Pride stories: navigating the workplace

LGBTQIA background concept rainbow speech stories

International Pride Month is a time to celebrate both individuality and unity. It is a time for those who identify as LGBTQIA+ to stand tall, proud of who they are without fear of judgement or exclusion. It’s also an important opportunity for broader communities and institutions to show their support, and for all of us to reflect upon the progress which has been made toward creating a more welcoming, inclusive world, as well as recognising some of the barriers which still remain.

In celebration of Pride Month, Brunel’s Anne Uys interviewed two remarkable individuals who identify as gay men to learn about their lived experiences working in two vastly different workplaces – a remedial massage clinic and an isolated fly-in, fly-out mine site.

Anne Uys Brunel Diversity Inclusion Lead
Inclusion & Diversity Lead
Anne Uys

I arranged to meet remedial massage therapist and psychic reader Gerhard at a local park during his lunch break. It’s quickly apparent that the one-on-one nature of his work has honed his ability to build rapport and he clearly feels at ease speaking with people of all manner of temperaments and backgrounds. He explains that the key is recognising the unique perspective of each person he interacts with.

“If we want to understand someone’s personal reality, we need to be careful not to get stuck on one specific kind of experience or label. We all look for patterns in life. We are pattern-loving creatures. We meet someone and far too easily assume that they are similar to someone we’ve met in the past. Our judgements and biases pollute our perception of others – but we are all unique and authentic individuals.”

In society as a whole, we’ve seen progress in the realm of diversity and inclusion, but are our workplaces somewhat lagging behind in recognising the uniqueness of each individual – and allowing them the freedom to express themselves? Do we still strive too much for ‘sameness’ in our workplaces, and judge those who don’t fit the mould? How does this impact members of the LGBTQIA+ community?

“We still have a long way to go, but luckily today there is a lot more awareness out there in the world. These days, individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+ might find it easier to be themselves at the workplace. In essence, we are dealing with personal reality versus a work culture that says, ‘do as I do!’ We have a responsibility to collectively – from all sides – respect each other’s differences.”

“Fostering, valuing and understanding personal reality, authenticity and uniqueness is my way of approaching and nurturing lasting relationships – rather than getting stuck and fixated on the differences between straight/gay or male/female, for example. That difference, that division, will always be there. We live in a diverse world. It’s not about which side of the spectrum we’re on, it’s about whether we’re stuck or not.”

I get the impression that the small scale of Gerhard’s clinic work environment and the highly personal nature of his interactions allow him a relatively strong sense of belonging and ability to feel comfortable in helping to define expectations within his workplace rather than adapt to those established by others. Gerhard strikes me as one of the lucky ones: not every member of the LGBTQIA+ community gets to move with this level of ease, comfort and openness at work.

On a crisp winter’s day, I met with Kevin at a casual restaurant. A FIFO mine worker, Kevin is a warm person, who strikes me as someone with a big heart and a deep respect for his Indigenous heritage. As we waited for our food, he shared his story.

I’m quite conservative, it is a paradox really. I am what I am, but I’m also conservative,” he said candidly.

That conservative mindset includes limiting the extent to which Kevin expresses his sexuality in his workplace. While Kevin is out to his colleagues, he prefers not to focus on that aspect of his identity.

I don’t really like to push my identity as a gay man within this space, out of respect for the people around me. A mine site is a workplace and not a stage,” he said.

In a highly-structured workplace which dictates hard work, long hours and endurance – an environment with explosives and no margin for error – people are held accountable, and teamwork, collaboration and communication are essential. In this setting, Kevin favours building rapport with his colleagues based on their common ground rather than emphasising their differences.

“I work with fantastic people, all working hard to provide for themselves and their families. I have a really deep respect for the working-class culture, and I know that for most people it boils down to providing for a family.”

Kevin believes it’s important to pay heed to the work culture you are in, when considering how safe it is to share parts of your identity. This is a reality that all members of the LGBTQIA+ community face.

“I’m well aware that some people in the LGBTQIA+ community might need to hide a part of themselves in order to fit in. I really appreciate the awareness that is now being created for people in my milieu,” he said.

Pondering what Kevin shared, I realised that many of our LGBTQIA+ community have not yet found themselves a space where they can bring their whole selves to work. We are definitely still facing that barrier in many sectors. The two men I interviewed had different strategies for approaching the way they navigated their workplace, shaped by the cultural safety of the environments they found themselves in.

As part of my role, I have conducted surveys during cultural competency workshops which found that when employees were asked whether they knew people who openly identified as LGBTQIA+ in their personal lives, most people raised their hand. When asked whether they could identify any people who openly identified as LGBTQIA+ in their work environment, hardly any hands were raised. Considering the sizes of the workforces in question, this should be food for thought.

How aware and inclusive are we really? Do LGBTQIA+ colleagues have the liberty to share their own stories about life with others at your workplace? The world is working towards transformation and pushing hard to promote diversity and inclusion. How much progress have we made? Does the lived experience of LGBTQIA+ people actually match up to our aspirations?

The theme for National Reconciliation Week 2022 challenged us to ‘Be brave, make change!’ Should this not be adopted across all pillars of diversity? To avoid this being just another statement, another idea, we need to act. We need to take bold steps, creating more awareness of the language we use to promote inclusivity, and role modelling from the top down. Taking action will enable us to create a truly safe and inclusive culture across all workplaces.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Brunel acknowledges the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people of the many traditional lands and language groups of Australia. We acknowledge the wisdom of Elders both past and present, and pay respect to the communities of today. We recognise their continuing connection to the land, waters and community.