This year marks 22 years since I came out. I was 21 and had know from a very early age I was different, but I was tired of hiding. The thought of coming out though was traumatic. Would my parents disown me? Would my friends still call me a friend? Could I walk down the street without being beaten up by gay-bashers? Did being gay mean I would die of Aids? This was 1996, before the equality act of 2010; before the internet; before role models even existed – andd it was absolutely terrifying.
But as those who have been there will testify, hiding your true self and pretending to be someone you’re not, is one of the heaviest burdens you can carry through life. It is so easy to see why even today, so many young gay teens still think suicide is their only choice.
Twenty-two years on it deeply saddens me suicide rates in young gay teens is still way above the national average. In fact some studies show LGBT teens are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than straight teens – in spite of society having moved on in leaps and bounds with regards to tolerance, acceptance and equality. Because while it is undoubtedly a lot easier for the LGBT community to live openly in many countries across the world, I don’t believe coming out today is much easier than it was all those years ago.
National Coming Out day is designed to change that. It’s day to remind ourselves of the struggle still facing people who have to come to terms with the fact their life is different, “not normal” and will sadly be exposed to hatred and abuse from pockets of society who still view the LGBT community negatively.
You may not believe it but gay bashing in the UK really does still exist. People hurl abuse across the street at two guys or girls holding hands and people are still actively discriminated in the workplace by homo or transphobic colleagues or bosses. Spare a thought though for those people who live in the 72 countries where it is still illegal to be gay, and those in the eight countries where it is punishable by death.
Working for an LGBT-friendly travel company of the year (TTG Travel Awards 2017), an organisation that truly embraces diversity in its marketing and one that feels fully inclusive every day in the office, is a wonderful feeling.
And yet it still surprises me when young people knock on my door or send me an email to request to come and speak to me in absolute confidence about their struggles with their sexuality or gender identity, asking for my help guidance and support.
It serves as a stark reminder that even though society has moved on, even when we have equal rights and marriage equality and even when we create the most open and inclusive workplaces, the personal internal battles for many remain the same as they did for me all those years ago.
I strongly believe the travel industry is one of the most accepting and open places to work, but there is always more we as leaders can do. The next time someone comes out to you, take a step back and reflect on the enormity of that decision and the courage and bravery that individual has shown. It deserves the greatest respect.