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What it means to be proud at work in 2021

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.

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Wear It Purple: We are the change

The theme for this year’s Wear It Purple Day, to be held on 28th August is: ‘We are the Change’.  Beginning in 2010 as a youth response to global stories of bullying, harassment and suicides of rainbow young people, Wear It Purple Day has since transformed into an international movement celebrating rainbow young people and a mainstay in the D&I calendars of leading practice employers.

With 2020 marking ten years of Wear It Purple, co-founder Katherine Hudson shared with DCA her perspectives on achievements to date, current and future priorities and how organisations can play a leading role in creating LGBTIQ+ inclusive workplaces.

While no longer involved in the day to day work, with Wear it Purple Day now run by the next generation, Katherine remains passionate about the importance of visually showing solidarity on this day: “If you come from a family, area or school, which is not accepting, but you know that other people in your environment think you’re okay – that can make so much of a difference to young people feeling accepted.”

Despite great shifts in community attitudes in recent years, Katherine explains that LGBTIQ+ young people remain at increased risk of mental illness and suicidal ideation, particularly under current pandemic conditions that create distress through directives to stay home in an environment that might not feel safe.

“I’ve heard many stories of particularly trans and non-binary members of the rainbow alphabet who are back home and those daily microaggressions like not being called by the pronouns that they use, by the name that they’ve adopted that represents their gender identity more correctly.”

Organisations can make a significant difference to rainbow youth mental health and wellbeing through creating inclusive and accepting workplace cultures. Says Katherine, “If we’re talking about gender and sexuality, it’s about how do we make an environment so that it doesn’t matter what gender you are, but at the same time we celebrate and accept your gender.”

But for genuine inclusion to occur, Katherine believes a whole organisation focus that avoids, in her words, ‘the liquorice all sorts’ effect – separate layers of diversity that are not cohesive or co-operative, is key.

Some positive actions she advocates include hiring practices that reduce biases, LGBTIQ+ awareness training, educating on respectful and appropriate language, and enabling all employees to share their perspectives, rather than just providing opportunities that privilege the dominant group.

In terms of overall progress on rainbow youth inclusion, Katherine credits Gen Z with lighting the way: “I was in a suburban Coles and I heard this girl who would have been about 15 years old. And it became very clear from overhearing that she’s out at school and dating and she’s loudly discussing what flowers to get her girlfriend. The only attitude from others I noticed was, ‘Oh, typical teenager – so loud!’.”

Ultimately, it’s the everyday acceptance of Wear it Purple Day that Katherine is most proud of: “I can walk down the street on Wear it Purple Day and see teenagers in purple and they have no idea who I am, and I’ll say ‘Happy Wear it Purple Day’ to them, and they say it back. And I just keep walking. No one’s threatening you. Everyone’s embracing you. That’s what I’m proud of from this movement.”

Support Wear it Purple Day this 28th August and celebrate the inclusion of LGBTIQ+ diversity within your workplace and community.

Resources

For more information on LGBTIQ+ inclusion in the workplace check out the following DCA resources:

  • Out At Work: From Prejudice to Pride: This report presents evidence about what it means to be out at work, and what organisations can do to make everyone feel included
  • Intersections At Work: Research into the workplace inclusion experiences of culturally diverse LGBTQ workers
  • The Art of Inclusion: DCA’s podcast episodes, ‘When Love Hurts’ on domestic violence through the lens of LGBTIQ+ relationships and ‘Out in the Open’ with a transgender executive on the business of transitioning
  • Events: recordings of past events on LGBTIQ+ topics
  • Website: the full range of LGBTIQ+ insights and resources.

If you or someone you know is struggling or having a hard time please reach out to the following organisations for help:

  • Lifeline Australia: Free 24-hour telephone crisis support such as suicide prevention, mental health support and emotional assistance.
  • QLife: Free Australia-wide anonymous, LGBTI peer support and referral for people wanting to talk about a range of issues including sexuality, identity, gender, bodies, feelings or relationships.
  • Beyond Blue: Mental health and wellbeing support to address issues related to depression, suicide, anxiety disorders and other related mental illnesses.
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