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LGBTQ+ History Month: Discrimination in the Workplace

over 2 years ago by Thea Fraser

LGBTQ+ History Month: Discrimination in the Workplace

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As a recruitment company, it is important to us that we ensure equality and diversity in our internal recruitment process in addition to the service we provide to our clients. This LGBTQ+ history month, we would like to take an opportunity to discuss discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace: taking a look back at how it was, how much we have progressed, and how much further we have yet to come. In this blog, we will be taking a look at Channel 4’s ‘It’s a Sin’, which offers viewers one of the most accurate historical depictions of the LGBTQ+ scene in the UK over the last 50 years. ‘It’s a Sin’ is a British television drama that follows the lives of five gay men who move to London, and it has offered many viewers an eye-opening insight as to what it was like to be part of the LGBTQ+ community during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the ’80s. If you haven’t watched this series already: first of all, why not? It’s incredible. And second of all, the following article may contain a few light spoilers for you: so, consider this your warning.

‘It’s a Sin’ not only offers a full-colour illustration of life in London in the eighties, from the music, to the make-up and hairstyles, but it also illustrates the negative attitudes and stigmas believed by the general population at the time, especially those aimed at the LGBTQ+ community. Only decriminalised in 1967, homosexuality was a hugely taboo topic in the UK in the eighties; many individuals felt as though they were unable to discuss their sexuality with friends and/or loved ones for fear of being ostracised or abused (and we witness this in the show). The show is based around the time that Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was put into place in the UK: a controversial amendment which stated that a local authority 'shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality' or 'promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.' This damning piece of legislation gave the general public the impression that the government sanctioned homophobia, intensifying already-existing, detrimental sentiments towards the LGBTQ+ community. ‘[Section 28] created a culture of fear and shame around LGBT+ identities which was felt across the whole of society, including in workplaces across the country’ (HR Magazine).

This animosity towards homosexuality in the UK was intensified by the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS crisis – a deadly illness appeared, little was known about its symptoms, and it seemed to specifically target gay men. 

‘AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the name used to describe a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus. While AIDS cannot be transmitted from 1 person to another, the HIV virus can,’ (source: NHS). 

‘It’s a Sin’ highlights the fact that since HIV/AIDS only seemed to affect a stigmatised population, those who contracted it were not offered the care, support, science and validation that they deserved. We witness patients being locked away, kept against their will, and ashamed to inform their families; this serves as a stark reminder that unless you were part of the LGBTQ+ scene at that time or are close to someone who was, it’s difficult to imagine what it was like to have lived through it. The show also illustrates several ways in which the LGBTQ+ community were discriminated against for their sexual orientation in their everyday lives - from their private banking to their workplace - with some characters concealing aspects of their identity so as to not lose out on certain opportunities and others dismissed from their roles because of their sexual orientation. We as an audience are made to feel uncomfortable, if not outraged, in the way that discrimination based on sexual orientation was not only the norm at the time, but actively encouraged. It is also important to note that, though sexual orientation discrimination legislation has been in place in the UK since 2003, sexual orientation didn’t become a protected characteristic until the Equality Act 2010. That’s only 11 years ago. 

‘It’s a Sin’ has shone a spotlight on LGBTQ+ history in the UK, it gave us an insight into a decade-long window of LGBTQ+ history, challenging viewers to do their own independent research on the years that followed and got us to where we are now. And, as we compare it to the present day, we can see how far the UK has come, but the resulting conversations that the show have sparked tell us that we still have progress to make.

“Even though I’m a lot more confident with my sexuality now than I was a few years ago, I’d still be conscious of it when starting a new job. It’s not something I would be forthcoming with unless it was initiated by others first, it’s a part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me. When watching It’s a Sin, it was devasting to learn some of the things that the community was going through in the '80s. I am grateful to be living and working in a time where the situation has improved, however, there’s still more that needs to be done.”

Daniel, 31, Marketing Manager, London

WHO declassified ‘homosexuality’ as a disease over 30 years ago, yet a recent map by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association shows that consensual sexual acts between LGBTQ+ adults are still criminalised in 70 countries in the world. Not only does this strip individuals of their fundamental rights, but punishment varies from years of imprisonment to the death penalty. Though we have made a lot of progress in the last few decades, we still have a long way to go before we can reach true equality. According to a 2018 report from Stonewall, 35% of LGBTQ+ staff have hidden their LGBTQ+ identity at work for fear of discrimination. The report also found that 18% of LGBTQ+ staff had been bullied by colleagues because they’re LGBTQ+, and one in ten black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBTQ+ employees had been physically attacked by customers or colleagues in the last year. 

One respondent said, ‘my employer is generally very supportive but doesn’t have a specific LGBT discrimination section in their policies and procedures should discrimination occur. So, if discrimination or harassment does occur – and it does – then they don’t effectively handle things, and the LGBT person is blamed for causing problems and being oversensitive.’ 

So, what can we do to make a difference? Well, there is no one size fits all policy; an effective diversity and inclusion strategy should be an ever-evolving process of self-assessment and improvement. It is the responsibility of every employer to create an inclusive environment for all employees: from ensuring that your policies and employee benefits are inclusive of individuals from the LGBTQ+ community to standing up for your employees should an incident occur. Creating an inclusive environment means assuring that all employees have access to and understand company policies around discrimination, equality, bullying and harassment, and offering additional training and education who feel as though they may need it. 

'I am so grateful to those, past and present, for championing a safe and inclusive environment for the lgbtq+ community. I appreciate my company, allies and colleagues for celebrating a diverse workplace. Although there is a long way to go for many, I feel lucky to be able to bring my whole self to work every day.'

Cameron, 31, Internal Communications Manager, Sydney


Here's some extra reading for creating an LGBTQ+ inclusive workplace -

Top 10 tips for LGBT inclusion in the workplace:

10 Ways to Support LGBT Employees:

11 Simple Ways You (Yes, You!) Can Make Your Workplace More LGBTQ Inclusive: