It’s lonely when you have to hide who you are.
As a teenager coming to terms with my sexuality, I was always the outsider. I thought there was something repellant about me, some reason that I only had one or two real friends. I thought maybe it was because I secretly liked other boys.
But when I started the lifelong process of coming out when I was around 18, around the year 1999, - it’s not one big announcement and you’re done -, I started to make real, true, lasting friends. Now I know why: because I didn’t have to hide who I was anymore and could live my life with a greater degree of freedom. For people in the workplace who, for whatever reason, are not out, it can be really isolating and, inevitably, this can impact on their work.
We’ve come a long way since the late 90s but, despite equality legislation outlawing workplace discrimination and, of course, the marriage equality referendum, LGBTQIA+ people like me can still face obstacles in the workplace.
Yes, the law protects us at work, but exclusion can be subtle and unintentional, as well as more overt. Allies might look at Ireland’s social transformation and think life is so much better for LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual) people, and it is - but the conversation isn’t always about legal rights: ultimately, LGBTQIA+ people never quite know what prejudice someone may quietly hold, and this is perhaps impossible to legislate for.
(Asexual is a relatively recent addition to the rainbow umbrella, but asexual people have to navigate a world where everyone thinks their singleness - although some may still be in romantic relationships - is an affliction, rather than something they want.)
I once befriended an affable, easy-going, seemingly liberal straight man on a trip overseas and, at the point where I was about to mention casually that I was gay, he launched into a series of jokes about how hilarious it was that a gay man, Leo Varadkar, had just become Ireland’s Taoiseach. I withdrew; we never know what you think.
Denise Breen has been with her wife for 17 years; their marriage survived Denise’s gender transition. She is a board member of the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) but speaks here in a personal capacity.
“I have been working in the design and construction industry for over 40 years,” she says. “Companies with LGBTQIA+ workplace groups also tend to have workplace policies too, such as guidelines for someone transitioning in the workplace.”
Breen says that workplace groups can provide a safe space for LGBTQIA+ people to have initial conversations about coming out, but they also create awareness and can organise events and positive campaigns. Conversely, the lack of such a group may make it harder, she says.
“As a trans woman, I get to come out every day to new customers or taxi drivers, and it is exhausting sometimes,” she says.
“There are many exclusions and discriminations in workplaces, and mine is probably one of the last misogynistic, homophobic industries. It is changing and there have been huge advances, but systems are still set up for the heteronormative world.” One example for trans people is where background checks require disclosure of any previous names, presenting them with the choice of whether to out themselves.
Breen says that companies can look at their systems and procedures to ensure that embedded problems are addressed, and should have regular training and awareness programmes, as well as inviting in organisations for “lunch and learn” sessions to hear real lived experiences.
Research by Dr Ciarán McFadden-Young and Dr Marian Crowley-Henry suggests however, that not all LGBTQIA+ employees will feel comfortable joining a workplace network or using it as a mechanism to raise their voice, so companies are advised not to assume a one-size-fits-all approach.
For Philip Kennedy, a teacher at Coláiste Bríde who has moonlighted as a wedding singer, his experience of being out at work has been largely positive.
“I’ve worked as a performer, and it’s a world where you can’t swing a cat without hitting a gay person,” he says. “But my experiences of being out in both education and training board (ETB) and Catholic schools has been great.
“It does take time to be comfortable being out at work, which isn’t just about being gay but, sometimes, about bringing aspects of your private life into work. It’s not necessarily a closet, which can imply shame; it’s that they are private people.”
Straight people may never think of this, but for LGBTQIA+ people, privacy and sexuality are concepts that may not be easily separated.
Kennedy says it is helpful that his school flies the rainbow flag, and that he feels free to have conversations with his colleagues and be himself at work.
“If teachers get to celebrate their pregnancies and engagements, why should I not? Although, as gay people, it is almost a rite of passage to have a space or time where our difference makes us feel nervous or uncomfortable, so while the flags are great, people still need space to figure out who they are. And there is something to be said about choosing a school - or any workplace - that you fit into, which isn’t always about sexual orientation.”
Breen and Kennedy both speak to The Irish Times in the context of an ongoing boycott of this newspaper by the Trans Writers Union and numerous allies who have raised concerns about the coverage of trans people in this and other newspapers which, many within our community say, is inevitably affecting workplace experiences. Within the LGBTQIA+ community, there are mixed feelings on the effectiveness of this boycott.
“Recent media coverage has emboldened people who feel there needs to be a ‘debate’ around trans people,” says Breen. “They’re the same ‘what about the children’ arguments we heard 30 years ago against gay people. Trans people are a tiny, tiny minority in our community [but] seem to be the subject of an imported moral panic.”