22 Feb 2023
I remember it as if it were yesterday. Planting my elbows and pushing my palms together.
I wasn’t a religious kid, but this night, as I prepared to tuck myself up in my Thomas the Tank Engine sheets, I felt I needed help from whoever was up there.
I’d cut my weekly Beano reading session short; not even the Bash Street Kids could hold my concentration. Something was distracting and confusing me, and I just wanted it to go away. I didn’t have any comprehension of what I felt or what it meant, but I knew it involved other boys.
So here I am. An eight-year-old kid with a loving family and not a care in the world. I don’t know what gay is, I have no concept of homophobia and I am already praying away feelings I don’t understand.
Why? Why did I instinctively sense this was wrong and something I didn’t want? How did I already know it was going to make my life harder?
When you think about it, the answer is simple.
As children, we are constantly learning, and we’re hugely impressionable. Our sense of who we are is framed by what we take in during our early years.
As we grow up our reference points are our parents, our friends, our teachers, what we see on television, in films, in advertising, in magazines and so on.
And even by the early 90s, which had come on leaps and bounds compared to even the previous decade, that meant one thing and one thing only when it came to relationships – a man and a woman.
In every book I read, in every lesson at school, in every conversation I had; in literally everything I saw or heard, relationships were between men and women.
And so, at the slightest sign of feelings that didn’t tally with this, I naturally assumed something must be wrong.
You can’t be what you can’t see. I heard this a few years ago and thought ‘wow’ because, in seven short words, it captures what that eight-year-old boy was going through.
Today I feel fortunate to have come to terms with who I am, but it has been a lifelong journey of self-acceptance.
Those early feelings of shame, fostered by a world which didn’t let me know how I felt was ok, hampered my self-esteem and prevented me from having healthy relationships for years, as it does for so many others.
For some people, this instinct to suppress who they are lasts a lifetime, and many others will endure profound lasting effects on their mental health and relationships.
And why? Why should any person waste a moment of their life feeling a fundamental part of them is wrong? Everyone deserves to be able to live their best life and pursue what makes them happy.
That’s a rather lengthy preamble and you’re forgiven for thinking ‘so what’s this got to do with housing organisations and their work’?
Well, it is the role of all organisations to do everything they can to tackle lingering prejudice which, even today, leaves many people feeling like that confused eight-year-old boy. Though we have made progress, you only need to read the comments on the first LGBTQ-related social media post you can find to know we are nowhere near there yet.
Of course, a lot of this is about education. What we teach our children is so important and when I hear people, with good intention in many cases, worry that we will confuse young people by teaching them that however they feel and whoever they love is ok, I tell them my story and I say this: there is nothing more confusing to a young child learning about themselves and the world around them, than no one showing them who they are and how they feel is ok.
But of course, as my own and countless other stories demonstrate, education doesn’t just happen in school. It happens in all aspects of our lives – and this is where we are in a great position to make a real difference.
As large employers, we can create a safe space with proactive measures to support LGBTQ colleagues, encourage the right behaviours and conversations and, crucially, give people a voice. I will never forget sharing my story in a previous organisation and being told by a colleague they had changed their approach to a conversation with their young sons the evening after reading it. That is how much this matters.
And, as organisations that house millions of people, we can try to do the same for people in our communities. We can ask ourselves, are there simple, practical things we can do to make life easier for members of the LGBTQ community and spread a message of inclusivity.
Not all prejudice is malicious, in fact a great deal isn’t, and there is still so much that individuals can learn about tolerance and acceptance to help make our organisations and communities more inclusive.
To make a real difference, before we even begin to think about what we do, we must really understand why we are doing it. That is so often the difference between tokenism and meaningful action.
Whatever makes people different, their sexuality, their colour, their disability – understanding their experience must be the motivation behind our contribution to creating a more inclusive society.
Steve Hayes is director of corporate affairs and communications at GreenSquareAccord