I’ve known that there was something different about me from the age of about five or six. I didn’t know for about 10 years what exactly that difference was, and when I finally figured it out, it was like a lightbulb going off in my brain.
But while a lightbulb illuminates everything, the light it casts also causes shadows. It took me another 10 long years to look through those shadows, and to fully accept myself. Despite the support of close friends and family, my wellbeing and mental health suffered. Being different is something I struggled with for a long time.
‘You never know how someone will react’
Every gay person has to make a conscious decision about when to come out, and every person’s story is different – moving, joyful, but often traumatic. Coming out to your family is the hardest thing a gay person will ever do. I ran from the dinner table to be physically sick before telling my dad. Fortunately, he told me he loved me and that he had known for years – but I’m one of the lucky ones.
It’s not just one coming out, however. I come out every single day – at work and outside it. Despite how far the world has progressed since 1993 (when homosexuality in Ireland was still illegal) you never really know how someone is going to react. I make a conscious decision whether or not to be open about my sexual orientation with every new person I meet, and in the business of recruitment this happens a lot.
Hiding yourself can hurt your career
In one of my last workplaces I didn’t feel comfortable enough to come out and I wasted plenty of energy avoiding being outed. I avoided forming friendships, I avoided talking about my personal life, I avoided letting people in. The simplest conversation in the canteen about what I did over the weekend would make me panic. I was terrified of being judged, or rejected.
This is a common experience for the LGBT community. Research has shown that fear keeps LGBT employees closeted at work. They fear that being themselves would result in them losing connections with co-workers. Over 78% of gay people fear coming out at work as they worry it may harm promotion opportunities.
Not being able to engage with people honestly about who I was had an effect on my working relationships, my performance and my mental health. I was less confident, less motivated, and constantly on edge. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of being bullied at work – I was afraid of being ostracised, or just seen as a bit ‘different’. I’m sure I was seen as untrustworthy, unfriendly or an unwilling ‘team player’, but it’s hard to come across as a ‘normal’ when people don’t know a thing about your personal life. A lie of omission is still a lie, and living it was like stepping back into the closet I fought so hard to get out of.
Starting the right conversations
Homophobic comments have been common enough in the various places I’ve worked, with a lot of them being treated as ‘just a bit of banter’. It honestly doesn’t matter that some of these comments were just meant as jokes, it still damages the culture and the level of trust that employees feel within their company.
We can all help to start discussions around the language we use, how it affects people, and why it is so important. I know people are terrified of saying the wrong thing and they probably tread too gently around issues they see. But my advice would be to just ask the question! If someone knows you’re sincere and not coming from a place of hatred or ridicule, they’ll be open and honest with you. This inspires the kind of culture where LGBT people can feel more comfortable to be themselves.
Diversity inspires dynamic, innovative cultures
An inclusive workplace that understands the needs of their employees, making them feel valued and respected has a significant and positive impact beyond the workplace. People with different lifestyles and different backgrounds challenge each other more. The dynamic created by diversity prevents our organisation from becoming out of touch with clients and customers.
Research suggests that companies who openly speak about and promote values of inclusion, and have a diverse workforce, tend to appeal to a wider customer base – this is so important particularly in a business like recruitment.
‘Happier now than I’ve ever been’
Feeling comfortable to come out in work has had a huge impact on my life, and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. The right to be my authentic self, in every aspect of my life, is something I’m truly grateful for. I never underestimate how lucky I am, because so many do not have this luxury. I needed role models when I was younger – someone to be outspoken, authentically themselves and to say ‘its ok, it gets better’. In creating BeProud@Cpl, we want to be those role models, and to create a positive change that permeates out from the company. We want to be the change we need to see.
It’s important to encourage difference. Being different shouldn’t be something to be hidden. It’s important that our individual personalities are seen as value-adds – and this is particularly true for the LGBT community. By being an organisation that promotes inclusivity you are doing more than improving the bottom line and inspiring innovation, you’re investing in human happiness – and the pay out for that is priceless.