Really excited for Lesbian Visibility Day, April 26th, this year. I’m giving a talk ‘Is Lesbian Visibility Day in your Diversity Calendar?’ for the Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in the North East network. You can find out more here.
Lesbian Visibility Day: what is it?
I became aware of Lesbian Visibility Day in 2019. Internet searches tell us this international awareness day originated in 2008. However, there is no reliable source with detailed information on its origin.
It is somewhat ironic that I, as a lesbian who has researched lesbian visibility on screen had never heard of it and found out by chance on social media. None of my lesbian friends had heard of it either. We are not alone, as this article on After Ellen, ‘the leading site for lesbians worldwide’, attests.
This invisible Lesbian Visibility Day raises interesting questions: why have we never seen our workplaces or wider culture mark this day? Is it important? Lesbian invisibility has a long history. For example, while sexual activity between men was outlawed in the U.K., sex between women was never illegal – it was simply never mentioned.
In an era of what feels like an ever-increasing number and variety of awareness days, Lesbian Visibility Day seems similarly to have slipped through the net – until now. In 2020, U.K.-based DIVA, ‘Europe’s leading magazine for lesbian and bi women’, is making a week of it, with a planned launch in Parliament (revised, now, due to the Covid-19 Global pandemic).
Why your organisation should be celebrating it: inclusion and wellbeing
McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace Report 2019 illuminates some of the ways in which lesbians experience the workplace differently – and more negatively – to women in general. In their survey of over 68,500 U.S. employees, 23% of lesbians reported feeling that they could not talk about themselves or their life outside of work, compared to 10% of women overall (26% bisexual women expressed this). 24% of lesbians reported hearing demeaning remarks about them or people like them, compared to 16% of women overall. Most concerning is the fact that 53% of lesbians reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, compared to 41% of women overall (62% of bisexual women expressed this).
From the McKinsey report, we can see that almost a quarter of lesbians do not feel they can bring their ‘whole selves’ to work and that the workplace does not offer ‘psychological safety’, or indeed physical safety given the proportions of incidents of harassment. Psychological safety is something that Mike Robbins and others have identified as essential for effective team working and performance. It is important for an individual’s wellbeing for them to feel included and welcomed.
To be clear, bringing your whole self to work in terms of sexual orientation is not about sharing your sex life with colleagues! It is about openly being who you are. For example, if in a casual conversation a heterosexual colleague shares where they visited at the weekend with their wife/husband/partner, there is likely no moment of hesitation as to whether or not to reveal the sex of that partner. For a lesbian colleague (or anyone in a same-sex relationship), they have to make an assessment as to whether or not it feels safe to reveal that partner’s sex. Will they be judged or treated differently as a result? They might not be judged but the anticipation of that possibility (borne out by understanding or experiences of homophobia and misogyny combined) can lead to avoiding the potential risk. Silence is an insurance policy.
If you’re thinking, OK, but we already have LGBT History Month and celebrate Pride season in our organisation. We also mark International Women’s Day. Aren’t lesbians covered?! Well, as the McKinsey report demonstrates, lesbians often have a different experience from other women in the workplace, so recognising that and supporting lesbians specifically to feel not only comfortable but welcome as they are is important. Furthermore, while some lesbians feel a welcome part of the LGBTQ+ ‘umbrella’, some do not. A 2018 survey by HER, a social networking and dating app for LGBT+ women, found that 31% of their respondents did not feel comfortable or welcome at Pride. This suggests that not all will feel included when those corporate colours go rainbow in June.
What might your organisation do?
As with many other awareness-raising days, Lesbian Visibility Day has multiple purposes:
- to celebrate lesbian role models (within or beyond the organisation), supporting lesbians within the organisation to feel safe, included and welcome
- to raise awareness, educate and inform allies regarding varied experiences of lesbians, fostering understanding and cultivating a more welcome environment
- to recognise diversity amongst lesbians (as with all groups, we are not homogenous!)
You might: invite an external speaker; host a workshop or training for allies; put up diverse imagery in your office space and on your website; feature stories on the website; consult with your staff to evaluate your workplace culture.
You also need to walk the talk by, for example, reviewing your policies and documents for inclusive language; monitoring incidents and creating a culture where it feels safe to report and raise issues; consider mentoring/coaching for specific groups; examine cultural norms; diversify representation in decision-making.
Aside from it being the right thing to do in terms of wellbeing and social justice, recent research has found that employees are 13% more productive when they are happy. So, can you afford to do nothing?
This blog was first published on Thrive Global.
Rafiki is a powerful film telling the story of of two young lesbians who fall in love in Kenya, where their relationship is forbidden. The film was banned in Kenya, its country of origin. I was pleased to contribute to a panel discussion after the Tyneside’s premiere screening in March 2019.
I was pleased to offer a workshop on ‘Being an LGBT Ally’ for staff at North East Business and Innovation Centre , Sunderland. The BIC do great work offering support to people starting and growing their businesses. We considered how to create an inclusive culture for LGBT people as both colleagues and clients. Check out a testimonial from the workshop here.
Chance Encounter 1
Earlier this year, I contacted NEBIC (North East Business and Innovation Centre) to find out about their EU-funded Boost your Business course. The BIC support people to start and to grow their businesses.
While I was meeting with one of their advisors, having spotted my line of work their HR officer came to have a chat with me about the possibility of running a workshop for their staff. The BIC are currently running a series of events on wellbeing and so I created a workshop for them, ‘Being an LGBT Ally’, which looked at supporting LGBT+ people to be themselves in the workplace. Given the BIC’s client-facing work, the workshop also focused on how the environment might ‘speak to’ LGBT+ customers.
Simple things like having visible role models, some images on the website or wearing rainbow lanyards can have a big impact on whether a person feels included. They are ‘quiet’ ways of letting a person know that they are welcome, either as a member of staff or as a client. In turn, these enhance wellbeing and sense of belonging. And of course, hosting a workshop was an excellent step on that journey to becoming an inclusive organisation.
This chance encounter resulted in a mutually beneficial arrangement – some awareness raising for staff and some business for me (the BIC clearly take the ‘Boost your Business’ ethos to heart!!)
Chance Encounter 2
A second chance encounter that emerged from my dealings with the NEBIC was when I attended the Boost your Business course itself. This is three-day residential course which gives people the opportunity to focus on their business ideas as well as providing an opportunity to network with others in similar situations.
Having arrived at the hotel for the course, my first encounter of the morning was with a fellow participant who, when I introduced myself and my work, asked me what ‘LGBT’ was. I confess I was a bit taken aback at the time and it made me reflect that I do make assumptions that people know what those letters mean. I had further pause for thought as a second person later in the day asked me the same question.
While I’m not about to alter my business cards (have had too many printed, for a start), it has made me think more about how I introduce myself and also introduce the workshops I deliver, which always entail elements of terminology but I now make that aspect more ‘up-front’.
Learning for me always involves challenging established ways of thinking. Having my own thinking challenged has helped raise my awareness and made me take less for granted.
I am currently working as part of a national project funded by the Government Equalities Office (GEO) in Anti-Homophobic, Biphobic and Transphobic (HBT) Bullying in primary and secondary schools. The work is co-ordinated by the LGBT Consortium and raises awareness among staff and students. In North East England, school staff training and support is being delivered by myself and colleagues working with the LGBT Fed, a volunteer-led regional infrastructure organisation.
While the focus is on anti-HBT bullying, our work at the LGBT Fed takes a holistic approach. Thus, the training covers not only types of bullying (linguistic, physical and online, for example) and how to challenge it but, importantly, we consider ways to create a whole-school environment that works positively with regard to LGBT inclusion.
As part of the project, the GEO are funding the development of new lesson plans to add to Schools Out’s existing valuable resource, The Classroom. The Classroom has lesson plans searchable by discipline and by Key Stage, which makes it user-friendly for time-pushed teachers. The materials are also easily adaptable to teachers’ own classroom contexts.
I have found when working with primary schools, one of the concerns teachers can have is how to make LGBT-inclusion age-relevant. Underpinning this concern is a (tacitly held) perception that LGBT issues automatically imply sexual acts. In reality, whatever one’s sexual orientation – LGBTQ+ or straight – physical sexual acts are only one aspect of that identity, amongst for example, emotional attachment, desire and possibly life-partnership. If mentioning a straight couple or individual to four year-olds, sexual acts obviously do not come into the conversation, just as they would not do with an LGBTQ+ couple or individual!
One of the resources from The Classroom I have used during training is ‘Different People, Different Talents’. Aimed at Key Stage 1 PSHE, the lesson introduces students to notions of valuing difference and individuality, and gets them involved in tasks such as who can do a tongue-twister or stand on one leg! It moves through values placed on stereotypically gendered activities and also includes examples of different people, one of which is a student living with his father and his father’s boyfriend. These are gentle, age-appropriate ways to encourage children to value difference and they form part of the backdrop to an inclusive school from an early age.
As well as embedding such content into the curriculum, the whole school environment is an opportunity to communicate the school’s ethos around diversity and inclusion. From the images on the walls to the language spoken in the classroom, playground and staff room, the school can work together to create a positive environment. OFSTED and the requirements of the Equality Act and Equality Duty require schools to be proactive, yet knowing how to do this is where training and expertise can really help.
In our training, we aim to equip staff with greater understanding of issues such as the social model of discrimination; types of discrimination and how to combat it; what exactly the law requires; terminology and differences between equality, equity and social justice. With raised awareness and understanding, staff can become more confident in not only introducing new material into their curriculum but in embedding LGBT inclusion in the whole school environment.
I am excited to be collaborating with former colleagues at Northumbria University on this film season at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle. Four films are being screened throughout February and March to celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8th) and the centenary of the first women gaining the vote in the UK:
16 February: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (Mary Dore, 2014) tracks the histories of second wave feminism in America, from NOW to WITCH, through interviews with the women involved and archive footage of them in action. Introduced by Julie Scanlon and Rosie White.
22 February: Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014) chronicles the three-month period in 1965 when Dr Martin Luther King led the campaign to secure equal voting rights culminating in the Selma-Montgomery march. Introduced by Mel Waters and Victoria Bazin.
1 March: The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996) is an example of New Queer Cinema, following the life and loves of a black lesbian documentary-maker. Introduced by Anamarija Horvat and Sue Regan.
8 March: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Alexandra Dean, 2017) sees the Newcastle premier of this fascinating documentary about the Hollywood actress and inventor. The screening features a Live Q+A with Susan Sarandon as Executive Producer talking about her new film.
Tickets and times at the Tyneside link above!!
February marks LGBT History month in the UK and LGBT History Project North East are again putting on a fantastic day of talks and activities to mark the occasion.
I am so pleased to be contributing a session with Louise Evan-Wong, Director of the LGBT Fed, on ‘North East Lesbians and the Women’s Liberation Movement’.