Written by Margot Hannah on Tuesday 30th June 2020
Ditch the Label – it’s just me.
“Female medical representatives should wear a skirt-suit and avoid garish colours”. This was our instruction at the Initial Training Course (ITC) as I embarked on my first proper job back in the spring of ’97. I wasn’t long returned from my year out as an Au-Pair in Italy, and given that I hadn’t even packed a skirt when I left Scotland for my Dolomite adventure, to be told trousers were off limits at the ITC was a bit of a set-back. Fortunately, the skirts I subsequently purchased were suitably ‘Miss Marple’ in length, so I wasn’t asked to kneel in front of everyone to prove the hem line touched the ground – the method employed to ensure there wasn’t too much leg on show. Yes, this did happen.
Back then, I hid my sexuality from almost all my colleagues and I certainly wasn’t “out” to my family. I know for sure I was talked about, not in a derogatory way, but more as a novelty “…by the way, did you know she’s a lesbian?” I didn’t really like being labelled like that, as if that was the only thing that was of interest, and I never wanted to be defined by my sexuality – why should I be? As far as I was aware most heterosexuals never had to come out. I saw others around me demonstrating and making a point of being heard, but I was happier remaining private. Why on earth whom I choose to be involved with should have any bearing on how I and others define myself and me? Although I now acknowledge that others may need to hear or see that definition in action, to help garner the courage and confidence to continue their own journey.
The thing that some people don’t necessarily always understand is that you don’t just come out once and that’s that; I was “coming out” almost every day, and I don’t mean in a theatrical declaration kind of way, but just in everyday chat. If I had happened to mention my partner during a conversation I would get asked, “your partner, he works in pharma too?” I would quickly assess how the person might react (or over-react) and if I was at all hesitant, I’d simply reply “yes, that’s right, in marketing”. I wasn’t lying to purposefully deceive them, but there were times when I was more comfortable telling them what they expected or wanted to hear. It just seemed easier for me and them. Fortunately, most of the people I met in my pharma (client-side) and subsequent agency days were lovely and decent, so I was able to give a truthful response: “Well actually, she works in marketing”. There were, and still are lighter moments when people are caught off-guard but don’t want to show it, so blurt out nervously “oh, that’s great [awkward pause] one of my best friends is gay”. Bless. As these situations would happen almost daily, I guess I never gave it a second thought, it’s just how it was. Now of course the conversation on sexuality, gender and how you identify has evolved in so many ways, but for me, it was always about being with the right person. To coin a phrase: Love is love.
Same can be said in my work life. It’s all about being surrounded by the right people, working alongside those who hold and share the same values as I do. On things including, but more than, sexual orientation.
Over the last 9 years at OPEN Health I’ve made some of the biggest decisions in my life, one of which was coming out to my parents. In 2013, at the age of 40, I finally did it. This was despite the best efforts of certain friends who had campaigned tirelessly over two decades for me to “bite the bullet”. I was never ready or in the right mind set, until a conversation in Zurich airport with a colleague who had recently lost both parents inspired me to build up enough courage to go and do it. You will know when you’re ready, don’t let others push you into a decision you’re not comfortable with. It’s your call.
Changing my surname after my civil partnership was another massive milestone accomplished whilst at OPEN Health, and it was Sandy, our COO who diligently signed all the documentation to make it official. Thanks Sandy, who knew there were so many duplicate forms? It was an emotionally and legally important moment which I will always cherish.
So, if I was speaking to my younger self what would I say? Don’t come out just because others think you should; surround yourself with those who share the same values as you do; embrace every challenge and try and have as much fun as possible along the way.
The fact that I work in an environment that is genuinely caring, inspiring and accepting, means I wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else. Plus…I don’t have to wear a skirt. Win. Win.
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Margot Hannah is Group Managing Director, OPEN Health Medical Communications