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Let's make History Month a catalyst for change in the Civil Service

As part of LGBT History Month, we’re highlighting the stories of LGB* civil servants and Civil Service diversity networks. CSRA Chair and Department for Transport civil servant, Oliver Entwistle, writes about his own experience as a gay man of faith, as LGBT History Month draws to a close.

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By Oliver Entwistle

Over the last month we’ve been celebrating LGBT History Month across the Civil Service and we’ve been telling the story of why the month is so important to our members. For me, this year’s theme of religion, belief and faith has a personal significance. As an openly gay Christian, I have first-hand experience of the prejudice that still exists between communities. I’ve experienced the good, the bad and the ugly.

Let’s start with the bad.

I used to be heavily involved in a central London Catholic Church, where I was the Master of Ceremonies and assistant organist. But that ended when some of the parishioners found out that I was gay. What followed was a torrid couple of months that started a whispering campaign. All sorts of allegations were made. The most lurid being that I was having it away with the Priests (as if!)

One day this gossiping took a sinister turn when a parishioner confronted me. She was shouting all sorts at me. Telling me that I was going to “burn in hell”. I tried to walk away from her but she grabbed me and then, having obviously wound herself up a fever pitch, struck me across the face. I couldn’t believe it.

I wanted to call the police but was talked out of that by the Priest. Instead a series of meetings were arranged with the aim of a reconciliation occurring. It was a partial success. I received an apology from her but it was clear that she, and her fellow parishioners, would never be comfortable with a young gay man playing an active role in the parish.

After a few months of trying to stick it out, I left. I didn’t go to church regularly for a few years after that. This was the ugly side of prejudice in the Church. Many people, including my Christian friends, don’t know this story. I don’t really like to talk about it, but my experience of being a gay Christian is not all negative. I’ve also experienced the good.

When I did start going to church again, I went to a different parish where the parishioners were much more liberal and open minded. I felt welcome there and became the organist there for many years before I moved out of the area. The choir members also met my partner on several occasions and they were very welcoming to him.

I think part of the reason for this change in my experience of the church is down to the changes in society’s view of LGBT people in the past decade or so. I think this has made many people, including church goers, much more open-minded. I also think it is down to the increased dialogue between different groups over the years that have promoted understanding and tolerance.

We need these conversations to continue.

There is still widespread homophobia in religious communities across the world. There is also fear and distrust of religion within large sections of the LGBT community.

As a large employer in the UK, the Civil Service does have a role to play in this dialogue. I am not saying that we should be getting into theological debates but the different diversity networks in the Civil Service can bring their members together to share experiences and best practice.

That is why, in late 2015, I helped to establish a forum for all the cross-departmental networks. We use this forum to talk about what matters to each network in the Civil Service, to explore where we have common ground on diversity policy, and to share ideas and events. It would be great if this could be a catalyst for progress across the Civil Service.

This work is important because, at the end of the day, most people have more than one protected characteristic. There are many civil servants who identify as BAME and LGB, trans and LGB, or female and lesbian, for example. Yet we do not fully understand what it’s like to be one of those people in the Civil Service. Through dialogue, we can change this.

So let’s use this year’s history month theme to be a catalyst for change. Let’s work together to ensure that the Civil Service is the place where you can bring your whole-self to work.