How to celebrate Pride at work
Jane Farrell is Co-Founder of EW Group. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organisational change and cultural adaptability.
Before the Pride celebrations begin, it’s worth pausing. It’s great to celebrate but also to understand and acknowledge why we are celebrating. In my view, sexual orientation – mine or anyone else’s – isn’t in and of itself very interesting apart from the people we choose to have relationships with, (if we do).
The reason why organisations need to think about sexual orientation and ensure that lesbians, for example, can feel comfortable and respected at work is because of discrimination and prejudice. It is the discrimination and prejudice that make it a company issue, not the orientation itself. People are assumed to be heterosexual; it is the default, and we know that people who aren’t, experience discrimination and prejudice.
Pride celebrations matter
So, the Pride celebrations (and Pride at work) matter because many LGBT people in the UK and across the world have experienced harassment, been overlooked for promotion, stereotyped, had ‘jokes’ made about them, been physically attacked, suffered poor mental health, been imprisoned, and even killed.
Pride matters because it recognises the hard work and struggle to get the rights that exist in the UK for example, and a growing number of other countries in the world. It is sobering to remember that in 69 countries sexual relations between people of the same sex is illegal. It is a time to celebrate the people that have fought hard, at great cost to them personally, for the right to exist and be respected. We should all be able to celebrate who we are.
Fundamental change has been achieved since the first Pride celebrations and demonstrations started over fifty years ago. But we’re not over the hurdle of discrimination just yet. It’s still not unusual to hear about prejudice and abuse taking place because of someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Six in ten LGBT people in Europe avoid holding hands in public for fear of harassment and abuse.
Revisiting Section 28 again recently, I was reminded just how frightening it was for LGBT teachers and Heads at the time. I was a teacher myself in Hackney. Coming into force in 1988 and only repealed UK-wide in 2003, the legislation created an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship, far beyond it’s legal remit. During this time many young people at school were denied support against homophobic bullying and abuse.
There is much to celebrate
I realise this might not sound like a great lead-up to Pride celebrations, but there is lots to celebrate. In the UK and elsewhere gay men are no longer imprisoned because they are in a sexual relationship with another man, there is some protection for trans people (gender reassignment) in the Equality Act, as well as protection from discrimination for those of us with same-sex partners. It is far from perfect, but it is progress.
Imagine writing a sentence that said, ‘it is now lawful for men to be in a relationship with women’? – ‘Flipping’ sentences in this way can be helpful to those people who have never really thought much about their sexual orientation because they haven’t needed to.
Potential for discrimination and prejudice
As we often say, it can be genuinely difficult to spot when we are advantaged by our social identity, but when we are disadvantaged because of the way society treats us (due to our ethnicity, sex, age, religion, gender, etc or a combination of these things) we spot it immediately because it is so familiar to us and we have experienced prejudice and discrimination because of it. It is great that so many organisations have policies and processes that recognise the potential for discrimination and prejudice and ensure their staff understands why these policies are needed.
The best organisations also make clear the intersections with social class, and race, and disability because most people in the world are experiencing discrimination for more than one aspect of their social identity. Disabled lesbians face compound challenges because of the assumptions that are made about disabled people and sexuality, the sexism they face as women, as well as the discrimination that disabled people face when traveling on public transport for example. Black gay men face racism and homophobia, sometimes at the same time.
So, what can organisations do to celebrate Pride at work?
- Educate staff so people understand that Pride was established due to discrimination and prejudice, not only because I, for example, like a party (which I certainly do).
- Ensure that there is a balance between celebrating hard-fought rights (the scrapping of Section 28), and the joy that we all feel when we are acknowledged and respected at work.
- Listen to diverse LGBT voices, not only a few. There are very different and sometimes clashing views and thinking within LGBT communities, and sometimes competing rights. We have different experiences and histories and are not ‘as one’ on many issues. Why should we be? We are diverse.
- Talk to the different people in your staff networks or affinity groups and think about a range of activities. I have enjoyed hearing about listening groups, film and book clubs ‘LGBT’ coffee mornings, and lots of different social events of course.
- Some companies are using Pride to fundraise to support local groups who provide support for young LGBT people, or Black or Asian LGBT people, or older LGBT people. One of our global clients is fundraising to ensure LGBT have legal representation in countries where it is illegal to be LGBT.
- Be prepared for the usual ‘whataboutery’ moments (‘when are we having a month of celebrations for heterosexual people’). They tell us that there is more education and training to do. They are also moments that we can explain that heterosexual people often ‘come out’ in the first few minutes of meeting someone as they, naturally, talk about their wives or husbands for example. If we are LGBT, we often need to think very carefully about ‘coming out’ not because we are secretive but because we know it might result in discrimination or prejudice. It is the nature of privilege that if we are advantaged it’s difficult to spot, and if we are disadvantaged, we spot it in a microsecond as it is so familiar to us.
- Champion equality beyond the Pride celebrations. Truly inclusive organisations avoid appearing tokenistic and are committed to diversity and inclusion year-round. They talk about issues during calendar events – like homophobia during Pride Month or racism during Black History Month – and realise that discrimination is an ongoing struggle for many.
Now, let’s start celebrating.