Since the introduction of the Equality Act in 2010, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people have had the same employment rights as anybody else.
This doesn’t mean, though, that discrimination has disappeared. A recent survey of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) workers by Manchester Business School and Plymouth University found that they were twice as likely as heterosexual employees to experience bullying in the workplace, with one in ten saying they’d experienced discrimination in the last 12 months.
“Our study establishes beyond doubt that bullying and discrimination is a common experience for many lesbian, gay and bisexual employees, with LGBs being exposed to intrusive and sexualised behaviour far more frequently than their heterosexual colleagues, as well being as being at risk of social exclusion at work,” says Helge Hoel, professor in organisational behaviour at Manchester Business School.
“Lesbians and bisexual women are particularly negatively affected. Whilst negative stereotypes and stereotyping of lesbians and gay men play a key role in many bullying scenarios, they are often denied and are rarely confronted openly in the debate about bullying and homophobia, possibly because apparently many LGBs themselves subscribe to such stereotypes.”
Shockingly, though, a quarter of those who had experienced homophobic bullying at work said they’d done nothing about it.
Indeed, many people choose to quit rather than fight. Earlier this month, for example, a gay assistant head teacher in Birmingham resigned after parents complained about teaching materials that challenged homophobia. And in 2009, a gay firefighter killed himself after allegedly suffering 15 years of homophobic bullying at work.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that many people feel distinctly nervous about coming out to their colleagues. But the legal protections now in place mean that nobody should suffer discrimination for their sexuality – and most employers are more than happy to comply.
As Kate Richardson, a research and evaluation officer at Manchester City Council points out, “Certainly, employers who understand their responsibilities under the Equalities Act will deal properly with problems – the costs if it goes to a tribunal are very high.”
It’s worth pointing out that there’s no need whatsoever to tell others about your sexuality if you don’t want to. Nor do you have to tell everybody in the organisation. If you have a partner, for instance, who would be eligible for company benefits, HR will need to know – but has a duty to preserve your privacy.
Equally, most people find that the best way to come out is to tell their immediate colleagues first, and then let the news percolate though the rest of the organisation. This can be done subtly, perhaps by mentioning “my partner and I” and then dropping in a pronoun or two.
“I worked in Wandsworth in the 1980s and early 90s and I was really scared to come out for a couple of years,” says Kate. “But one day I was feeling brave and mentioned that I was going out with somebody in the England rugby team. They asked me what he was like, whether he was really big and beefy, and I said, no, it’s a woman, and she isn’t.”
Often, it’s the reaction from work contacts outside one’s own company that’s the problem. Stuart Lauchlan, now editor of technology website Diginomica, says he once received a barrage of hate mail from readers after writing an opinion piece about equalities legislation.
“Literally hundreds of letters and emails, evenly split between supportive and threatening. The one with the razor blade in it was particularly nice. As was the ‘we know where you go to school and we’re going to kill you’ one which attracted police attention and investigation,” he says.
“The saddest thing of all was recognising on one envelope the handwriting of a PR contact who only the week before had been all over me to get me to write about his client.”
While this may be an unusual case, it’s not uncommon for coming out to trigger homophobic behaviour from work contacts outside the organisation such as clients or suppliers. Even in such cases, though, the employer has a duty to protect the employee from discrimination.
There’s no doubt that some employers are more sensitive to homophobia than others – but things are improving across the board. Stonewall publishes an annual list of its top employers, which this year even includes MI5, the Ministry of Defence, the Army and the Royal Navy – all known for homophobia in the past.
Even in the US, where it’s still legal to fire someone for being gay in 29 states, employees are becoming increasingly confident about coming out at work. In a survey carried out last year by the Center for Talent Innovation, 59 percent of gay staff said they were out.
According to Stonewall, many people are surprised by how positive their co-workers are – and very few people regret coming out.
Indeed, it’s more than likely these days that coming out will turn out to be a distinctly underwhelming experience. As Stuart comments, “Apart from the inevitable ‘tell us something we didn’t know’, it was refreshingly touching to find many of the most robustly hetero ‘lads’ from the sales team becoming suddenly highly sensitive.”