LGBT History Month: 'It saddens me that so many of my friends are still in the closet'

Workplaces have become far more inclusive in the 15 years since Section 28 was repealed, but there's still a long way to go, says Amazon's Belinda Hughes.

by Belinda Hughes
Last Updated: 20 Feb 2018

When I worked for a very well-known global beverage company in Australia, my director and I were sitting in a room, talking to the marketing team of an entertainment venue that we planned to put a lot of business through. We were all getting along really well and agreed to a major deal.

Then we moved on to discuss other events they were hosting, when their marketing manager rolled her eyes and told us how they were almost ‘forced’ to host a gay and lesbian event. Little did she realise that my director and I were both gay. Not getting any sympathetic nod or response, she repeated her comment, which we just ignored and continued to wrap up the session.

We were two gay employees (closeted) sponsoring gay artists (also closeted) and at the time decided not to say anything. That was the late 1990s in Australia and, thank goodness, things have moved on, both there and in the UK.

It’s been 15 years since the repeal of Section 28, which made it illegal for councils and schools to ‘promote’ homosexuality, thereby effectively legitimising homophobia. There are now over a million people identifying as LGBTI in Britain. The Equality Act 2010 bans discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender reassignment.

Diverse, inclusive workforces are also widely championed by employers. (Indeed, I’m incredibly proud to be a member of Glamazon – Amazon’s LGBTI affinity group.)

Such support at executive level and beyond helps staff feel comfortable being their true selves, which brings great benefits to the business. Research from Out Now shows that employees are 32% more productive when they feel comfortable about being out in the workplace, while businesses with inclusive cultures are 1.4% more profitable annually than those with nominal LGBT policies, according to a recent study by Credit Suisse.

Beyond profit, it’s just the right thing to do. To quote Jeff Bezos, ‘we’re all human, we’re all different and we’re all equal.’

It saddens me, the number of my friends still in the closet in their 30s and 40s. They’ve waited so long to come out at work that now they’re utterly terrified. When I lived in Australia I was very much closeted at work – and I stayed in that closet when I first arrived in England 15 years ago.

I was constantly nervous and anxious about being discovered, and I’d dread the usual water-cooler chat asking what I got up to on the weekend or if I was in a relationship. Once, a guy I worked with saw me holding hands with a woman outside of work and I was so afraid of being outed I don’t think I slept for a week. It put up an invisible barrier between me and my colleagues who could sense my apprehension and restraint.

Then, at my leaving do a colleague said, ‘Belinda, we all know you’re gay. We don’t care at all! Just be honest.’ I realised then that I was a victim of my own internalised homophobia, and this person’s comment was actually the boost I needed. As soon as I started my next job I came out straight away and had such a positive reaction. 

While it’s true that you can’t control people's reactions to your sexual or gender orientation, and you may not always encounter positive responses (in which case you should seek advice), you can work on feeling confident in your ability to handle whatever comes your way. To this day, I’ve only ever experienced positivity when I discuss being a lesbian with my colleagues.

Britain is fast becoming a more equal and accepting country. But it’s shocking that in 2018 so many lesbian, gay, bi and trans people around the UK still experience discrimination and harassment at work just because of their sexuality or because they are trans.

LGBT+ History Month is a great time to celebrate how far we’ve come in terms of becoming a more inclusive society, but also to reflect on the challenges still to overcome. Businesses should use this month to health check their culture and policies. Perhaps ask your LGBT+ staff how supported they feel. Are your anti-discrimination policies up to date? Is it time to review your diversity targets? Can you put your senior staff through conscious and unconscious biasness training or create an LGBT+ affinity group?

And if you identify as LGBTI, why not take advantage of LGBT History Month to approach your employers with suggestions as to how you could work with them to develop a more inclusive culture?

Belinda Hughes is Senior Manager, Marketing for Amazon in the EU, and a member of Glamazon, Amazon's LGBTQ network.

Image credit: chinnapong/Shutterstock


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