Once upon a time: For older members of the LGBT community today’s rights were once ‘unimaginable’
Once upon a time: For older members of the LGBT community today’s rights were once ‘unimaginable’ © Getty

The fight for LGBT rights has taken different forms across generations. In 1969, it was truly a fight — a series of riots outside the Stonewall Inn, a New York gay bar. In 2003, campaigners won a political battle when the UK government established the Employment Equality regulations, banning discrimination against workers on the grounds of sexual orientation. In 2015, judicial confrontation culminated in the US Supreme Court legalising gay marriage.

This patchwork accretion of rights and protections gained over the past 50 years means there are LGBT people working today who remember a time when homosexuality was illegal and being able to marry their partner a distant fantasy. Job security for LGBT people who began their careers in the 1960s and 1970s was far from assured and coming out as trans was downright dangerous. Contrarily, there are people starting work today who have come of age as lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans acceptance has soared in society.

Richard Easton, 55, a shop manager at J Sainsbury who has worked for the UK supermarket chain for 36 years, remembers when being out at work was unthinkable. “It was something most people didn’t talk about in those days,” he says. “If you were gay, you were pigeonholed [as camp].” There was a “very, very small” gay community at the company, he adds, and that was not vocal.

Antony Smith, equalities officer at charity Age UK, says for the older people he talks to advancements won in recent decades were once “unimaginable”. Those who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s “have lived through enormous change — and change that was probably unexpected”. This means they are less likely to take the progress in LGBT inclusion for granted and more likely to worry about the possibility that it could be reversed.

Mr Easton’s story bears this out. In 2011, aged 50, he came out, with “no negative feedback at all” and five years later he recorded a clip for a corporate film about diversity. Despite the company’s embrace, he is unsure the acceptance will last. He is an advocate for policies and networks that support LGBT people, not least in terms of visibility. He says only “constant vigilance” can stop a slide back into ignorance.

His worries about the fragility of LGBT rights appear well founded. In the US, a majority of states do not have workplace protection for LGBT people. This year North Carolina and Georgia passed bills that effectively banned or invalidated such protections. The Georgia bill, which was ultimately vetoed by the state’s governor, “would have ended our protections before we even had them”, says Jeff Graham, executive director of advocacy group Georgia Equality.

Corporate America has stepped into the vacuum of state protection. Some 91 per cent of Fortune 500 companies mention sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group.

UK companies are following suit. In the 13 years that the British campaign group Stonewall has run its programme to teach corporate best practice, membership has grown from fewer than 50 businesses to more than 700. Unlike Stonewall’s more secretive initial members, its cohort of companies today see significant benefit in being “out and proud”.

Not all generations feel the same way. For older workers, coming out after decades of hiding their true selves can feel awkward and frightening, especially if they were part of the workforce before 2003, when employers could fire openly gay staff.

For Generation X and millennials — born between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s — coming out can be uncomfortable for a different reason. Ruth Hunter, 39, a director at consultancy PwC, plays down being gay. “It’s not the only thing or the main thing about me,” she says.

Many millennials intensely dislike being labelled. Kate Clark, 25, a technology project manager at Sainsbury’s, says she has a girlfriend at the moment but “I don’t put myself in any of the boxes”. Similarly, Nick Pringle, 24, a senior associate at PwC, says, “I don’t want to be known as ‘the gay one’.” However, as his work is project-based, he ends up “coming out again and again and again” to new teams, which can be “frustrating” if innocuous.

While Mr Easton, part of the baby-boomer generation, is more worried about rights being rolled back, Mr Pringle focuses on their expansion through the company and beyond. He sees the usefulness of a corporate LGBT policy as a safety net and because it “sets the tone in the culture”. Such responses follow quite naturally, it might be argued, from the different climates of LGBT acceptance within which Mr Easton and Mr Pringle came of age.

What is perhaps surprising, given today’s corporate culture of tolerance, at least in the west, is that millennials often go back into the closet when they start their first job, says Deena Fidas of the HRC. She believes this happens because companies do not give out “the clear message” that recruits should “bring their full self to work”. Despite this, LGBT youths in the US have almost equally high expectations for their careers as their straight counterparts. An HRC survey found 92 per cent of young members of the LGBT community believe they can have a good job compared with 95 per cent of straight youths.

Outside the corporate sector, some workplaces put less focus on sexual orientation. Syma Khalid, professor of computational biophysics at Southampton university, has discussed LGBT rights with colleagues old and young. The prevailing view has been that in academia, sexual identity is unimportant. Academics are “an odd bunch”, she says, more concerned with papers published or grants won than personal lives. “There is a collegiate atmosphere in general and a cerebral element to it.”

In academia or beyond, work can provide a refuge, especially in countries hostile to the LGBT community and for trans individuals who find it difficult to be accepted at home.

Prof Khalid says work can offer a “second family”, a more accepting one, and if work is the only place you are out, then companies ought to ensure they offer the best atmosphere possible.

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