I grew up in East Yorkshire, in a challenging family situation. In a city where to dream of more, let alone to fulfil those dreams, was considered an extraordinary act.
Becoming a solicitor was my childhood ambition which I doggedly pursued to fruition.
I qualified through an unconventional route working full-time as a court clerk for HMCTS whilst studying the LPC part-time. I secured a training contract with an in-house legal team in the south east, 300 miles away from Newcastle, where I lived at the time. My wife and I made the move south with our two cats and without any expectation.
Being a lawyer is an important part of my identity but no more, or less so, than any other of the many components which make me who I am.
Each of those facets - being a woman, a lesbian, a parent, a member of the LGBT+ community, a person from a low socio-economic background - needs to be accepted, embraced and highlighted for my whole self to shine.
When your entire identity is open to others it produces a sense of freedom, authenticity and self-assurance that is impossible to truly achieve when you are hiding one or more aspects of your identity.
My own experience, which from speaking with others is not unique, is that in different situations and between different audiences there can be a wide variance of how much of your identity is accepted.
However, omitting even one part of who you are skews your entire perspective and reference points. Sexuality is a facet more easily concealed than others but suppressing this part of our identity means either hiding or altering all the experiences flowing out of it or affected by it.
I often talk about mental bandwidth, or lack thereof, something which I’m sure we can all relate to with the current pandemic and its impact on all aspects of our lives. Being ‘in the closet’ at work requires an individual to continually self-censor to ensure their behaviours match the narrative they are trying to present. Can you imagine the mental bandwidth required to maintain that? I can, because I did it for two miserable weeks at the beginning of my legal career.
Prior to this I had always been out in the workplace, and I have been ever since, but for those two weeks when I was asked whether I had a boyfriend and similar heterosexual presumptive questions I didn’t correct them.
At that point in my career, I felt completely out of my comfort zone and I thought it would be better to blend in. What I didn’t factor in was the sheer amount of effort required to maintain the façade.
I was left with two options to do so – either not speak about my personal life, which is not a great way to build rapport with colleagues, or to censor and alter it all.
Two weeks of changing ‘she’ to ‘he’ and omitting any experiences that may indicate homosexuality was draining, stressful and, took energy away from learning my new role and focusing on work.
I came out to my colleagues and instantly felt that weight of concealment lifted off my shoulders.
For me being out at work means that I am a happier, more productive and engaged employee. In doing so I am standing on the shoulders of those who came before me and were visible when society was less supportive of the LGBT+ community. You don’t have to go very far back in LGBT+ history to see evidence of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ and Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 creating a culture of fear around coming out.
It is important to appreciate that coming out is a lifelong process – different colleagues, clients, friends, changing social circles and professional situations mean that as a member of the LGBT+ community you are constantly assessing whether the situation is one where you want to come out and, if so, whether it is safe to do so.
Alongside safety, a big factor for LGBT+ people in deciding whether to come out is trusting that we will be accepted. Even small gestures help build this trust and show that the door is open should we wish to present that part of ourselves. For example, by asking open questions without any presumption of sexuality you have acknowledged that the LGBT+ community exists. The simplest of considerations can mean the most – nothing is too insignificant.
True inclusion breeds authenticity and allows people to feel comfortable to be completely themselves at work. Diversity can’t thrive within an organisation without a meaningful culture of inclusion.
This needs to be developed with input from the individuals it is intended to support. It shouldn’t be a standalone topic considered in isolation - it has to be a consideration in everything the business does.
The action needs to be there to support it.
I have a range of stories I could recount here, as I’m sure every LGBT+ person does, of various mishaps from a range of companies all of whom have D&I policies but have failed to ensure they are embedded in the culture of the company.
An obvious one is the forms used to record staff data - until you have had to cross out ‘husband’ to write ‘wife’ you won’t know the feeling of invisibility that accompanies that act.
In any organisation the message needs to come from the top, especially prominent role models either from the community or allies. Don’t underestimate the importance of advancing all diversity strands, witnessing a company acknowledge and engage with a minority group can be empowering to people from a different diversity strand.
As an employer, and as a colleague or leader, it is better to try to support your LGBT+ individuals and get it wrong than not to try at all.
Kira Wilkinson is legal counsel at Slater and Gordon and one of the Law Society’s Social Mobility Ambassadors
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