LGBTQ+ History Month is celebrated each February. It was started in 1994 by Missouri high-school teacher Rodney Wilson and has since evolved into a month-long celebration observed in Hungary, the UK, the USA, Canada, Brazil, Greenland and Berlin. This year the theme of LGBTQ+ History Month is Mind, Body and Spirit.
We have all become increasingly aware of mental health, as many of us have struggled with the isolation imposed on us by the Covid pandemic and lockdown restrictions. I speak daily to people who feel that they are missing the social interaction in the workplace. However, many do not realise that for some individuals, this feeling of isolation in the workplace is continual and caused by a fear of judgement, persecution and lack of understanding.
Before coming out at work I would struggle on a Monday morning when my colleagues discussed how they spent their free time. The people I worked with did not know I was gay, so when asked the question ‘what did you do at the weekend?’ they would quickly respond with what activities they did with their husbands, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends. For me the answer to the question was a minefield of labels I needed to navigate around. ‘Partner’ instead of ‘girlfriend’, ‘they’ instead of ‘she’, even the places I would visit needed censoring to ensure I did not inadvertently let clues slip out. When explaining how my partner took me to the pub I would be frantically thinking of the names of local pubs, trying to avoid naming the only gay pub in town!
This censorship of my own life was continuous and when discussing my partner it was easier to let people assume that ‘she’ was in fact a ‘he’. It was also simpler to isolate myself from others to avoid being found out. I didn’t attend work events and avoided conversations because of the fear of other people’s reactions to my sexuality.
As a mother I was conflicted in my home life. How could I tell my son that he should always be proud of who he was and other people’s opinions did not matter? How did I teach him to cope with the school bullies and ignorance he was faced with by having two mums, but then go to work and hide in plain sight?
The version of me that I presented at work was a very withdrawn, private, quiet and reserved person; I felt that I was unable to be me. This ‘performance’ is draining and damaging and leads many people in the LGBTQ+ community to suffer from anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and depression. Studies suggest that LGBTQ+ people are at a higher risk of suicidal behaviour than heterosexual adults.
Coming out in the workplace was a terrifying experience for me. Fortunately, it was met with more support than I had ever expected, and acceptance outweighed any negativity. Yes, there were those who reacted badly; I lost friends and faced some very hurtful comments and names, but I had support from those closest to me who helped me to overcome these. I became more social, confident, outgoing and outspoken. I was able to be the ‘whole me’ in work and as a result I became more engaged. My work improved and I was able to move within the company to new opportunities.
I joined BAM in 2014 and made a conscious decision to be out from the time I arrived. As I write, I wonder how many people reading this ever have to make these kinds of decisions. I put a photo on my desk of my son with his two mums and was quickly asked about the people in the photo. By the end of the first day it was common knowledge in the office. I was faced with some curiosity and answered questions, but if there was any negativity I was fortunate enough to not hear it. I have found support and acceptance in my colleagues.
I am now married and fiercely proud of my relationship, but still find myself stuttering over the use of the word ‘wife’ when I am meeting new people in the business and they ask me about my family. There still remains the fear of how I will be perceived, but continued positive interactions mean that this fear diminishes each time and I look forward to a day when I do not have to assess the room before talking about myself.
I have found that people are scared of saying the wrong thing or asking the wrong question and this causes them to avoid the discussion. I would like to say that as long as the question is asked with respect and is from a genuine desire to learn, then there is no reason to avoid it.
To support others in the same situation as myself at BAM, I joined the BAM LGBTQ+ Employee Forum Group – Proud@BAM. I was not surprised to find that there are still people censoring their lives and who feel unable to bring their whole selves to work each day simply because of who they love. I am looking forward to being part of a forum where people can learn, interact and show support and maybe this is how we become part of LBGTQ+ history.
Find out more here about our Diversity and Inclusion policy at BAM, and about our goal by 2025 to have a workforce that: has gender parity, is culturally diverse (meaning that at least 15% of our employees will be from ethnic minority backgrounds), supports a culture that attracts at least 5% of employees who identify as LGBTQ+ and supports an environment where employees who live with disabilities can thrive at levels representative of at least 5% of the working population.