I’ll sometimes find myself watching young and old straight couples — kissing and laughing, like there’s no one else in the world. The positivity and warmth I feel in these moments is often tinged with a sort of envy: will I ever be able to be that free? Will I ever be able to display affection in public towards the person I love?
I hope so, but the recent spike in attacks on the LGBTQ+ community has confirmed that displaying one’s sexuality in public is a much riskier decision than some realise and that this risk can carry over to the workplace.
Yes, there have been many articles published in recent months about how to make workplaces safer for minorities, particularly for the LGBTQ+ population. However, in the UK, around 35% of us still feel uncomfortable displaying who we are and openly discussing our sexual orientation at work. There’s an immense amount of pressure to mask this part of our identities, and obviously, not being able to be open and authentic with co-workers can have a detrimental impact on one’s happiness, in and outside of the office.
In order to address this challenge, we have to start by understanding why it’s so difficult for those of us who identify as LGBTQ+ to be authentic in the workplace. Something many people don’t realise is that our community is the only minority group that has to face what’s called an “Identity Disclosure”. Because sexual orientation is an invisible (but integral) part of our identity, LGBTQ+ individuals are expected to “come out” and disclose this fact. We must proactively brand ourselves as “LGBTQ+” — a process that’s not only incredibly stressful, but makes us feel as though we’re painting targets on our backs and boosting our risk of experiencing hate and discrimination. As a result, many LGBTQ+ individuals decide to conceal their identities to avoid this prejudice, which leads to depleted self-esteem and psychological distress.
Fortunately, I personally do not feel these stresses at work; I am lucky enough to work in a highly inclusive environment, one in which diversity is celebrated rather than shamed. And this embrace of the LGBTQ+ community is not limited to a rainbow-coloured logo during the months of June and July. Instead, we’ve taken tangible steps to build a safe, inclusive culture; steps other ‘Prideful’ organisations would be wise to replicate.
First and foremost, companies need to ensure all employees understand how to behave with sensitivity and an inclusive attitude at work. We are all prone to displaying unconscious bias — even those who may consider themselves allies — which my company has trained its employees to recognise and correct through sensitivity training. Further, Index Exchange has also introduced assertiveness workshops, designed to give all minorities the power and tools they need to be their true selves without hesitation.
Paired with other small actions (asking employees for their pronouns of choice without first assuming, educating our teams on the significance of Stonewall, etc), these initiatives have allowed me to feel safe, secure, and comfortable at work; a feeling I hope all of my LGBTQ+ peers will one day find in their respective fields.
But beyond formal rights and workshops, it’s also imperative to be mindful of the informal privileges minorities often lack. The HRC (Human Right Campaign) recently published a study confirming this theory. In 2019, 81% of non-LGBTQ+ workers indicated their LGBTQ+ colleagues should not have to come out. But jarringly, 70% of the same respondents said that talking about sexual orientation and sharing details about one’s life (dates, weddings, etc) in the workplace is “unprofessional”. One in five LGBTQA+ respondents also reported that co-workers expressly or implicitly said that they should dress in a more feminine or masculine manner at work.
Everyone, without exception, should be able to speak to their colleagues about their partners, their date nights, their break-ups. Everyone should be allowed to bring their partner to office happy hours without feeling judged or being deemed an “over-sharer” or “abnormal”. We all want to behave as our authentic selves at work, and we should all feel supported in doing so.
This all leads to a much larger, philosophical question: who are our authentic selves? And, as a minority, how much of our authentic selves are we able to show and share in the workplace?
I don’t have a definitive answer to the former, but I believe we should be able to bring our whole, authentic selves to work each day. The LGBTQ+ community is here — we each add value to our teams, divisions, and companies — and we need to feel as comfortable as our non-LGBTQ+ colleagues at work.
As leaders, allies, and LGBTQ+ individuals, it is our shared responsibility to fight for and foster inclusivity, to educate our colleagues, and to celebrate ourselves. Ultimately, only the organisations that take tangible steps to do so will thrive.
Samir Chabab is head of international marketing and communications at Index Exchange