20 Feb 2023
In 2003, a few days after my 8th birthday, the government abolished Section 28, legislation that until then had banned ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ in schools and local councils. This meant that for the first few years of my education, it was against the law for my teachers to talk about LGBTQ+ people, let alone celebrate them. Fearful of facing disciplinary action, school library shelves were emptied of books showing same-sex families. A pride flag in the classroom was out of the question.
Fast forward twenty years.
It’s 2023 and I work at Settle, a quirky orange housing association based in North Hertfordshire, (not our comms-approved tagline). As I write this, I am sat in an office meeting room that features a floor-to-ceiling pride flag painted across the entirety of one wall. At Settle, we have six values and a meeting room named after each one. I am in ‘space to be proud’ - the best spot if you want to brighten up your background on a Teams call. The decor is unapologetically loud and proud and flies in the face of every damaging thing that Section 28 stood for. It is my favourite place in the office.
A lot has changed in twenty years.
So, this history month I am thinking about the LGBTQ+ people and allies who came before me; including those who fearlessly protested Section 28, storming the BBC and abseiling into the House of Lords on a washing line. Thanks to their openness and bravery, I get to be me and it’s no big deal. They paved the way for my right to blithely tick ‘gay’ without thinking twice on any questionnaire that our people team sends my way, to chat away happily with colleagues about the woman I’m dating, to describe myself as queer as easily as I describe myself as left-handed. They paved the way for my right to feel normal, and I do.
Which is why, at a recent housing sector diversity and inclusion event, I was saddened to hear someone say that no LGBTQ+ people can be themselves at work. This isn’t true for me (and I think it’s important that we share these stories too – the positive, the neutral, and the mundane) but I know that it remains true for many. I know too that I am privileged by my white skin and the fact that I’m cisgender (in Stonewall’s most recent Trans lives survey, 63 per cent of respondents reported experiencing transphobia while seeking employment, rising to 73 per cent of black people and people of colour).
We’ve got a long way to go until every member of the LGBTQ+ community can feel like I do at work, like I did the day I first saw that rainbow wall – confident that I was in a place where I could be myself. Two years on and I am fortunate to now be coordinating Settle’s diversity and inclusion network ‘value everyone’, which gives me the chance to build on the inclusive culture that put me so at ease when I first started working here.
There are lots of steps you can take in your own organisations to help create such a culture. Before you reach for the paintbrushes, here are a few (arguably more practical) ideas:
Much of today’s workforce was educated directly under Section 28 or in its long shadow. Whether we realised it or not this impacted what we were taught and not taught, and what attitudes and behaviours were left unchallenged. Twenty years on, looking back, I can see how it denied queer kids like me space to be proud when we were growing up; looking forward I can see the collective power we have to undo some of the damage of those less colourful times.
Research, policy and inclusion partner at Settle Group