Queer at Work

by .

Nowt so queer as folk: Get out of the closet and don’t deny who you are because it’s you that will pay the price.

Before I went to work at Aviva, a well-meaning friend advised me not to disclose that I was gay. The rationale was that the City of London was a male bastion, and given I was both a woman and a marketing professional, I risked making things even more difficult for myself if I be- came a “celebrated lesbian”. So, I went ‘back into the closet’ for a full year. Something I came to regret, but there were a number of important lessons I learnt.

The first is that it’s not good to lie to your colleagues. If you don’t trust your colleagues to know that you are gay, it actually impacts on your broader feelings that your work fellows can be trusted. Every time you evade a conversation about your partner, weekend and holiday you are lying about your life. However understandable, it creates a false barrier. I know of a lesbian who although ‘out’ to her immediate direct reports, so inhibited any conversation about her own personal life that no-one felt able to talk about theirs either. It got in the way of team cohesion as relationships and conversations were only ever about work.

Every time you hide who you are to a colleague, you have effectively made a judgement about them which may well be quite unfair. And when they find out at some point in the future, they could be forgiven for feeling offended that you imagined they would hold such news against you.

The second big lesson was that it inhibited my creativity and humanity. By cutting off part of my life, I also cut off the natural pathways to my emotional empathy, sense of humour and the full capacity of my mind. I was on guard. Wasting time and energy covering up instead of feeling relaxed and whole. My boss at the time told me ‘I had lost my sparkle’. It was an acute observation. Think about any time you have had a ‘big secret’ to hold, and how much it was subsequently weighing on your mind. Far from forgetting about it, somehow it throbs ever more strongly at the front of your consciousness. And if you just tell a few people you have to try and remember who knows and who doesn’t. Its exhausting. That’s why productivity goes up when people can bring their whole selves to work.

The final thing I regret is that I didn’t speak up when I should have done when people made homophobic jokes or inappropriate remarks. Even if you are a covert lesbian, these kinds of comments really sting. It is devastating to hear queer people ridiculed or despised. Even worse to find yourself unable to say anything for fear of accidentally ‘outing’ yourself in the moment. Keeping quiet is certainly not a confidence builder, and it contributes to a sense of oppression.

nd here I deliberately use the term ‘queer’ as a form of identity rather than LGBT. The origins of the word are certainly derogatory, meaning ‘strange’ or ‘peculiar’ and are still used in that way by some. However, since the 1980s it has been reclaimed for political purposes as a term that accommodates both sexual orientation and gender identity. It is a deliberate rejection of the more approachable word “gay”, seeking instead to reclaim the positive aspects of difference and reject the notion of assimilation.

I find myself increasingly attracted to the non-conformity inherent in the identity of queer. We are living in a world which seems keen- er on difference and misfits than ever before.

“My boss told me I’d lost my sparkle”

“There’s nowt so queer as folk” is perhaps something to be celebrated at last. I certainly learnt the hard way that there is no point denying who you are, because you are the one who pays the biggest price.

Jan Gooding is a Partner at Jericho Chambers and is one of the UK’s most prominent and outspoken marketing leaders. Her specialist subjects range from building global brands to inclusive leadership. Jan’s blue-chip corporate pedigree includes spells with BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever and, most recently, as Group Brand Director at Aviva. In her final role at Aviva as the company’s first Global Inclusion Director, Jan was responsible for introducing the ground-breaking policy of equal parental leave. Jan is Chair of LGBT Equality Charity Stonewall.

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