Closet UK: 49% of gay people are too scared to come out at work

As the Liberal Democrats discovered to their cost this week, being open about sexuality in the office is still a difficult concept for many. By Steve Bloomfield
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The Independent Online

When Christine Smith told her colleagues at work that she was gay she thought they would be sympathetic. Her friends had been supportive; her family had not batted an eyelid. Her job as an office assistant at a publishing firm was going well. She was enjoying it and her line manager was happy with her work.

Within a week everything changed. "I got called in by my manager. She said, 'We have grave concerns over the lifestyle choice you have taken. We do not think it fits the company ethos.' She gave me a cheque for a month's salary and I was escorted off the premises. It was awful."

Christine is not alone. A new report has uncovered startling levels of homophobia in the workplace despite legislation that has supposedly outlawed such discrimination. One in 10 gay men and lesbians said they had suffered harassment at work because of their sexuality. The situation is so bad that nearly half of all gay people do not even reveal their sexuality to their colleagues, the study revealed.

This comes despite the fact that 6 per cent of the adult population - three million people - are gay, according to new Treasury figures.

Gay rights campaigners said the new research was disappointing and urged employers to encourage a work environment that put gay workers at ease.

The study, conducted by Out Now Consulting, a gay marketing firm, follows the revelation last week that the Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Simon Hughes had hidden his true sexuality during his 23-year political career, even winning his seat in 1983 with an anti-gay campaign against his opponent Peter Tatchell.

It was not until December 2003 that discrimination on the grounds of sexuality was outlawed in the workplace. But despite the legislation, the new report shows few people feel comfortable taking their case to tribunal, according to Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay equality campaign group Stonewall.

"The new employer regulations have made a significant difference because people now have a legal remedy," he said. "But the vast majority of people don't actually want to take their employer to the employment tribunal. They just want to get on with their work and feel comfortable."

It is not only outright homophobia that can cause discomfort. Office banter, whether it is referring to who fancies whom or what plans people have for the weekend, can make someone who has not come out at work self-conscious. Ben Miskell, a 22-year-old who works for an educational charity, has experienced good and bad offices. "Although there is legislation to prevent discrimination you cannot legislate against people's attitudes," he said.

Since Labour came to power in 1997, gay equality has moved several steps closer. Section 28, which supposedly outlawed the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools but actually made it impossible for teachers to deal with any issues to do with sexuality or homophobic bullying, was abolished soon after Labour came to power. In the same Parliament the age of consent for gay men was lowered to 16, bringing it in line with heterosexual relationships.

The Civil Partnerships Act, which came into force last December, has given gay and lesbian couples the opportunity to make a legal commitment giving them the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual married couples, including pension rights and next-of-kin status. More than 1,000 couples have held ceremonies already, including Sir Elton John and David Furnish.

The Single Equality Bill, currently being considered by Parliament, will outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexuality in the goods and services sector. The Bill was amended at the end of last year only after The Independent on Sunday revealed that gay couples were being turned away from hotels and guesthouses.

But legislation does not necessarily change attitudes. Earlier this month, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said homosexuality was "harmful".

The new research suggests that many gay people are still wary of the reaction they will get if they reveal their sexuality. The survey showed that only 52 per cent of gay men and 51 per cent of lesbians feel they can be completely honest about their sexuality at work.

Ian Johnson, the managing director of Out Now Consulting, said: "Being accepted by the Government is a big step forward in terms of civil partnerships, but being able to be yourself at work is something all workers in the UK really ought to be able to do.

"These figures show that this is not currently the case for a large number of lesbians and gay men. In the medium to long term, that affects workplace productivity, loyalty and ultimately can result in otherwise well-qualified lesbian and gay staff leaving a job because they can no longer keep up a pretence of being heterosexual."

The main reason for hiding their sexuality is the fear of facing harassment. Although it is now illegal to discriminate against someone at work because of their sexuality, the survey also revealed that about 9 per cent of gay men and 12 per cent of lesbians have suffered discrimination at work during the past 12 months because of their sexual orientation.

Mr Johnson added: "Perhaps it may be understandable why many lesbians and gay men choose to keep quiet about their sexuality."

Despite the findings, Mr Summerskill said the situation is improving. "There are a huge number of workplaces making great strides forward. Gay-friendly employers have started to realise they have to address it seriously."

But, he added: "There are a number of employers who do not take it seriously. The bottom line is that they are either losing shareholder value or not delivering public services of the best quality as a consequence. Unless employers make it crystal clear that they will not just tolerate gay people but will also value them as much as anyone else, people will still feel very anxious."

It is something that Christine Smith knows only too well. Having put the experiences at the publishing firm behind her, she now works for Sussex police. Her colleagues know she is gay and have been supportive. "They just treat me like anyone else," she said. "It is brilliant."

IN: SPENCER... and too worried to come out

'Spencer', 25. NHS pharmacist. Although his friends and family know he is gay, he has not told his colleagues.

"I want to say I don't tell people at work because it is none of their business, but mainly it is because I fear it will become an issue. You do not want to be known as the gay member of staff - I just want to be part of the team.

"Working in a hospital I get a bit of attention from female nurses. It is tricky to put them off without saying 'I'm gay'. I use the phrase 'the other half' a lot. He is called Sam which makes it a lot easier if people overhear me talking about him on the phone. Everyone at work talks about their partner a lot. I feel quite self-conscious - it is a bit weird.

"I feel bad lying to people I work with, but it should not matter if they know or not. It is a shame, but it is easier.

"Sometimes there is speculation about the odd person who might be gay. I join in a bit, which is awful. You hear people talking about their friend 'Gay Simon' or they refer to a friend and then say, 'she's a lesbian'. I don't want to be known as 'Gay Spencer'."

OUT: BEN MISKELL... and happy to tell the truth

Ben Miskell, 22. Works for an education charity in London and has never felt uncomfortable with his colleagues knowing that he is gay.

"I have worked in places before where I haven't mentioned it. In the general office banter you shy away from certain things. Someone would talk about this or that person being fit. I never joined in. I wouldn't want to. If you find yourself in a macho environment, sadly it's often best for your career to keep your private life private.

"In the past there has always been that undercurrent. But the general attitude and ethos in this office is much more accepting. It's a diverse office - there are other gay people, people from different races and backgrounds.

"Work is quite a fundamental part of someone's life. Although there is legislation to prevent discrimination you can't legislate against people's attitudes. Some places aren't unionised. People are fearful about losing their jobs.

"You choose your friends, so they are far more accepting. At work, you don't choose them. You can't always rely on them - and you have to come to work. There is no getting away from it."

OUT: CHRISTINE SMITH... but paid a price for honesty

Christine Smith, 29. Sacked from a publishing firm after revealing she was gay. Now works for Sussex Police.

"My family and friends knew, but I was in the closet at work. I was probably naive in thinking everyone would be as accepting.

"I went out for a drink with a work colleague and ended up telling her. A week later I got called in by my manager. She said: 'We have grave concerns over the lifestyle choice you have taken. We do not think it fits the company ethos.'

"She gave me a cheque for a month's salary and I was escorted off the premises. It was awful. It really brought home to me how homophobic people could be. It made me really scared to tell people in my next job. It still makes me shudder now.

"Working for Sussex Police has been fantastic. There have been occasional comments from some people, but not in my office. They are all very supportive. It is exactly the same as anybody else - they ask me how my girlfriend is. It is easy to forget what it is like for people who do not feel they can be open about their sexuality."


6%: OF THE adult population is gay, according to official government figures

1967: YEAR THAT a homosexual act between two consenting adults over the age of 21 was legalised in the UK

28: SECTION 28 banned the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools. The law was abolished after Labour came to power in 1997

£9,400: DIFFERENCE IN earnings between gay and straight men. Gay men earn £34,200 on average; national average for all men is £24,800

2003: YEAR THAT discrimination on the grounds of sexuality was outlawed in the workplace

48%: OF GAY men do not reveal their sexuality at work

1898: YEAR OSCAR Wilde wrote 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' after spending two years incarcerated for sodomy

22,000: COUPLES EXPECTED to register their relationships as civil partnerships over the next five years

£70bn: VALUE OF the pink pound - estimated amount spent each year by gay men and lesbians

12%: OF LESBIANS claim to have suffered harassment in the workplace in the past year because of their sexuality

1984: THE YEAR Chris Smith became the first openly gay Member of Parliament. In 1997, he became the first 'out' cabinet minister

9%: INCREASE IN physical assaults on gay and lesbian school pupils since 1984