"You always have to be different, don't you?". I heard this several times from family members during my teenage years, and I took a great deal of pride in being alternative, branding myself as misunderstood (hello, moody teenager). To be fair, what they saw was my experimentation with music, fashion and various trends and sub-cultures, from new romantic to electro-pop and indie. Now, you might be thinking, this all sounds like very normal behaviour for a teenager in the 80's and 90's, and you would be right. But, typical of the times, what my family didn’t identify was that all of this ferocious self-expression masked my struggle with something much more fundamental and deeply challenging - am I gay?
For some, this may be a familiar and well documented story, but it is my pride story. Now a middle aged gay man, I can look back at all of this with some life experience under my belt and, I hope, a little more wisdom.
It is no surprise that I kept things hidden, being gay in the North East of England in the early 90's simply wasn’t an option. There was no 'gay scene', there were no gay icons on the TV, being gay was only discussed in a derogatory way and the words 'gay' or 'queer' were used to bully and humiliate people at school. So being seen as 'alternative' and more than a little spikey (in hair and temperament!), was actually very helpful as a diversionary tactic. But frankly, as I got older, I was petrified of stepping into the unknown – I sensed that once I had made the decision, life would change for the worse (I had no idea how), and what I was absolutely sure of, is that once I had talked about it there would be no going back.
But I did come out, just before my 20th birthday, having moved to Bristol and meeting my first LGBT friends. It sounds clichéd, but I met a diverse group of people from all kinds of backgrounds, mainly other students, both straight and gay who were just out there and incredibly supportive. They helped me build up the courage to talk to my family and friends back home. You can probably guess how this played out, and yes, it was a very difficult process, relationships were damaged and friendships ended, but it was also the moment my life changed completely, and I never looked back.
Thankfully we have come a long way both socially and in the workplace over the last 20 or so years, certainly in western culture. But we must remember that things only really started to change, in a material way in the UK, since the fairly recent introduction of the Equality Act 2010, which stated that 'You must not be discriminated against because you are heterosexual, gay, lesbian or bisexual'. This hard fought for legislation paved the way for the equality and diversity polices and cultures in the UK workplace today, and each year, and thanks to the continued effort of organisations such as Stonewall and LeGalBesT, we see huge strides forward being taken in workplace equality and greater understanding across all areas of diversity.
I have always been out at work, and I have always been determined that I would be judged at work solely on my contribution. I try to be a visible and positive role model which I think is so important. Whilst there have been some challenges, for the most part I have worked in very supportive businesses with some absolutely incredible and inspiring people. For the LGBTQ+ community, knowing that your employer actively supports diversity and inclusion can mean the difference between excelling in your role, or being utterly miserable if homophobic behaviour goes unchecked. The fact that I am writing this blog for the Withers website, and co-lead our expanding LGBTQ+ and allies network group says everything you need to know about our approach at Withers - I couldn't be more proud.
But sadly, in the UK, homophobia is still costing people their jobs, affecting their reputation and mental health. Only last week, a case was reported about a man who was discriminated against at work when it was discovered that he was gay. Having heard the facts of the case, an employment tribunal confirmed that he was 'harassed, victimised and discriminated against because he was gay', and he was awarded a significant sum in compensation. It is appalling that we are still seeing these headlines.
Today, it is wonderful to see much greater social acceptance of those who identify as LGBTQ+, and children are often much better supported at home and at school on these issues. It is so heart-warming to hear about the many positive LGBTQ+ parenting stories - the support and care many young people now benefit from is incredible. However, we cannot afford to be complacent, and together we must encourage greater awareness of important issues, particularly the impact a lack of support can have, especially on children and young adults.
It is a sad fact that most LGBTQ+ individuals still don’t feel they have the freedom to put their arm around their partner or hold hands in public, without having to be mindful of where they are and who is around them. Times are changing, but we need to eradicate the extreme homophobic views and behaviours which harm others, especially in countries where laws, practices and cultures around LGBTQ+ issues are vastly different to those in the UK and other western countries. Legal LGBTQ+ discrimination and harassment still causes great suffering in many places around the world, and we must continue to highlight these injustices and help in the fight for equality.
My coming out story is not so unique, it is the story of many, it is our story. Do my struggles as a teenager make me feel sad? In truth, a little. But, as with all experiences in life, right or wrong, it plays a part in making me who I am today. I am proud to be gay, I am proud of all that I have overcome and achieved, most of all I am proud to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride and raise awareness of all of the issues still affecting LGBTQ+ individuals and families across the world.
In the words of The Smiths 'there is a light and it never goes out'. Thank you for letting me share my story.
Be proud. Be you. Happy Pride everyone.