Being out at work - why does it matter?

Sarah Crowe considers the issues around coming out as LGBT in the workplace and provides some tips for law firms.

LGBT keyboard

I regularly visit firms to talk about why workplace inclusion is important. There are a varied range of reactions to the subject. There are firms who have large diversity and inclusion teams in-house, there are those who have never really thought about it, ranging all the way to the ones that are hostile to the notion. 

The number one objection I hear to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inclusion is that the employer really doesn't want to know who their employees sleep with, and that it simply isn't an appropriate thing to discuss at work.

The inclusion of the word 'sex' in sexual orientation, and the outdated term 'transsexual', is unhelpful to LGBT people. Being LGBT isn't about who we sleep with - it's about who we are, who we love, how we create family, socialise, present ourselves and connect with people. Being LGBT is at the core of our identity, and we shine more brightly when we show the world who we are. 

What's in a pronoun?

I want you to try something. You may feel silly, but go with it if you can. If you really want to understand why being out at work matters, try this. Take five minutes with a colleague, and talk about what you did at the weekend without using any pronouns, or names of places. No he, she, his, her, no names of bars, restaurants, shops, towns. See how it feels, and ask your colleague what it's like to be at the receiving end of this 'conversation'.

This is what life at work is like for an LGBT person in the closet. The closeted LGBT person is constantly expending energy editing themselves, changing partner pronouns and disguising what they do outside of work. It comes from a fear of being exposed.

Research from Stonewall confirms that LGBT people who are closeted at work feel isolated, drained, and find that it zaps their creativity. This is not to mention the wider impact: feeling that who you are is so unacceptable that it has to be hidden isn't great for a person's mental health, but that is a whole other blog post.

Happier and more productive

Conversely, LGBT people report that being out at work makes them happier, more productive, and helps them to have more meaningful relationships. In fact, if an LGBT person is out at work they are 67% more likely to be satisfied with their sense of achievement (85% compared to 51%).

The numbers are startling and yet only 31% of LGBT people in London feel comfortable to be out at work, and this drops to 21% in the north east of England. Why are our LGBT colleagues in the closet, and what can we do to help them feel more comfortable?

LGBT people fear discrimination in the workplace, if they are open about who they are. They are worried about workplace bullying, and that it will affect their career prospects. The fear is not unfounded - for example, 77% of trans people and one in five LGB people report that they have experienced workplace bullying.

LGBT and the law

It's important for people to know that these experiences still happen, even in London. After all, it wasn't so long ago that it was not legally OK to be gay. There was no legal protection for LGBT people in workplaces until 2003, and Section 28 (PDF), which banned the promotion of homosexuality to minors, was only lifted the same year. Section 28 stopped us talking about being LGBT in our daily lives and so we grew up with no openly LGBT actors, church leaders, school teachers, politicians, sports people or news readers. In short, we had no role models.

Times have changed, and we now have a raft of legislative protection. The challenge now is to change attitudes in the legal industry, and in society. The Law Society and some progressive firms, including Baker and McKenzie, Pinsent Masons, and Simmons & Simmons, are being visible and vocal on the issue, and we need your help. 

Be proud 

Now is the time to be out and proud, and to tell your story. If you are LGBT you can be the role model you never had, simply by being yourself at work.

If you are not LGBT, you can show your support to your LGBT colleagues by doing something as simple as placing a rainbow sticker on your desk for Pride season, or doing the 'no pronoun' exercise in this blog with your team. You can call out homophobic language when you hear it. 

Being LGBT is invisible - all of these little actions help to make it visible, and let our LGBT colleagues know they are in a safe environment. In the end, it really is these little actions that can make a big difference.

Pride campaign

No one should have to live their life pretending to be someone they're not. There are Pride events all over the country, and Pride in London provides a platform for every part of London's LGBT+ community and campaigns for equality.

This year's Pride theme is #nofilter. The legal profession is joining in with our message: #lawwithnofilter - all are equal under the law.

Support our campaign by tweeting a selfie over the next few weeks using the hashtag #lawwithnofilter and march with us at the annual Pride in London parade. 

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