While you may have seen more colours than usual in your social feed over the last month during Pride*, it’s not always all rainbows and unicorns for LGBTQI+ people at work. Our level of acceptance and comfort varies from occupation to industry, geographic location and the size of the organisation.
A lot has been said about the value of bringing your whole self to work. Diversity Council Australia reports LGBTQI+ employees who are out to everyone at work are:
- 50% more likely to innovate than workers who are not out to everyone
- 35% more likely to work highly effectively in their team
- 28% more likely to provide excellent customer/client service
For those of us who were able to and have concealed our identity in the workplace over the course of our careers, the results range from being constantly on edge, to simply longing to share what we did on the weekend.
As a teenager during school holidays and at various times as an adult, I tried my hand as an unskilled labourer on building sites and in factories when my Dad worked in manufacturing. Eating my lunch with the other tradies, I could smoke a cigarette, but I still had to listen to what my all-male coworkers did on holiday in Pattaya. A notch up from the banter that went around at high school, but in a rough industrial environment, it was definitely not ok to be gay.
Venturing into hospitality on a work experience placement, I found discrimination was rife in a restaurant kitchen. Chef’s hurled insults (and saucepans, regardless of your sexuality), so the wait staff kept their heads down anyway. I’ve since mastered the use of plating food with fork and spoon, a skill not required for my next job – flipping burgers at McDonald’s (not an ideal for a vegetarian).
I soon moved to front counter at Maccas, where OTT interactions with the public were actively encouraged as long as you met the service time KPIs, which better suited my outgoing personality at the time. Working for a large global organisation with policies and procedures for literally everything provided a safe environment and was surprisingly one of the most enjoyable jobs I had as an undergrad.
Straight out of university and into a recession equivalent to the GFC, I fell back on hospitality. Relocating from Melbourne to Sydney, working front of house in hotels in the 90s, I was no longer in the minority. The major drawback to working with gay colleagues was they knew what you really got up to on the weekend. In those pre smart phone days, my boyfriend at the time would pick me up from work. He’d casually sit and read the newspaper while he waited for me to finish up, even chat to my boss. So, that’s what acceptance feels like!
Before we had the alphabet acronym, student politics led me to joining the ‘gay and lesbian’ community group. Years of marching and fighting for equal rights got me interested in industrial relations (acknowledging trade unions in Australia have been instrumental in helping us achieve equality), which became human resources when I tired of shift work and moved into business administration. Back in Melbourne, working for an SME in the South Eastern suburbs, I could do payroll for 100 people, but I didn’t have the guts to bring my boyfriend to the work Christmas Party.
Moving to Sydney was liberating. Moving to London ten years later was an eye opener. On a working holiday, I landed a job in HR at Transport for London – a huge, diverse organisation with proud D&I objectives. One of my colleagues at TfL was awarded an MBE for Services to Equality.
A stint within one of TfL’s project recruitment teams led to working in volume and graduate recruitment on my return to Australia. Working with one of the country’s largest recruitment firms provided a pathway back into Marketing & Communications, putting to use all those unused qualifications that had been collecting dust in storage.
Since I commenced at Slade Group, I’ve had the confidence to bring my whole self to work. I have been actively involved with LGBTQIA+ (‘A’ is for ally) professional associations including the GLOBE network, and Out for Australia, which facilitates a mentoring program for students and recent graduates. I’ve seen friends and contacts start networks in their own industries, such as Queers in Property and Building Pride.
Growing up there weren’t many professional role models, like Penny Wong, Michael Kirby or Tim Cook. Corporate partnerships – much more than a float in the Sydney Mardi Gras parade – have been instrumental in driving change within their own organisations, business and the wider community. Companies we now partner with, such as SEEK, have been champions of Diversity & Inclusion, and it’s been gratifying to be part of a culture where I have seen others bring their whole selves to work.
Coming out is an ongoing process that never really stops. Each time you change jobs, are introduced to a new colleague, a new client, a new supplier… deciding how much of yourself you will share is part of building that relationship. Being proud at work has meant being supported through tough times, from the marriage equality debate to relationship break-ups and COVID-19 (frighteningly evocative of the HIV/AIDS pandemic for many of my generation). I’ve been able have the watercooler chat about what I did on the weekend and once even managed to drag a partner along to the Christmas party.
*June is officially Pride month in the USA, in recognition of the Stonewall Riots, a landmark event in the history of LGBTQI+ rights that took place on 28 June 1969. In Australia we celebrate Pride at different times of the year in various cities and regions (generally when the weather is better suited to outdoor festivals and parades). Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras (now held annually in March) originally took place as protest march in commemoration of Stonewall on 24 June 1978. Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival traditionally takes place during in the summer months January-February (disrupted by Covid this year) along with Tas Pride in February. Brisbane’s Pride Festival will be in September this year, along with NT’s Top End Pride. Adelaide Pride, WA Pride Fest and Spring OUT in the ACT all take place in November. Along with Pride events in many regional centres, it’s fair to say there’s something to celebrate throughout the year.
Chris Toussaint is a marketing and communications professional specialising in recruitment, talent management, learning & development and human resources environments. He was Managing Editor of 21D – a Literary and Art magazine and over the years has written for a number of corporate publications, journals and street press. His qualifications include Grad Cert (Applied Media), BA (Media Studies) and Dip Arts in Professional Writing and Editing.