Out at work
9 MIN READ
Bank of Ireland’s With Pride employee network is helping Bank of Ireland to create an environment where people feel comfortable being themselves at work.
But the decision to ‘come out’ at work is a highly personal one. A 2014 survey by the Gay & Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) found that 12% of employees were out to no-one at work and a further 26% were out to some people only.
Some of those not out at work, feared that if they were out their colleagues may feel ‘uncomfortable around me’ (34%), that they would be ‘excluded from informal networks’ (26%) or that they would ‘not be likely to be promoted’ (18%).
I spoke to 5 Bank of Ireland colleagues and 1 LGBT ally about the decision to come out at work or to choose not to do so. An article sharing the experiences of LGBT women will follow in the autumn.
I’ve been in the Bank since 2007 and I have been out for most of that time amongst my work colleagues. The bank nowadays is completely different to the bank I joined back in 2007. Then, I would have to be careful not to explain fully what I did at the weekend if someone asked. I’d not mention the bar names, for fear they’d know it was a gay bar, or use pronouns that would give away who I was seeing etc.
When I first joined the Bank, I was in the closet at work until I got to know my team. Initially, if someone asked me if I was married or seeing somebody I’d just say ‘no’, which wasn’t always a lie as I seemed to be perpetually single! Usually, after two or three months when I felt the team ‘knew me’, when we had a social occasion, I would chat privately with someone in the team that I got on well with and let them know I was gay. I, then, slowly came out that way, and never with a big bang. I repeated this every time I changed team or someone new joined the team.
Now that I’m married, I tell people straight away, if they ask, that I have a husband and a dog. I talk more about my dog, to be honest! But I’m completely out at work. It’s very hard to go back into the closet when I have this visual sign – the ring – that I’m with someone special.
Before, you’d tell your team and they would have conversations about you, without you being there, and it would spread like that across the workplace but now everybody in IT knows who I am so I don’t have to face coming out over and over any more. My perception is that nobody has ever discriminated against me for being gay but that may be that I’ve never recognised it.
Now, with our Group vision and values, I do feel that the Bank culture is on our side in terms of LGBT. I’d have no hesitation to call someone out if somebody said anything homophobic, or that doesn’t fit with any of the group values.
When I joined Bank of Ireland, which wasn’t today or yesterday, it wasn’t a place where you could be out at work. I remember active discrimination against LGBT people and recall one gay man who didn’t get a promotion because ‘we can’t have someone like that representing the bank’. It wasn’t unusual to hear snide remarks about gays and lesbians at the time.
I knew I was gay when I joined the bank. I was OK with that and lucky to have a supportive family. But even then, my mother’s main concern was would I be safe. She was worried about my safety because it was not uncommon, especially for gay men, to be harassed or beaten up at that time. In 1982, the vicious murder of Declan Flynn in Fairview Park brought this to light for society at large. It would be another decade before decriminalization and the late 90s before we had legal protections under employment legislation and equal status legislation. I was involved in the community protesting, marching for our rights, having fun and joined Gloria – the lesbian and gay choir. The community was a very important part of my life.
In work, I told close friends initially but would not have been ‘unnecessarily out’. Over time, I let more people know. In the late 90s, when I was working in our mortgage business, I was at lunch in the canteen one day when one colleague made a homophobic joke. Before I could blink, other colleagues at the table had reacted calling out that it was unacceptable. They spoke up and I didn’t have to. That was a great feeling – colleagues stood up for me.
The theme of Pride 2018 is ‘We are family’. Pride was originally a protest, today it’s also a celebration and visibility of our community continues to be so important. You’d be forgiven for thinking it must be easier for young LGBT+ people today but research studies are showing very clearly that this is not the case. So while we have the legislative platform for equality there’s more work to be done to change attitudes. Social discrimination can be subtle in form but potent in effect.
When the bank launched its Inclusion & Diversity strategy, I jumped at the chance to get involved. I co-chair the WithPride network with Keith Gill which has just celebrated its first birthday. The network enjoys great support across the organization and those of us on the committee are committed to making positive change and playing our part in enabling our colleagues, customers and communities to thrive. It’s been quite the journey, still a work-in-progress, but a very different place to be out at work.
I came out to my family and friends when I was 18. In secondary school, boys would jeer at me “you’re gay” and I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that it was said as an insult, a negative thing. And it took me a long time to accept that it wasn’t.
In terms of being out at work, it has always depended on the people that I’ve worked with. I’m working in the Bank less than a year and, when I joined my team, I found they were quite quiet. There wasn’t really an opportunity to say anything and it’s an awkward thing to bring up randomly. While I would never not be myself, I would still skirt the truth sometimes, depending on my perception of whom I was speaking to.
Last Christmas, I was out in a pub with work and I made a comment about a rugby player’s performance. One of my work colleagues said, “oh, you’re only saying that because you fancy them”. That was the first time on the team that someone had acknowledged I was gay and I found it embarrassing. I don’t like to promote any LGBT stereotype but I thought “no, get over yourself, it was a joke”. It had been said in jest, and not in a malicious way. And I think it helped me to be more open about myself in work.
More recently, I went to an LGBT Ally event in work which I highlighted at the next team meeting. Everyone on the team said something along the lines of “who cares if someone is gay?” It wasn’t a big deal to them. It can sometimes be a big deal to me though. But that’s my problem, not theirs. It was my perception of how they might think that stopped me from being more open.
In a previous job, all the guys in my department would go for lunch together and they would invite me along. They would ask me about myself but I wasn’t comfortable enough to be open and honest with them. So I pulled away from them even though they were being welcoming and friendly. It was a self-inflicted prejudice, which I think is interesting. I found out later that they had presumed I was gay and no-one had any issue with it. But because I thought that they might, I excluded myself from their company.
In an earlier job, the team was all girls apart from me, and we were all around the same age. I felt comfortable enough to be completely open and honest about myself, but they didn’t acknowledge that I was gay until I specifically told them so. They were worried about offending me, and I think that’s part of the problem. It can still be considered an insult to ask a guy if he’s gay.
More recently, I’ve worked in a place where someone on my team had very outspoken views, which were based on stereotypes. However, I never felt intimidated by him and although I found him offensive, I never felt uncomfortable about being out at work or that I couldn’t stand up for myself. There’s an age factor to consider too.
My only negative experience with being out at work was at a Christmas party in a previous job, where someone I had never spoken to before walked up to me and asked me if I was a “f****t”. I reported him to HR and he apologised to me, blaming the alcohol. But again, it didn’t make me feel intimidated, just awkward when I’d see him.
I come from a home where it didn’t matter what you wore or what your sexuality was, once we were healthy, happy and safe everything else was inconsequential. My mum is a passionate, caring and very determined person – characteristics I’m proud to have inherited. So when I started in a professional work environment, over 12 years ago, a place where I had to shut down elements of my personality to fit in, it literally set alarm bells ringing. The contrast of coming from an accepting environment to a more closed one was difficult for me.
I never hid the fact that I was gay but I consciously never talked about it either because it was a taboo subject. I’ve my mother’s feistiness and remember thinking ‘what can I do to change this?’ At the time there were no LGBT+ networks in the bank so I decided, in my spare time, to work externally in the community with different organisations to get a real understanding of issues, where help was needed and also to build out my own network of contacts. I met some of the most incredible and inspirational people who, to this day, are still driving positive change across the LGBT+ community.
I remember one incident a number of years back where a senior manager queried whether I should even mention in the office that I volunteered for LGBT+ organisations and threatened to report me. I did challenge her and so the silent treatment and lack of acknowledgment ensued on a daily basis, tantamount to bullying. After that, I was determined to ensure that I worked to support other LGBT+ colleagues in whatever way I could and was delighted to get the support from Bank of Ireland to drive key Inclusion and Diversity initiatives.
Today, I’m proud to be Co-Chair of the Bank of Ireland LGBT+ network and one of the founding members of the Financial Services Inclusion Network (FuSIoN). We all work hard every day to try and make real positive change happen for our customers, colleagues and across our community – I love every second of it.
I joined the bank about a year ago and have become an LGBT ally. Previous to joining the bank, I wouldn’t have been that involved as I am now. One of the biggest issues for me has been transgender issues. I had heard of transgender before and I knew what it was but over the past year the challenges that transgender people face and their personal stories have really hit home from the kids themselves, their parents and their whole family.
I have three young nephews who are at that age now where they are going to start thinking about their sexuality and I wonder how they may cope if faced with a similar situation. If one of the boys turned round to me and said ‘I’m gay’ or whatever, I know that my family would be accepting and supportive but I would hope their friends and the rest of society would be the same.
I was at a talk where a young boy and his parents spoke about the challenges of being transgender which really opened my eyes. I now realise that it’s about so much more than whether you are straight or gay there are so many more facets to it. It has made me appreciate the differences between people and the fact that everyone has their own journey.
When we talk about inclusivity it’s about accepting everybody for who they are. It’s not about their sexuality or what they believe – none of that matters – it’s about the person. It’s about who you are and not about the labels. It’s your personal journey and nobody has the right to judge it.
I’m straight and for me the journey is just being an LGBT ally. My parents were very liberal and open when I was growing up. There were no subjects which were taboo in our house. And so I am used to talking about subjects that others might shy away from. As an ally, my role is about having conversations with work colleagues and family. It’s not about declaring ‘I am an LGBT ally and you must do this and that…’ it’s just making people aware of the issues.
I started off at the Bank in a team of younger people who were also very outspoken. I didn’t know how to broach the whole thing so I thought I would leave it a few weeks and see what they were like as people.
I remember a conversation early on with one of my female colleagues who said to me ‘I’m really open and I hope that everyone feels they can be open with me too’ while looking directly at me. And I was like ‘no, this isn’t happening, you’re not going to get your coming out moment.’
From then on, I didn’t want to have to do anything about it. I mean they didn’t have to come out so why should I have to? Mainly, it was me being stubborn. I didn’t want to have to be treated differently with no choice in the matter.
After that, every time the team came across an LGBTQ+ issue they didn’t know anything about, I’d explain what it meant. I thought this was going pretty well. Then, three months later, one of the guys asked me what kind of girls I liked! A few months later the same question.
I was split between being very involved with my team and taking a big step back. They are learning but they still won’t talk to me about it even though I’m metaphorically flying the rainbow flag daily.
I think there’s a kind of separate barrier you have to overcome because, at some point, if I have to say I’m gay and they are not comfortable asking then that’s not just me. I don’t come to work to make them comfortable with LGBTQ+ people, that’s not my actual job. I think you can only educate people so far and then they have to make that final leap. As long as people won’t discuss these issues at work, things stay the same.
I have had quite varied experiences throughout different teams I’ve worked on or with. My current team is much more open to these topics and treats it as more normal. One of the good experiences I had was because I put the WithPride network on my CV – everyone wanted to know about it and how it came about. It ended up being a professional asset.
I joined the Bank in 1996 when I was 22. When you say, ‘are you out at work?’, I wasn’t out to myself in 1996! I didn’t know what gay meant so there was no conversation to be had. I then met my partner and I’m with him 20 years next year. That actually gave me news – ‘I have a partner’ – but I didn’t tell anyone in work for a number of years.
That was fine. I worked with guys and still work with a lot of them today. Guys don’t ask questions. We had one woman came to work with us once and I hated the idea of going on a night out when she was going to be there because she would ask who was I seeing and all those questions.
Why was I closeted? I’ve never had a negative reaction in the organisation but I didn’t like the idea of coming out. I didn’t want to be known as ‘the gay who works in credit’. The only reference point that I had was a woman who worked elsewhere in the Bank who was never referred to in the team without mentioning that she was a lesbian. I don’t even know if she was a lesbian. But it was always mentioned. I didn’t want that.
I came out to my family in my twenties. Then I ended up working with a team of women who asked questions and became good friends with them. I had previously been vague about the pronouns I used and what I did at the weekend. Then, over drinks one night, I told them.
They said, ‘we guessed you were gay alright but we can’t believe you are living with your partner’. It turned out they had subtly tried to get this information out of me with trick questions for ages. But you become very good at keeping information back in conversations.
There were two phases of coming out in the Bank. My boss sent me a Facebook request so I had to go and have a chat with him because I was out to friends and family. That went fine. In 2011, my partner and I became civil partners and took a month off so there was a little conversation about that and again when we got married in 2016.
But I’m actually surprised how little it spreads. I still get questions from people like ‘you have kids, don’t you?’ My fear that I would be known as the ‘gay from credit’ actually turns out not to be true. I still don’t explain why I don’t have kids. I just say no. I know I could correct the assumption but I don’t.
It can still be a bit awkward. I came out to someone recently who said ‘I’d never have guessed because you’re not one of those (and he waved his hands in the air like Larry Grayson) gays’.
When the vote for civil partnership was coming up there were protesters from both sides outside the Dail. I was on a management training course at the time and mentioned I liked to travel and a woman asked me who I went with. It threw me completely. I can’t remember what I said. But I felt really low about that. There were people protesting for my rights outside the Dail and I couldn’t say who I went on holidays with.
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