We can all be better LGBT allies at work

It’s embarrassing that we still work in environments where people have to disguise their sexuality

Having worked at People Management for almost three years, I can confidently say one of the best things about the job is the people; my colleagues are kind, considerate, supportive and a lot of fun. 

But despite the fact that I spend more time with them than many of my closest friends, in the office, around pub tables, at award nights and even the odd wedding, I have never come out to my colleagues. 

My bisexuality has never been hidden – a brief look at my Twitter feed is often all anyone needs on that front – but neither is it something I have explicitly brought to the table. This is partly because sexuality has never been a regular discussion point among the team, and partly because I have a long-term male partner, which means that ‘bisexual erasure’ (when people make an assumption about your sexuality because of the person you are in a relationship with) is a regular part of my day, inside and outside my work life.

Having said that, I have never felt remotely concerned about the way my colleagues would react if I chose to announce my sexuality during a monthly editorial meeting. In this, I am lucky, because the troubling reality is that many LGBT people are actively hiding or disguising their sexuality in the workplace. 

According to leading LGBT charity Stonewall’s 2018 LGBT in Britain – Work Report, published last week, more than a third (35 per cent) of LGBT people – and almost two in five bisexual people – hide or disguise their sexuality because they are afraid of discrimination or negative reaction from their colleagues. Follow-up statistics suggest there is good reason for this. Almost one in five LGBT employees experienced negative comments or conduct from colleagues because of their sexuality in the last year; facing derogatory remarks, being outed without their consent or bullied at work.

For certain groups within the LGBT community, the chances of suffering discrimination and abuse are significantly higher. One in eight transgender people (12 per cent) were physically attacked by colleagues or customers in the last year. One in 10 black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT staff were similarly physically attacked, and 12 per cent lost a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Despite the troubling work culture these figures point to, many LGBT people who endure negative experiences feel unable to call them out, with one in eight lesbian, gay and bi people, and 21 per cent of trans people, saying they would not feel confident reporting homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying to their employer. 

Statistics like these should have no place in the workplace of 2018. This is also not something employers can passively hope will improve with time; the highest proportion of LGBT people who hid their sexuality in the last year were aged 18-24, which means many organisations are failing their future LGBT workforce as much as their existing one. 

At the Stonewall Workplace Conference last week, I was heartened by the almost 1,000 delegates filling the conference hall to capacity. The desire for progress was palpable, as lawyer and LGBT activist Krishna Omkar called on employers and LGBT people to use their platforms to change things for the better. 

“You have a platform and a privilege – use it by being a role model and an ally to those who are like you, and those who are not,” he said, “because the most powerful advocate for equality is the one who speaks for others.” 

Straight or otherwise, we can all be better LGBT allies at work. For straight people, this means educating yourself on LGBT issues, creating opening and inclusive environments, and calling out intolerance and discrimination if you ever see it in your organisation. Stonewall’s report includes a series of great recommendations for improving equality, for both individuals and organisations. 

For the LGBT people who feel able – as so many don’t – it means all of the above, and being open about your own sexuality in an effort to normalise LGBT experiences at work. Because, as Omkar said: “If one part of the LGBT community gets left behind, we all get left behind.”