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Why LGBT+ Role Models Matter – And How You Can Be a Better One

Having a visible LGBT+ role model in the workplace, or anyplace, can have an immeasurable impact on a young queer person’s life. As LGBT+ people we’re often lacking when it comes these role models, especially in the corporate world, and especially in senior positions.


Stonewall, the UK-based LGBT+ advocacy group, released a guide for businesses tackling diversity and seeking to create LGBT+ role models within their own networks. The first myth they challenge is that a person’s sexual orientation should have no impact on whether they can be a good role model. Sexuality is private and has no place in the office – expect that that is blatantly impractical. While to a certain extent, yes, your private life is your own business, the ability to be able to network with colleagues, create friendships at work, or even just chat about your weekend is seriously impaired when feel you might be judged for the gender of your partner.


A recent Stonewall survey found 62 percent of graduates who were openly gay in university went back into the closet once they started their first job.


“When we speak to the gay staff of those employers (they tell us) not being able to be open about their sexual orientation makes them feel both unhappy and disconnected from their work. It affects their relationships with colleagues and clients and they feel isolated,” writes Ben Summerskill, the Chief Executive of Stonewall.


“We know exactly how important role models are to our sense of self. Young people tell us how much better they feel when they know another gay person and staff in big and small workplaces alike say they can imagine being successful when they see people like them succeeding.”

"Young people tell us they can imagine being successful when they see people like them succeeding.”

Sometimes, when there aren’t any role models in your workplace, the mantle of becoming one might fall on you. As challenging as it is, standing up and being that role model might make an incredible impact on someone you might not even know.


Daniel Gray, a middle school teacher at Harris Academy South Norwood, and co-founder of LGBTed (a network to help support queer teachers) explained his experience coming up through the UK education system as a gay teacher. When he was training, he was told not to come out to his students, that doing so would “give them more ammunition” to either bully him or refuse to participate in his classes.


After a decade of teaching he decided he completely disagreed with that sentiment, that those who told him that had too little faith in open-mildness and acceptance of young people. Not to mention ignoring LGBT+ students who might be struggling with their own sexuality and might desperately need a positive role model they can not only look up to, but talk to.


“I believe teachers should lead by example and that’s why, as part of LGBT History Month in 2017, I finally came out to over 1,000 students in assembly,” said Gray.


“No jazz hands, no tears, no hysteria. I simply talked all about how, as a school, we were going to commemorate LGBT History Month and said, ‘as a gay man, I know how important it is to have positive role models that can support you and tell you it gets better.’”


What Gray didn’t expect was the outpouring of love he received from this simple act. The BBC picked it up and broadcast his story across the world. He received more than 800 emails and messages of support – including a handwritten postcard from a Texan man who thanked him and told him how moved he was by what he did.


Gray found this to be in complete contrast to his experience as a young gay person.


“I had a horrific upbringing and a terrible time at school due to being bullied for being gay before I even knew I was. I had wet toilet roll thrown at me in the changing rooms; I had sandwiches thrown at me from the window of the school bus that I was too terrified to board and I was pushed around, kicked and punched in corridors. I was called names I didn’t even understand.”


But Gray explains he never let his upbringing make him a victim, he turned those terrible experiences into his strengths. Now he has the compassion – and motivation – to be a role model to thousands of students and teachers. That’s what the best role models do; they can show you the way forward.


Paul McCorkell had a similar welcoming experience at Enterprise, if not as widely broadcast. Realising the strain staying in the closet was putting on him he told his colleagues about his partner and came out.

"As a gay man, I know how important it is to have positive role models that can support you and tell you it gets better." 

“I firmly believe that I wouldn’t have been as successful as I am now without being authentic – without being myself,” he said. “So do I consider myself a role model now? I’d like to think so. There have been other colleagues who came out at work once they saw how positive my experience had been.”


He talked about how important it was to be involved with the graduate programs the company offers, for the new faces of the company to see openly LGBT+ senior staff members be embraced and succeed.


Mark Gorry, EDF Energy’s Chief Nuclear Officer and Stonewall’s Ally of the Year 2015, takes a hands-on approach as well when it comes to being an LGBT+ role model. He writes a column for his company’s LGBT Supporters Network newsletter that answers any questions people might have on LGBT+ issues. He also hosts an employee focus group to help bring down any barriers that might exist between straight and gay staff, and to help straight staffmembers be better allies. He also heads up a mentorship program for new LGBT+ employees.


Annual lists like the OUTstanding LGBT+ leaders and allies, the Guardian's Power Pride, or the Independent's Rainbow List all provide shining examples of LGBT+ role models and straight allies from around the world.

Role models are important, especially for young LGBT+ people coming up through your company. You don’t have to jump on the BBC and broadcast to the world like Daniel Gray (although we could also do with more of that). Simply coming out and sharing parts of your personal life, taking initiative with an LGBT+ network at work, or mentoring a new LGBT+ colleague could have an immeasurable impact.

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