When we talk about taking up space, intersectionality is often brushed aside as an inconvenient truth. Atticus Oak* (he/him) shares his experience of asserting Black queer identity – and unexpected empowerment at work.
Coming out is a rite of passage in the LGBTQ+ community but how, when, where and to who is unique to the individual.
There is a duality to being Black and gay. You can be out in some spaces and closeted in others, creating paradoxical feelings of being empowered and powerless. This was my case.
Growing up in a traditional Christian household with Jamaican parents, I felt powerless to speak up for so long. I wanted to be proud and own my sexuality, but I had to be cautious with who I was open with, knowing that my grandparents and the older generation at church wouldn’t approve, and instead actively seek to ‘pray the gay away’.
I felt like I was living half a life, not being able to fully embrace who I was in my own home, but work gave me an opportunity to be authentic. It’s a weird dynamic being out and vocal in the office and silent at home. This balancing act is all too common for Black gay men. I’ve known many who live very neatly compartmentalised lives out of fear of family rejection.
For most of my career in technology public relations, I’ve been the only Black person, and often the only gay person, in the office. I remember the first company I worked for in London. The CEO was always cold and abrupt with me. I couldn’t determine if it was because I was Black, gay or both.
I didn’t speak out for fear of rocking the boat, especially because the person who was freezing me out was the CEO. Being at work suddenly felt like Sunday dinner with family members making casual homophobic comments I felt powerless to correct.
My career was my lifeline to independence and freedom, and I didn’t want my office to become a prison. I started speaking out and using all the missed opportunities from the family dinner table to discuss issues at work. Everything from normalising same-sex marriage, to breaking down negative stereotypes that oversexualise Black gay men and reduce us to objects of lust, lacking substance and intelligence.
Taking up space comes in many forms and I started small. I’d contribute to naturally occurring conversations about LGBTQ+ topics, which evolved into me being more vocal about LGBTQ+ rights, calling out inappropriate comments and educating colleagues on outdated beliefs.
Over time, my confidence grew and I felt empowered to be more proactive. I organised events to make sure the history of Pride – spearheaded by Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman – was not forgotten.
It took a year at the company for me to realise I had a superpower. No one could speak to the Black gay experience other than me. I could use my voice to shape the narrative within my organisation – to make sure it highlighted the Black gay experience too often overlooked.
I DIDN’T SPEAK OUT FOR FEAR OF ROCKING THE BOAT, ESPECIALLY BECAUSE THE PERSON WHO WAS FREEZING ME OUT WAS THE CEO.
All the topics and missed conversations I was afraid to discuss at home fueled me to be vocal at work. My existence wasn’t going to be silenced and I wanted to influence as many people in my organisation as possible, especially the CEO.
Speaking up in the workplace and sharing my experiences didn’t just give me more confidence in my role. I got more satisfaction from my job knowing I was creating a safer work environment for future employees to thrive in.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community should be confident to be their most authentic self in the workplace without fear of discrimination. Article 21 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, protecting our community from discrimination, misconduct and microaggressions. Being out and proud in the workplace shouldn’t be a hindrance to your career.
Representation is so important! Visibility of someone who understands your identity and experiences is reassuring when applying for a new role. It highlights a pathway that has been created by your predecessors, proving that pursuing a role outside of your comfort zone, or in roles that have traditionally been dominated by white, heterosexual, cisgender employees is possible.
It’s been over six years since I started my career in technology PR and I haven’t met a senior Black gay person at any of the agencies I’ve worked at. If protective laws are in place to stop discrimination based on sexuality, why aren’t more BIPOC LGBTQ+ people pursuing careers in traditionally white, heterosexual spaces? And why are there so few Black queer people in senior positions in communications? A lack of representation could be the cause. If no one knows these roles are obtainable, our community won’t pursue them.
I want to be that representation to encourage more queer BIPOC to pursue careers in technology communications.
Your sexuality should never be an obstacle for career opportunities. Fear of discrimination shouldn’t limit your aspirations.
If you can’t see yourself represented in the workplace, I encourage you to be that representation. If not for yourself, then for future Black LGBTQ+ people starting their careers.
It’s inspiring to see someone like you in a position of influence. It’s a great motivator to succeed and surpass the expectations of others – and your own.
Whilst I felt powerless in my home to speak up, I found power in owning being Black and gay in the workplace.
*The author has adopted ‘Atticus Oak’ as a pseudonymto freely write about his experiences.