PROSPER MAGAZINE: DIGITAL EDITION
IT'S MORE THAN JUST PAINTING YOUR BRAND RAINBOW
Prosper asked Neil Anderson, Director of External Affairs at the Black Country Chamber of Commerce, for his views on the changes he's witnessed for the LGBTQ+ community over the last twenty years and to give an insight into his work as a regional LGBT leader working to promote the needs of the LGBTQ+ communities and other marginalised and disenfranchised groups within the workplace.
June is Pride Season – a time when the Pride rainbow flag and its multitude of meanings held within its bright colour hues are displayed by businesses across the UK as they release specially-themed products or adapt their logos to demonstrate solidarity with the intersectionality of the LGBTQ+ community which makes up its employees, customers and corporate family.
Of course, these are anything but normal times and; with festival-style celebrations and parades cancelled across the UK; businesses and their employees who have traditionally used Pride Season to recognise, raise awareness of and celebrate LGBTQ+ issues are having to rethink their response to this diarised zeitgeist.
For the West Midlands though, this is nothing new. The region is often out of step with putting its Pride Celebrations in the same month as everybody else's – Birmingham Pride (one of the flagship national celebrations takes place in May) and, right here in the Black Country, our region tends to hold 'Prides' in late Summer or early Autumn – meaning that many others are now looking beyond that 28-day window in which to ensure that this key community is supported and celebrated.
For some, this will mean that they might well wait for February's LGBT History month whilst others still might wait until the 17 May next year which will mark 31 years since the World Health Organisation decategorised homosexuality as a mental illness giving birth to something called IDAHOBIT – the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. Many more will likely just wait until June 2021 whilst feeling that LGBTQ+ issues and needs are dealt with given our inclusion within the 2010 Equality Act and subsequent marriage equality legislation and need not be thought about outside of these contexts.
From my own experience; I am a proud, out cis gay man and I remain also a proud West Midlander who first experienced the Black Country in the late 1990s as a student and have found myself constantly being drawn back to the region professionally.
Over the last 20 years I have been supporting and promoting the LGBTQ+ agenda within the workplace including setting up staff networks, being elected to lead the Midland LGBT Employee Network, helped to found new sector-specific collaborations to share best practice and tackle issues, remain a trustee of the third-largest UK LGBT charity based here in the West Midlands and helped to champion our community's arts and culture within the region as Chair of its Queer Arts Festival.
During this time, I have spoken to many people and helped many other organisations develop their own strategies for supporting their LGBTQ+ communities.
Over that 20-year period, much has changed – often for the best.
As somebody who grew up within the context of 1988 – 2003's Section 28 where it was stated that a local authority 'shall not promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship' with the resulting bullying, lack of availability of specific sexual health and wellbeing advice and the very prevalent feeling of not fitting in which provided a backdrop for my generation's formative years as we found our way in the world; it is particularly refreshing and encouraging to see how initiatives such as the locally-led 'No Outsiders' is examining alternative perspectives from a previously-held heteronormative mainstream view within the context of a contemporary education system.
Within the workplace too, it has been encouraging to see perspectives shift over the last two decades also. Now I feel able to talk – without fear of judgement or recrimination – about what I did at the weekend, that my partner is another man and not expending the huge amounts of energy I did in the early parts of my career hiding aspects of myself.
Enabling colleagues, employees, customers and suppliers to be authentic and bring their 'whole selves' to the working environment – simply put – is good for business – we are more efficient and productive when we are accepted and happy. People I know who have been unsure about whether to join a new firm have often told me that as they sat in the reception area waiting to be interviewed were swayed by simple things such as LGBTQ+ employees or straight allies wearing a rainbow lanyard or the display of pull-up banner or Pride flag showing that they would welcome and that this new potential employer stands with them.
Whilst these (such as our decision at the Black Country Chamber of Commerce to 'Pride' our own logo for June or the introduction of pronoun preferences on email signatures) might just be viewed as token gestures by many actually convey a powerful signal to the LGBTQ+ community that a business is willing to stand out as a visible role model and celebrate its inclusive leadership that prejudice will not be tolerated.
That role model visibility – whether through symbols or the leadership of a senior straight ally or LGBT employee remains as important today as it ever has; as, for every out proud worker there will be countless others who, for whatever reason, don't feel it is OK to be themselves at work.
Recent research published by Stonewall has revealed that over a third of LGBT staff have hidden their identity for fear of discrimination with around a fifth further stating that they have experienced discrimination when applying for roles because of being LGBTQ+. Furthermore, BAME, Women and individuals with disabilities who are also LGBTQ+ are at a higher risk of abuse or losing their jobs because of their identity and; whilst the debate around the provision of gender-neutral bathroom facilities might seem like a distraction for many; we know that 33% of trans people have been the target of negative comments, discrimination or unwanted sexual advances from co-workers whilst there is disagreement and contention around what the proposed Gender Recognition Act should include and what its scope should be.
For me, each generation has its own battles to fight and responsibility to make it easier for the next generation. I have a friend who has acted as an unofficial mentor for me. Whilst he retired in the last five years, he began his working life in 1965 – two years before Government legislation decriminalised homosexuality between men. He has told me many stories about the struggles he had to go through when there was not only, no acceptance of who he was, but he actually risked imprisonment and a criminal record for just being himself.
The responsibility of this generational mantel is particularly relevant right now as we know that often young people who are now out at school, college or university will often go 'go back into the closet' as they take their first tentative steps into the world of work through the fear of reprisals or rejection.
COVID-19 and how we emerge from lockdown and support our younger LGBTQ+ colleagues have thrown into the limelight the fact that for some of these younger people previously living proud, authentic lives at work and socially have been forced to go back and live with families who do not accept who they are – meaning that as businesses and employers we need to be especially considerate about the process of welcoming them back to our tolerant and open workplaces.
The Black Country has some great businesses who provide their LGBTQ+ communities with the support and platform you would expect to see in most modern, forward-thinking and inclusive organisations but there is still so much more we as leaders, owners, managers, supervisors and individuals need to do and beyond the unfurling of the Pride flag such as developing a strong and visible regional-wide cross-sector business structure to develop the tools and processes to support and signpost organisations who want to do more but don't know where to start and provide a supportive network for the Black Country's LGBTQ+ professionals.
Whilst I will absolutely support and tirelessly advocate for those recognised periods as a way to come together and reflect, share and celebrate, as a business community within the Black Country, we need to think beyond these flagpole moments of "painting your brand rainbow' and ensure that for the other 11 months of the year that the needs, rights and priorities of its own LGBTQ+ communities remain prominent.