Whilst watching the news about the continuing riots across the U.S I felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness and frustration at the injustice that people of colour continue to be subjected to. Inequality in so many forms, whether it be gender, race, sexual orientation etc., is still rife in our society. I sat there looking at the screen in utter disbelief at the fact that this sort of prejudice is still possible in 2020.
Having grown up in Leeds, which is now home to over 170 different ethnic groups, I’ve always loved how diverse this city is. Diversity in all its forms is something that I’ve always personally embraced and tried to celebrate.
June is a special time of the year for me as it’s Pride month. A whole glorious month dedicated to the celebration of the diverse and colourful LGBTQ+ community that I count myself lucky enough to be a part of. Pride Month for me is about people coming together in friendship, love and inclusion.
I’ve been in two minds about whether to write this blog as it’s incredibly personal to me, but I think it’s important this month, in particular, to highlight how far LGBTQ+ rights have come since the Stonewall Riots in 1969, so I wanted to share my story with you.
I’d love to tell people that I’ve always been proud of my sexuality but honestly, I’d be lying if I said that was true.
I always felt like an outsider as a boy. I knew I was different from the other lads in my class from the age of eight. I could never quite put my finger on what it was that made me feel this way, but it was there in my gut for as long as I could remember.
When you’re the kid who feels like the odd one out and you regularly hear other classmates being called names like ‘poof’ and ‘faggot’ in the playground (even if you don’t know what those words mean), you just hope it’s not you who’s next to be bullied, as those words aren’t meant as a compliment. You try your hardest to blend in and ignore the bullying or worse, you feel like you have to join in with the name-calling (which I’m ashamed to say I did) to avoid being singled out.
By the age of fourteen, a few years into high school, the severity of the homophobic bullying had been taken up a few notches. I saw some of my classmates who’d previously been subjected to homophobic name-calling in primary school now being tripped up, pushed up against walls, thrown into bins, heads flushed down the toilets or punched and spat at regularly by the ‘cool kids’.
I didn’t agree with the way these classmates were bullied, so I would stand up for them. I must point out that I was already very tall and weighed about 90kgs at 15 years old. I figured no one would pick on me and I didn’t agree with how these kids were being treated. I got some flack for it, mind, and was regularly asked, “Why are you sticking up for them, Smith? Are you a poof too?”
Well, now you come to mention it…
I was so scared that I’d be outed by this point, so I kissed as many girls as I could and even had a girlfriend for 2 years in an attempt to cover up my sexuality. Witnessing the bullying simply made me suppress any true feelings I had, which ultimately drove me into depression. I contemplated taking my own life so many times I lost count. I felt trapped, ashamed and disgusted with who I was and I couldn’t see a way out. I felt overwhelmingly alone. Why couldn’t I just be like everyone else?
A few months after turning 16 and after moving up into the sixth form to study A’levels I finally plucked up the courage to leave the confines of the proverbial closet and come out. I’d had enough of hiding my true self from my friends and family. By this point, I realised that this wasn’t a phase. What’s the worst that can happen? Everyone hates me and I run away somewhere? I was not going to change. This was part of who I am so I needed to embrace my sexuality and be authentic.
Over a period of 12 months, I came out to all my friends at school, my teachers, my work colleagues at the pub and most importantly my family. I didn’t have one negative reaction and felt so much support & love so all the worrying was for nothing. It was just my internalised homophobia exacerbated by things I’d seen in the media whilst growing up.
At the age of 39, I now wear my sexuality like a badge of honour. It’s a big part of who I am but it doesn’t define me. I’ve not felt ashamed or alone since I came out and I really couldn’t care less what people think about me or my sexuality. I’ve always had the confidence to be open about my sexuality with everyone, particularly in the workplace. If people have an issue with your sexuality, it’s their issue, not yours.
Even in 2020, for so many people within the LGBTQ+ community, their current reality used to be mine. We’ve still got a long way to go before everyone is treated equally with the respect and dignity they deserve. It’s up to all of us in the HR community to influence our work cultures and to ensure we create environments that offer a safe space for all LGBTQ+ colleagues. Somewhere they can be their authentic selves.
So, let’s stop with the inappropriate questions you ask your LGBTQ+ colleagues about their sex lives and the casual homophobic slurs that you think is ‘banter’ in the office and treat them with the respect they deserve.
As it’s Pride Month I’d encourage all of us, that rather than focusing on what divides us, we should celebrate what makes us the same and brings us together.
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