Persia West: 'Do employers still have what it takes to support minority communities?'

Chief executive officer of the Fitness Industry Association

When I was at school, it was illegal to be gay, and inconceivable to be trans. All of us who were different tended to pretend we were straight, just what our parents expected us to be. Over the years, things changed. Now it's kind of OK to be gay – most of the time; not too bad to be trans – as long as you look all right, fit in, don't rock the boat.

But underneath it all, in at least a part of ourselves, we're still outsiders. I was at an LGBT dance recently, which was a lot of fun. For once, there was a good mix of lesbian women and gay men, with a sprinkling of trans people: all good feeling and togetherness in our differences. With one odd note.

In previous years pictures of people at the dance were published online. But some people, it seemed, were appalled at being outed publicly, so this year there were no photos. Despite working for a Stonewall Diversity Champion with an in-house LGBT network, people in 2009 were afraid of being known to be lesbian, gay or trans in their places of work.

As usual, some people are out and proud; others are most definitely not. We simply don't want to be different, we don't want to stand out, we want to belong, of course.

It's OK being out and proud – I live this role myself – but living in the greater straight world there can be an edge, a difference, a slight discomfort, like a stone in a shoe. Today the world is a safer place for LGBT people, but not completely.

A year ago, I was talking to a woman who worked for the police about our LGBT Jobfair, who asked, "But isn't it all over now?" For her it was; she was a young, cool married woman and for her, being gay was nothing much, but then she didn't know what it was to be different.

No, it's not all over, we said. It still goes on, even though it's much, much better than it was. But we have to keep working at it. Turn your back and the tide turns again. A new leader takes down the rainbow flags, another says we don't need to bother now, because it's no longer important, and cracks appear.

This is why we run our LGBT Jobfairs. They are all about inclusion, acceptance, being real as well as being different, in one of the most important parts of our lives – our work.

Without work we are lost, we have no place at the table of life. Our work is not only where we get our money from, it's where we get our self-respect, our sense of belonging, and our place in the world.

At no time is this more important than when we are young, so we try very hard to bring young people into the LGBT Jobfairs. Get it right at the beginning and the rest will follow. If we can be ourselves at work, then we have the best chance to flourish.

This year is the most challenging yet. Do employers still have what it takes to state their support for a minority community? Do they still have the vision to make it clear that they will give us a place not only to work, but to belong?

Well, fewer than previous years for sure. No banks are present at our fair this year, for example. But look on the website below, and you'll see there are enough to keep us going, enough to keep us visible and make things better for those who are still on the edge.

What makes all the difference is to be welcomed inside, out of the cold, with the warmth of belonging, recognition, and being given a place to flourish. And this comes across best in actions, not words.

The London LGBT Jobfair 2009 will take place on 25 March from 11am to 4pm, at The Royal National Hotel Russell Square, London WC1. www.lgbtjobfair.co.uk, www.aplaceatthetable.co.uk

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