For the longest time, almost 40 years, I wanted to not be here, to escape the pain that being me was causing me.
Since I can recall being aware of my gender and sexuality, I have felt the pain of not belonging and not being accepted. I have been told I don’t fit in, and that I need to change who I am. I have endured daily aggressions (for a long time not even microaggressions) about who I am in order to be employed, to be loved, and to be part of a family.
This is not to say I didn’t have allies, and their relationship to helping me was complex. They wanted me to change to fit in more. They wanted a version of me that was less angry, less opinionated, less able to talk about provocative subjects.
Allies are people who can give support, they look to lift up others. For some people their words and actions show solidarity focussing on the person who needs their support, for others their actions of allyship are more a reflection on themselves, and how they can be seen.
For some, allyship is more about “performance” than support, they want to be seen as allies: they want the rainbow flag, the LGBT employee organization, and the ticks in the policy boxes.
They would encourage me to engage, yet throw limits around their support. The language I use to describe my identity, or my ability to be authentically me, was always called out as wrong. I was policed for being the “wrong sort of gay” and pointed towards the less problematic semi-closeted cis-gay man as someone to emulate.
Here are some actual quotes from places I’ve worked:
“We can’t add Queer to the group’s name, as I find it’s a perjorative term. We’ll call it LGBT+. I know that you identify as Queer, I just don’t think that’s an appropriate word for the workplace.”
“If you were less pushy about the pace of change and asked for a lower level of support for trans people, the HR team would be more likely to support you.”
“It’s great that you recovered after we gave you [8 sessions of] counselling. You might want to think more about why this happened. If you were less open about your identity and didn’t push it in peoples faces, you wouldn’t be having these issues.”
“Talking with a musician client about DJing is fine to build the relationship; mentioning that you do it in a queer club is not appropriate.”
The pressure made me feel I was under attack. I always had my fists up to protect myself and I could never simply relax and think. I always just had to react. As you can imagine, this makes for a very angry, defensive, and overly reactive person.
What is it like to have this constant pressure? For me it created suicidal ideations as this was the only way my brain could think to make it stop and to signal how much pain I was in. I would dream of being beaten to death most nights. I would drive home from work screaming at myself not to drive into the central barrier, sobbing at the pain I was in and trying to think of why I shouldn’t. I would stand on tube platforms in London, knowing several people who drive tubes and had suffered the PTSD of having a “one under,” muttering to myself that I wouldn’t do it today, because I hadn’t yet figured out how to do it without hurting the driver.
For someone who is usually spectacularly driven towards goals, I somehow managed to not kill myself. I’m lucky in this: I have known too many of my contemporaries who have not had the advantages I have had and ended up dead.
This wasn’t only due to me. I had very good friends who would just let me sit and talk and offer me space to try to be myself. They would accept me and make me laugh, give me space to be the prickly, angry person while somehow seeing the kind person underneath struggling to survive. They would reassure me when work pressure got too bad, remind me that it wasn’t my fault, and help me find a way through.
I am here because of their kindness and love and the time they gave me.
I am also here because I got kindness and care from the people I work with. Those who didn’t know me at all and had no reason to do this, other than that is who they are.
I started at ThoughtWorks just over five years ago. I described myself in my first reviews as “Kintsugi in progress” (the Japanese art of mending beautifully). I was scarred and broken, meaning ThoughtWorks had clearly employed a scarred and broken person and I couldn’t understand why they might have.
ThoughtWorks can be a terrifying place to join as a lateral hire: you’re suddenly in the room with incredibly smart, articulate, caring people, and this sent me into an imposter syndrome cycle. I couldn’t see what they saw in me.
Then they started caring about me in the workplace. Checking in. Small things and big things.
One big thing shows ThoughtWorks’ mindset going beyond performative allyship into solidarity.
I had recently joined the company and changed my hair from “interview in a natural colour” (bright orange) to “feels like me” (blue). Our Chief Operating Officer of the UK at the time and I were talking about a potential assignment, and I remained nervous about it even as he reassured me that while I was going as a Lead Business Analyst, there would still be ample support for me. Then I said, “Look, if you need my hair to be a natural colour you need to give me two days notice and it’ll be orange, as that’s the only colour that goes.” Our COO turned and said, “If they don’t like the blue hair, sod them, we don’t want them as a client,” and then went on to show me examples of ThoughtWorkers over the years who’d rocked looks just like mine.
What they didn’t realise at the time was that it was the first time I had ever been told, “You’re OK, we’ll change the world together to make it see you as worthwhile as you are.”
I had always been told by “allies” things like, “If only you were more like everyone else we could make progress.” Being authentically me wasn’t an option. And here was a senior leader in a company telling me, “You’re OK as you, and we back you.”
This sense of solidarity pervaded at all levels at ThoughtWorks. I had teammates on projects change meeting rooms so I would have somewhere to sit (as I can’t stand for long). I had people think to walk me back to my hotel at night as someone with a cane is more vulnerable.
I went over 18 months without any bullying about who I was. I had never gone that long without aggressions/microaggressions in the workplace. Then I had a client start in with the usual: biting put downs about me, snide asides, all aimed at me for who I am. In my work life it was like the usual discomfort had started all over again.
Suddenly, I’m in a huddle post-meeting with the team and they were talking about how to protect me from this unacceptable behaviour, how to make it safe for me to interact with this client. During the entire project, the team stuck to the agreed actions and protected me, even to the point when the client was rude to me in the final presentation. I saw my Project Manager ready to leap to my defense, so I felt supported enough to give a calm response.
After this, I had a breakdown.
I was forced to acknowledge that years of workplace bullying and abuse had left with some pretty bad Complex PTSD, and the grief and anger of the pain inflicted on me in the past drove me to the edge of suicide.
I thought that ThoughtWorks would say, “Yup, we chose the broken one, even when we support them they broke, they aren’t worth it.”
ThoughtWorks helped me seek mental health support and even managed to get me an appointment when the waiting dragged on into a third week. They looked at my recovery and gave me things to do that kept me busy. They understood that even at my worst, coming in every day was important, as it meant that people saw me, fed me, and it meant I was alive one more day.
I was in therapy for over three years, paid for by the health insurance we have (admin takes a bit of time and having a therapist who knew the system enough to ensure I got the extensions I needed), which enabled me to work through everything I needed to and build a better way of being.
For the last 5+ years, Thoughtworks has consistently demonstrated the difference between solidarity and performative allyship.
Performative allyship in the past gave me eight weeks of support to get me back to work if anything happened, then told me I was weak for breaking down. It asked me why I wouldn’t fit in, why I wouldn’t change myself.
Solidarity stands besides me, protects me, and celebrates the authentic me. It tells me I am OK and looks to break down the systems that broke me. It understands the world presses in on me in ways that it doesn’t for others.
Solidarity says, “I am here.”
In solidarity we change the world.