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Sharon Lewis: So Sharon, what does it feel like to be the only heterosexual at the table? That was the question lobbed at me like a hand grenade during lunch about 5 years ago.

This month we hear from Civil Servants about allyship and how to be a good ally.

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By Sharon Lewis

Sharon Lewis is the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for the Insolvency Service

So Sharon, what does it feel like to be the only heterosexual at the table? That was the question lobbed at me like a hand grenade during lunch about 5 years ago. At first, it made me quite cross - this was said to me by a friend of 30 years acquaintance in the presence of one of best friends, both of whom are members of the LGBT+ community. But it is only lately that I have come to understand why that challenge was perfectly fair and reasonable.

Let us go back to the 1980s to find out why. When I joined what was the Official Receiver’s office in 1985, girls were girls and boys were most definitely boys. It was a predominately white male environment and when you are a ‘young slip of a thing’ as I was once called, you tended to keep your head down a bit until you fathomed out how to fit in. That fitting in, as others recently commented on John Willis’s trip down memory lane blog, often meant long lunches in drinking clubs (that never shut in the afternoon) and engaging in ‘banter’. Not everyone of course said what would be considered now highly inappropriate, it was just no one ever gave it a second thought, it was the norm.

It was a particularly devastating time for the gay community with all the stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS to cope with, not to mention the death of so many loved ones – and some people who held such prejudiced and bigoted views could not help themselves but blame that whole community for wreaking havoc on the rest of us ‘innocents’. It’s a word that was said more than once to me as my first (late) husband was battling cancer brought on by AIDS which he contracted through his treatment of haemophilia with infected blood products. But try as I might to put them right, very few people listened back then.

There was no support network or allies for people to turn to back then, they either had to ‘grin and bear it’ or just not join in at all and be labelled a loner. The few ladies who worked across the insolvency profession had their own network. The work hard, play hard cliché was right in one respect (no prizes for guessing which half!) when we would get together after work for a good old-fashioned girls night out. When the conversation inevitably turned to who was dating who, there was, I hate to admit it now, probably an unsaid rule, that was always a male/female pairing, so what must my friend who was so kind and so much fun, have felt at the table, no doubt wanting to tell us about her girlfriend, but thinking it best not to.

How different it is now, if not worldwide where there is still some persecution, but at least here. In June/Pride month, it feels so much more inclusive. If anyone has not seen the 2014 film ‘Pride’, now is the time to get acquainted. It will make you laugh, clap and cry all at the same time. I am proud to be a LGBT+ ally. It’s not just about wearing a rainbow coloured lanyard, it is about creating the right environment so people can feel welcome, secure, and happy to bring their whole selves to work, not hide away part of themselves as happened in the past.

So, to answer the question posed at the start of this blog – how does it feel? It feels good, very good indeed.

Introducing our new resources for allies. Want to be a good ally to your LGBT+ colleagues? We’ve produced and collated a range of resources to help you.