job.
Being in the closet at work equates to huge amounts of attention and energy being spent to avoid being outed, which can negatively affect performance. To get the best of our teams, they need to be able to be their whole, genuine selves. Thus, employers should be creating workplaces where they are happy to be so.
Being in the majority, straight people have a clear role to play in creating an inclusive environment. It is important to come out as an LGBT+ ally to show support of what can be a challenging experience for LGBT+ people. My photo shoot example not only shows support from the very top of the business, but also creates an environment where those leaders - most of them straight cis-gender - can discuss LGBT+ topics and questions openly among themselves.
In my journey to become the best LGBT+ ally I can be, I was given the following advice:
- Educate yourself on the issues. I was never sure what the 'Q' in LGBTQ stood for, and then what 'queer' really meant - so I asked the chair of our LGBT+ network, who shared this article with me.
- Don't beat yourself up if you get it wrong. It took me a while to remember the correct acronym and get the letters for LGBT+ in the right order. What helped me was people supporting me get it right, and not rolling their eyes and criticising me when I got it wrong.
- Be visible and vocal. Have some signal to show you are an ally - in our office it is mini rainbow flags and stickers. The next level is being vocal - mention your LGBT+ friends and family or that you marched in Pride. Talk to your colleagues and senior leaders about LGBT+ topics in the news. Challenge any homophobic comments or 'banter' firmly and immediately.
- Be active. Now you know 11 October is Coming Out Day, ask whether your workplace is celebrating it. Don't assume your LGBT+ network, if you have one, will be leading on it, so step up and print some information off for the noticeboards yourself or host a rainbow-themed coffee morning.
Whatever you choose to do next in your own progression as an LGBT+ ally, please do something, and why not use 11 October and Coming Out Day as a starting point?