“I have taken advice on this difficult matter, the conclusion of which is to regretfully inform you that given your sexual proclivity you are unable to join the Army”.
These words are from a letter sent to me, then a student at university, by the Ministry of Defence, some twenty-three years ago. I mean sexual proclivity, really, who says that right? Rereading that letter as I thought about this blog for LGBT+ History Month reminded me how much has changed, but also how important it is for us to keep going challenging discrimination and creating inclusive workplaces.
From the age of 16 I had been sponsored by the Army, first through school, and then University. I spent most weekends with army friends in muddy fields and officers mess bars. But everything changed for me when I met someone. That someone happened to be a man. I grew up with all the privilege of being male, white, and growing up in a loving middle-class background. This represented my first real experience of disadvantage based on who I am.
The forced change in career also meant coming out to my parents. I lost touch with almost all my friends; my social circle, so previously rooted in my career choice, changed overnight. BUT my position was so much more fortunate than that of the many serving lesbian, gay and bi servicewomen and men who faced court-martial and potentially jail, losing not only their employment, but also pension rights, housing, rank and even medals.
That letter went on to suggest that if the “issue” had not come “out in the open” it may have been a different matter. But that was precisely the problem. Despite still working through my sexual identity, I knew that I did not want to be in a position of denying my partner or more accurately their gender; or forever avoiding the “what did you do at the weekend?” question. Instead of the army, I took a role in public health working with LGBT communities. Working in an LGBT service, I realised that for so many years as a teenager growing up, I had supressed who I was to fit in.
So why am I telling you all this in a blog about LGBT History Month and fundraising? This experience shaped who I am today and what I do (as well as what I did not end up doing!); becoming a fundraiser and my choice to work in the charity sector for the last two decades. I also know it has shaped how I lead, and how I think about diversity and being a more inclusive leader.
I try to bring my whole self to work, in the knowledge that this might make it a bit easier for others to do the same. Sometimes that is hard. I have needed to work on it and create belonging for myself. This month is not only LGBT History Month, it’s been HIV testing week and the screening of the brilliant ‘It’s a Sin’, so powerfully telling the story of the collision of stigmas about sexuality and HIV in the 1980s. I’ve lived with HIV for most of my adult life. I realised thinking about my own intersectionality that I’ve tended to be open at work about my sexuality but not so much my HIV.
So what would my steer to my younger self be? Be yourself at work, bring as much of your whole self to work as you can. As a leader be vulnerable and share yourself; it will help create a culture where everyone can feel belonging and thrive. See and value difference in experience and thinking in your team; know that it will make your fundraising better and more engaging to the communities you want to reach. Appreciate difference in your donors, and know that from time to time you may still get ‘the weekend question’ or what does your wife/husband (insert opposite gender noun) do? Be an ally and more. This LGBT+ History Month I’ve been thinking a lot about trans identities. Yep trans women are women, trans men are men – but sadly in 2021, that still needs to be said.
Be curious and lean into conversations that may feel uncomfortable; show empathy, ask about others’ experiences. Language matters, but don’t let fearing you will say the wrong thing, put you off reaching out.