Why I Went Back In The Closet At Work
National Inclusion Week: 23-29th September 2019
Imagine this. I was 22 years old. 4ft 11 inches tall. I walked confidently (perhaps a little too confidently) into Dewsbury Probation Office.
I was there to teach adult ex-offenders English and maths.
Rotating around five probation offices across the region over the week, my workspace was a little consultation room, where every hour one ex-offender would leave and another would take their chair – a student for the next 60 minutes.
The room contained four things. There were two chairs with a large, heavy desk separating them and a filing cabinet that locked if you kicked it. Hard. The floor was cold and bare and the windows barely opened. The radiator broken; permanently fixed to ON at full blast. It was hot, oppressive and smelt funny. And not in a good way.
There was a big red panic button under the desk (a secret one) and one visible on the wall by the ‘probation blue’ door. The panic buttons were there just in case I needed urgent assistance (usually in the form of large, muscly, shaved headed Probation Officers busting through the doors). Which I did. Once. But that is another story.
Before I met any student for the first time, I had to read a report telling me everything I needed to know about the person. Their childhood, their education, work history, information about their key relationships and family members. And most importantly, their offences. In minute detail. Oh, and what I needed to be aware of when I was with this person on my own for the next 60 minutes, including potential risks of harm they may cause me.
Day one. I had a stack of these reports on my desk and a full diary of students to work with one-to-one.
I started to read the reports. Within minutes I was overwhelmed by the intensity of what I was digesting. I can honestly say, my mind could not comprehend some of the offences. Drugs, alcohol, violence, theft, criminal damage, road traffic offences, sexual offences. These crimes, stories and people committing them were now part of my reality.
A hostile, aggressive and nerve-wracking work environment.
Yet, here I was – out and proud.
In The Closet Working In A College Environment
Only a year earlier was I in my first ‘proper job’. Teaching 16-19 year olds acting skills and voice. At 21 years old (and still 4ft 11) I was close in age to the young adults I was teaching. And it was difficult. I was dealing with kids that were much taller than me and didn’t want to listen to someone only a few years older than them telling them what to do. It felt more like babysitting and crowd control than teaching.
In a drama environment you are mostly on your feet. Moving around, exploring the space, your relationships with others – and your relationship with yourself. Lots of opportunity for the kids to be distracted and talk about their social life. The language I heard them using (and had to challenge them on) on a minute by minute basis was homophobic, sexist and derogatory.
The teachers and senior leaders weren’t much better to be honest. They were mostly ‘old school’. You know the type. Fixed in their ways, teaching the same lesson year in, year out. Not adapting the content to respond to the changes in society and the world around them. Using the same resources they have used for years and years. Very opinionated. Gossip was rife. The staffroom at lunchtimes were unbearable. Talk about specific kids and what they had done that day that had caused issues in the classroom. Gossiping about the kids, their home life and what they think of them.
Despite their education over the years, my colleagues’ language was also homophobic and biphobic. There was a distinct lack of awareness around LGBT issues and challenges and how to support LGBT individuals (staff and students) in the college.
It is safe to say, in my first job I was firmly in the closet. Despite me being out in my home and social life.
Being Out Of The Closet When Working With Ex-Offenders
First job. In the closet.
Based on my first experience in the workplace and the struggles I faced being in the closet, I decided to come out right from the start.
I told them in my interview and when I met my colleagues for the first time, I steered the conversation to family life. It was easy to tell them I had a girlfriend; my new colleagues were brilliant with me. I had created the opportunity to talk about my sexuality right from the start. It felt liberating!
The company I worked for were hugely supportive. My leadership team were always on hand to help out – with any work related or personal issues.
One year in to my second job, I was alerted to the fact I had a male stalker. He was a very tall man in his 40s that had become obsessed with me, despite him knowing my sexuality. He was a student of mine, so that was awkward.
It was around 6pm on a winter’s night. The sun had set long ago. And I was walking back to my car. With a laptop over my shoulder. Vulnerable. It was a 15 minute walk to my car from the probation office. Around 6 minutes into the walk, I felt a presence behind me. A tall man walking pace by pace with me. I felt uncomfortable. I knew there was something not quite right. I instantly picked up my phone and called the office. I asked them to speak with me until I got back to my car. They did. I got into my car, locked it instantly and drove away. But not before I saw him. I knew who it was.
The next day, my senior leaders called a meeting with all the probation offices I worked in. They stepped up security for me. My teaching contract with him ended instantly. His probation officers were alerted to his behaviour and dealt with it from their end.
My stalker continued for 3 weeks. Every time I was in Dewsbury Office, there he was. Following me. Watching me.
I was given bodyguards. I wasn’t able to leave the office without a probation officer escorting me. When I pulled up in the car park to begin my working day. At lunch, tea breaks, and leaving at the end of the day. There was always a male probation officer next to me to protect me.
My protection, safety and wellbeing were taken very seriously with my second employer.
A progressive employer that valued me and ALL of who I am.
Why I Went Back In The Closet At Work
The time came for me to move on from this volatile and hostile environment. I decided to go back into a college environment.
From my very first day in my new job, I felt uncomfortable with my manager. She was a dictator. Controlling. Manipulative. She made fun of my colleagues in the office, in front of them. She lied. She abused her power. She made people feel unworthy. I watched her bully members of the team out of their roles.
Nothing had changed from my first job in a college. Homophobia and biphobia were prevalent. Underlying and subtle. It was particularly noticeable amongst the older members of staff. They didn’t have a clue about LGBT issues. They had not received any LGBT awareness training through their annual CPD and as a result, they were ignorant.
I felt like an outsider. I felt excluded. I felt unsafe. I felt vulnerable. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about my sexuality because I knew:
- I would be talked about behind my back
- My colleagues would direct their abuse towards me
- I would not get the promotion I was aiming for
I ran away from any personal conversations in the staff room. As soon as they started talking about being a parent, their relationship/partner or their home life, I would leave the room. And I wouldn’t come back until they had finished talking about their plans with their families or other gossip they had fallen into.
I still can’t believe this actually happened. But it did. In one of my early lesson observations, a senior manager gave me the feedback that I have very gay mannerisms and I need to tone it down.
From day 1, I knew I had to keep my sexuality to myself. I didn’t feel safe to be out in that environment.
Around 6 months in, my manager found out that I am a lesbian and began a torrent of abuse and bullying.
How I Dealt With Homophobic Abuse At Work
I experienced a significant period of bullying. It was so significant it impacted dramatically on my physical health, which in turn affected my performance at work. The stress that I felt as a result of the hate incidents on a daily basis, resulted in me having IBS – irritable bowel syndrome. I became unable to teach classes in the mornings. I was only able to teach afternoon and evening classes because my IBS symptoms were so severe in the mornings; the time where my manager was in ‘full swing’. Whoever heard of a teacher that can’t teach in the morning? Crazy ey?!
I experienced daily harassment, bullying, intimidation, online abuse and teasing. All from my manager.
Did I report this?
Initially, no. I was too afraid to ‘out’ myself to the leadership team. I would have had to explain the context of the bullying and show the emails. As soon as I did that – they would know I was gay. And I didn’t want anyone else at work to know that.
Eventually it reached a point where I couldn’t take it any longer. I reported it and her behaviour.
The woman involved was promoted.
I was told to not progress the case any further because it would highlight my sexual orientation to my colleagues and peers. Even though I had documented a year of incidents, emails, communications and had witnesses.
Take note. How not to deal with a homophobic incident.
Why I Wished I Had Come Out At Work
Personally: I was wearing a mask and pretending I was someone else with my colleagues. I made up stories about my private life (fictional boyfriend) when I was pushed for information. It was exhausting trying to remember what I told people. I had disconnected myself from my colleagues – they could tell I wasn’t being my true self with them. I wasn’t accepted, I felt excluded and I didn’t fit in.
By being in the closet, I wasn’t able to bring my whole self to work. I was suppressing my knowledge, skills and creativity. I felt restricted, caged.
From my experiences within a college environment, I believed it is not acceptable to be LGBT in business. That belief was reaffirmed over and over again during my time there due to the culture and experiences I had. By coming out, I wonder if it would have set the wheels in motion for it to be a more accepting, safe and inspiring place to work.
In my second role in education I was in the management structure. I would have loved to have been a role model for other LGBT individuals and offer mentoring for them to further their careers. Sadly, the culture at the time was not inclusive for this to happen.
Colleagues: if I had been out at work, my colleagues would have the opportunity for a greater understanding of LGBT issues. This may have inspired them to support the students more fully and encourage them to learn more about LGBT history and challenges LGBT people face in day to day life, instead of gossiping and spreading rumours about them. It would have supported their life not only in the workplace but in their interactions in society too. I imagine a ripple effect with this. My coming out could have planted a seed for them to want to learn more, be curious and ask the questions so they were more educated on LGBT life.
Leadership Team: I would have loved to see the senior management team dedicate themselves to the roll out of LGBT awareness training across the college. To provide staff with basic knowledge, understanding and support for their work with LGBT students. For them to encourage an LGBT employee network and LGBT student network group. To consider inclusion and intersectionality within the college and how they could become more inclusive for everyone, not just around gender and disability.
When organisations begin working on inclusion, they tend to focus on gender and disability. Only last week was I working with a global financial provider that is a Fortune 500 company. They openly said: ”We think we are doing really well on inclusion because we have considered and adapted our working practices to ensure they are inclusive to gender and disability.”
But what about the other protected characteristics? What about ensuring everyone can bring their whole selves to work?
It is not good enough these days to consider protected characteristics in silos. Yes, ensure your organisation is addressing each of the characteristics and considering the different elements to people’s identity.
But the bit most organisations miss (including many of the Fortune 500s I work with) is bringing it all back together. For example: ensuring a disabled, muslim lesbian feels included for ALL of her identity as a whole, and not just individually for her gender, disability, sexuality, religion or race. She can’t separate any of those things from who she is. So why should you?
Students: I would have loved to offer support to the LGBT students. To start up an LGBT student network, so they could socialise and meet with fellow LGBT students. And to be a role model and advocate for them in their learning journey.
Good Practice In The Workplace
It all starts with getting the foundations right.
- Take the time and effort to analyse your organisational culture. Is your organisation actively encouraging EVERYONE to bring their whole selves to work? Get an independent consultant in to evaluate your business for inclusivity. If you are not as inclusive as you would want, commit to creating a culture that is fully inclusive.
- Provide regular LGBT+ inclusion training and awareness raising for the leadership team, middle management and the HR team. Give them a safe space to ask questions they may not feel comfortable raising anywhere else, talk about the challenges they face and identify possible solutions.
- Ensure your employees are fully trained on how to be LGBT+ inclusive with your customers and to be LGBT+ aware in their customer service. Are they trained REGULARLY on this? Do they know what language to use and what NOT to use? Do they know how to meet the needs of people who identify as non-binary, gender fluid or transgender?
- Get your policies, practices and procedures up to date for inclusion (and specifically LGBT+ Inclusion) in the workplace. Make sure you have robust policies and practices in place to report LGBT+ related bullying and harassment. Do these policies sit in a drawer gathering dust? Or are they actively lived out each and every day?
- Make sure you have visible LGBT+ role models at all levels of the business, including boardroom representation.
- Ensure the board AND those at senior levels in the business are committed to LGBT+ inclusion.
- Identify senior leadership LGBT+ allies. Get them trained up so they are able to answer questions and provide support to employees and managers.
- Support an LGBT+ Employee Network. Create a safe space for LGBT+ staff to come together, discuss their issues, support each other and offer their own potential solutions. Check in with them regularly.
- Listen to the needs of your LGBT+ employees and customers. Address the challenges they face. Ask if they have any special requests to make their experience more inclusive.
- Encourage a safe space to have conversations about gender and sexuality in the workplace.
- Be visible and speak at LGBT+ events.
- If you are going to insist on taking consumer data online or in store, make sure your systems reflect a more diverse population. Having gender binary options only is not good enough in 2019. Offer alternative options that represent the LGBT+ community. Do you need to upgrade your data collection systems, your CRM or till system?
Training for managers is key.
- Every single manager needs to be fully LGBT+ trained. They need to know how to effectively deal with LGBT+ related issues, questions and unconscious bias. They need to know the right language to use, understand the issues LGBT+ individuals face and be empowered to challenge inappropriate behaviour. They need to know how to support LGBT employees and customers.
- Encourage managers to be LGBT+ allies and provide training for this.
- Set up an LGBT+ Employee Network. These are powerful. As well as being a source of support for the individuals within the network, they can advise on internal policy decisions and the business’s marketing plan. They can act as an advisory board working with the marketing and product teams to develop LGBT+ products and services and provide critical feedback on your communication strategies.
- Regular bespoke staff training/awareness delivered by an LGBT+ person and specialist (this is essential – don’t have LGBT+ training delivered by a heterosexual person). As a minimum this should raise awareness on issues faced by LGBT+ individuals in their lives, unconscious bias and appropriate language to use. The issues faced when accessing your products and services and how to support an LGBT+ customer.
- Provide a resource bank of training materials for employees – to educate on bi-visibility, trans inclusion, how to deal with homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and many more LGBT+ areas!
The culture of your organisation is the lifeblood of your organisation. It will determine how successful you are, the calibre of your staff and your reputation in the marketplace.
My experience with consulting and training Fortune 500s on LGBT Inclusion and Intersectionality has highlighted gaps in the following areas:
- How you engage all employees on LGBT inclusion, from attraction and recruitment to retention and development
- How you engage and consult clients, customers, service users and partners around LGBT equality
- The gap in LGBT awareness and training across middle and lower management
- Procurement: how you engage your supply chain on LGBT matters
- Monitoring: how you collect and analyse data to improve the experiences of LGBT employees and customers
- Policies and procedures: how you audit, develop and communicate your policies
Ask yourself and your senior leadership team.
What more could we do to be ahead of the game and to be a supportive and inclusive employer?
About Gina Battye
Gina Battye is a world renowned LGBT+ & Authenticity Consultant and Advisor for TV, Film, Theatre, Radio, Global Press, Fortune 500s + Leading Global Organisations.
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