Pride versus acceptance versus tolerance in the workplace

Written by Briony Frost, Learning & Development Specialist on Wednesday 30th June 2021

I joined OPEN Health in early 2020 and, despite being “out” since around 2003, it is the first workplace I’ve ever been in where my boss and colleagues knew I was gay before I arrived. I am privileged that my self-definition and coding as a non-binary woman and a lesbian still allow me to “pass” as cis and straight if I need to. I wish I didn’t need to and I am acutely conscious that life is much harder for those who cannot obscure facets of their identity in this way. But, as a close friend of mine has recently been fired from a freelance position in a different industry for coming out, the reality is that even today inclusivity is often more preached than practiced.

I didn’t have the choice to hide my queerness when I came to OPEN Health. My wife already worked for the company in an unrelated capacity and I had been to a number of functions as her partner before the right opportunity arose for me to join the Learning and Development team. It was a novel, if slightly unnerving, experience! However, it was helped by the incredible openness, acceptance, and even pride that OH takes in the diversity of its staff. In previous roles, I’d masked this aspect of my identity, not because I was ashamed of it, but because many of them were precarious, on short-term contracts, in a highly competitive field. All it would take was one prejudiced person in a position of power to cut short a career I loved and plunge my income down to zero. I balanced risk against honesty and “passed.”

In hindsight, I was probably paranoid. Probably. But the impression I was often given was that, with the exception of some truly excellent friends and colleagues whom I told by degrees, being gay was something to tolerate – to endure against institutional preferences – because the laws were increasingly insisting on it. A colleague’s marriage announcement to a same-sex partner was met with a resounding silence on an email list, when other heterosexual couples had been swamped with joy and celebration. I never did find out whether it was because he was, for unrelated reasons, not very well liked or if he received messages privately, but it was uncomfortable to witness. Even among those who did know, there were strange experiences, such as being given an article to review about queer theater (not my specialty) or being sent students with interests in queer theory (also not my specialty) or who were coming out themselves (I was not then a personal tutor or counsellor). Acceptance came, but gradually, awkwardly, and with some foot-in-mouth moments from peers and senior management.

The result was, for years, a reaffirmation of my hesitations that I wished belonged to a time long past and a growing sense that I was in fact contributing to the issue by avoiding it. After I married in 2016, I became much more open. I ditched the pronoun-dance (“they” not “she”) and the name-game (“partner” not “wife”) that had become part of my everyday language, used more personal examples when giving classes in which themes of sexuality and gender identity were discussed, and realized how much of a relief it was for students struggling to understand their own identity or that of others to have a person to associate with the concept.

Since joining OH to help train healthcare professionals, it’s more important than ever for me to be public about all aspects of my identity. There are still too many medical appointments when doctors ask about my contraception choices, question if I wish to transition because I don’t want children and do not consider myself cis, or insist that answering “yes” to being consensually sexually active means I could be pregnant (as a monogamous lesbian with a very long-term female partner, this is highly unlikely!) – after which they are then flustered and apologetic. Alongside the essential scientific information about diseases, drugs, therapies, and management strategies, there are better ways to ask these questions to improve the patient experience, build trust between patients and medical professionals, and help to smooth out the patient journey – changes that will not happen unless someone is prepared to wave the pride flag and keep the equality agenda on track. It’s not just me, of course, but it needs to be me as well.

One of the most incredible things about OH is coming to a workplace where acceptance is the norm. Tolerance wouldn’t be enough here. OH has pride. There are numerous “out” colleagues at all levels of the company. We talk openly in chats and, when relevant, in work-related discussions about LGBTQAI+ issues. We welcome non-heteronormative partners at social events without batting an eyelid. There’s more we could do no doubt, as understanding of key issues and solutions continues to grow, but we don’t just turn our logo rainbow-colored for 1 month a year. It’s a relief not just to be able to be “out” but to breathe out too.