As the harsh summer sun slowly faded into dusk, Dan Byrne was having a laugh at work drinks with his Nando’s colleagues back in August 2019.
That is however, until he overheard his newly hired manager call him a f****t.
Suddenly tuned into the conversation, the now 23-year-old froze as he listened to his boss warn other male colleagues of his sexuality.
‘He was telling them to be careful around me, in case I came onto them because I’m gay,’ remembers Dan, who had worked at the Surrey restaurant for five years. ‘As soon as I heard it I went home. I was so embarrassed… it really upset me.’
From then on Dan began to ‘act more straight’ at work by toning down any natural flamboyant mannerisms, and flew under the radar to avoid further hurtful comments. ‘I was trying to be a completely different person to who I actually am,’ he admits.
However, despite his efforts, Dan says that his manager was ‘cold and hostile’ towards him, and although he only had a few weeks left working at the restaurant before returning to Bristol for university, he felt the need to tell a senior member of staff about what happened.
‘My manager received a warning, and once I left I got an apology from him on Facebook. Although he said he didn’t remember saying it and blamed the alcohol.’
Sadly, Dan’s experience of LGBTQ+ workplace discrimination isn’t unique.
According to research commissioned by The Body Shop for their Work In Pride Charter, more than half of LGBTQ+ people said they act differently at work compared to in their personal lives to avoid discrimination.
Meanwhile, one in three of the 2,000 people surveyed shared that they hide their gender identity or sexual orientation completely in the workplace for this same reason.
Concerning Home Office statistics released last year show that hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity have doubled in the last four years, while Stonewall’s 2018 LGBT in Britain: Work Report found that one in five LGBT people had faced negative comments or conduct from work colleagues due to their sexuality.
The report also revealed that one in eight transgender people had been physically attacked at their place of work — by customers or colleagues — due to being trans.
Thomas Roulet is an associate professor at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches organisation theory, leadership, and diversity issues, and conducts research into stigmatisation in the workplace. He isn’t surprised at The Body Shop’s findings and believes that workplace discrimination can cause a host of problems for LGBTQ+ people.
‘It can trigger disengagement from work, disidentification with the organisation, and often negative life consequences such as stress and depression,’ Professor Roulet explains. ‘It can also cause the internalisation of the discrimination, where the individual feels like they deserve it.’
Many LGBTQ+ people worry their sexuality may hamper their work relationships and make them easy targets
With diminished confidence and soaring anxiety, Dan recalls how he was prescribed medication shortly after the incident because of its impact on his mental health. ‘The whole thing made me so paranoid about people questioning who I am… It was horrible,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
While he no longer works at Nando’s, the experience has continued to impact Dan’s life ever since — he no longer discloses his sexuality to colleagues, and says that he pretends to be straight during job interviews.
‘Many LGBTQ+ people worry their sexuality may hamper their work relationships and make them easy targets for judgement and discrimination,’ adds Professor Roulet. ‘This creates a constant need to monitor their own behaviours, which drives them away from performing well and connecting with their colleagues. Inevitably, their mental wellbeing is affected and it can drag them away from who they really are.’
When asked to comment, a spokesperson for Nando’s said they apologise to Dan for his experience. ‘We want to assure him that we did listen, and his concerns were investigated, resulting in steps being taken at the time by his restaurant management,’ the company tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Nando’s has always provided an inclusive environment where everyone is welcome, complaints are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly with appropriate actions being taken.’
For Freya*, homophobic abuse has become something to expect at her retail job in the south of England.
The 29-year-old lesbian tells Metro.co.uk that she regularly experiences verbal — and sometimes physical — abuse from customers.
Freya – who says she fills ‘a lot of appearance-based stereotypes associated with lesbians, like having short hair’ – recalls one occasion when a customer called her a homophobic slur and threw coins at her.
It quickly became something I realised I had to put up with
‘I refused to deal with him and told my manager, who instead of defending me accepted the customer’s version of events and served him like nothing happened,’ she recalls. Despite then reporting the incident to human resources, still no action was taken.
Freya also says that ‘at least once a week’ her sexuality is used as a punchline for her colleagues’ work banter. She is regularly sarcastically questioned about finding male customers attractive, and remembers a time when sexual innuendos about the way she shapes her nails were spread amongst her team. ‘Initially it made me uncomfortable, but it quickly became something I realised I had to put up with,’ she says. ‘It’s just so incredibly belittling, over time it really wears me down.’
On one occasion, a female colleague grabbed Freya’s hips and pushed her out the way to get past. ‘I told her not to touch me, to which she said, ‘shut up, you’re f****ing gay, you probably liked it’,’ Freya remembers. ‘I told the on-duty manager, but they said it was my fault I was in the way.’
After weeks of her escalating the incident to more senior members of staff, the colleague didn’t pass her probation, although Freya says it was an ‘uphill battle’ to get her voice heard.
In 2017, former IT entrepreneur Joanne Lockwood founded See Change Happen – an initiative that provides equality, diversity and inclusion advice to organisations that specialises in LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming awareness and education.
She came up with the idea after hearing colleagues make transphobic comments about someone else. As a transgender person herself, Joanne realised she would also face the same sort of abuse if she came out, and wouldn’t be able to transition in her job comfortably, so she decided to leave her successful career in IT to launch the service.
Now, Joanne runs workshops, mentoring sessions and face-to-face consultancy to help businesses become more inclusive for LGBTQ+ staff. She says that casual homophobia, transphobia, and microaggressions are prevalent in many work environments, but because they’re subtle and often laced in lighthearted humour, they’re rarely perceived as discrimination.
‘LGBTQ+ people feel a natural apprehension that being queer is not the norm,’ she says. ‘Trust and safety have to be built in different environments, so managers have a responsibility to recognise discriminatory behaviour against employees in all of its forms, and hold a zero-tolerance policy towards it.’
For some people, there might not be clear physical or verbal abuse in terms of how they feel discriminated against.
It’s something Asher Hassan, a transgender man, experienced sixth months after starting a job at a London cafe last year, as he began his medical transition.
The 24-year-old, who is also known as Prénom, began testosterone injections, for which nausea, fatigue and vomiting are common side effects. ‘I had to call in sick after my first shot because I didn’t expect that reaction from my body,’ he says.
With injections every three weeks, Prénom asked his manager to change his schedule around so he wouldn’t have to take sick days and could keep the same number of hours.
While he was given the go ahead, he says he couldn’t help but feel that it had caused an annoyance for his boss.
‘Because it was for a medical reason she couldn’t really say no,’ he recalls. But instead of changing his working day he says it felt like his hours were being cut instead, as up to two days would be taken off his schedule whenever he had an injection.
As the job paid by the hour, every shift mattered. ‘Depending on the hours I worked, I could make £100 a day. That became a very big cut every month,’ Prénom tells Metro.co.uk.
Even worse was that other staff were seemingly allowed to change their schedules around (often at the last minute) without losing hours. ‘It didn’t feel like they were being very accommodating,’ he adds.
Later on, when the time came for staff to order new uniforms, Prénom clearly stated on his form that he wanted a male uniform – but what arrived was a women’s.
He says that two senior colleagues pushed him to try the ‘tighter, more figure-hugging’ uniform on, despite Prénom voicing that he felt uncomfortable doing so.
‘It felt like they were pressuring me to wear it, telling me it fit perfectly, but I told them it’s not the size that’s the problem,’ he recalls. ‘I felt really dysphoric and I started being quite emotional… it felt unfair. Would they ask another male coworker to try a women’s uniform on?’
While his bosses eventually agreed to get him a new uniform – which Prénom says took a while – he eventually resigned in November 2021
‘It’s difficult, I don’t want a job where I can’t be accepted for who I am,’ he explains. ‘But then it gets to a point where I don’t have a choice, because otherwise I just won’t be able to get a job.’
When I get home from a shift I don’t want to speak to anyone or do anything, I just go straight to bed
Both Prénom and Freya say they felt they had nobody to turn to at work for support or advice, and admit to taking days off work due to their ‘hostile’ work environments and the mental strain it caused – an issue also highlighted by The Body Shop’s Research. As their study found, a quarter of LGBTQ+ workers have done the same to avoid discrimination and harassment.
‘It grinds down on you, being on the receiving end all the time,’ Freya admits. ‘I’ve tried to take big strides to have a positive mental attitude, but being at work destroys my confidence and leaves me mentally exhausted. When I get home from a shift I don’t want to speak to anyone or do anything, I just go straight to bed.’
So what should organisations be doing to ensure they’re providing a welcoming, safe space for their LGBTQ+ staff — not only work in, but to thrive in?
‘I always say that one of the biggest barriers to inclusion is the fear of getting it wrong, the fear of doing or the saying the wrong thing,’ explains Joanne Lockwood. ‘That makes people lean back rather than lean in.’
Instead, she explains, businesses should be spotlightighting queer experiences as an essential form of education.
‘Stories are so powerful, and I think more organisations need to engage external people to tell them, positive and negative,’ she says. ‘There are some powerful trans and queer role models out there who are happy to answer questions, and their stories can create those awakening moments.’
Lockwood also points out that although some organisations may have excellent reputations for diversity and inclusion, it’s essential that these practices — and policies protecting LGBTQ+ staff — are enforced from the top to the bottom of a business as part of a uniform approach. A lack of consistency, she says, encourages an ‘individual experience’, which leaves LGBTQ+ people (especially transgender people) open to discrimination.
‘It’s also not the job of a transgender employee to educate their employer or the people around them about being trans,’ argues lawyer Robin Moira White. ‘Transgender people may have their own specific needs, and there’s plenty of resources for employers out there.’
Both White and Lockwood agree that LGBTQ+ staff need to have someone there for them at work, too — whether in the form of a friend, a manager or even an external employee assistance programme or mental health first aider. ‘Someone they can have an honest conversation with, without fear of recrimination, victimisation or further discrimination,’ explains Lockwood.
‘I was helped through my transition by some of my friends in the chambers,’ adds White. ‘Those people around you who can lend their support are the most valuable in life.’
But she stresses that ultimately, leadership comes from the top.
‘If the leader of an organisation makes it clear that people can safely come to work, be themselves and be supported — and that people who aren’t supportive are not welcome, that will cause a tremendously important change in any organisational culture.’
*Freya’s real name has been changed to protect her identity.
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