National Coming Out Day

October 8, 2021
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What Is National Coming Out Day? 

Oct. 11, 2021 will mark the 33rd National Coming Out Day, which is where we collectively celebrate and mark LGBTQIA+ awareness for their continued fight for equal rights and acceptance. It is an opportunity to come out for the first time, to share a coming out story, to support others whomight be struggling to accept or disclose their identity, or simply to promote being out and being part of the LGBTQIA+ community. We're delighted to share Director of Higher Education at Alumni GlobalOwen Francis' story. 

A conversation with Owen Francis

Owen Francis headshot
Owen Francis, Director of Higher Education at Alumni Global

How do you celebrate PRIDE and what does it mean to you?

Pride is an interesting one for me; I am an ‘out’ transgender man and so a visible member of the LGBTQ+ community, although in recent years I’ve certainly not been as active in participating in Pride celebrations. Before I came out as transgender ten years ago and subsequently began the process of transitioning, I felt a lot of shame in being trans and felt there was something inherently wrong with me, and so in fact pride was the least thing I felt about my identity. I knew about Pride, and I knew there existed some kind of opportunity to be happy, although at the same time I also wanted to ignore how I felt and I tried to be someone very different to who I knew I am. However, when I came out, Pride celebrations for me were not just an opportunity to have fun and celebrate, but for people like me are an incredible source of community strength, solidarity and activism.

I met others like me at events like Pride, and I also met those like me who were scared of coming out but who knew, through the visibility of things like Pride, that there was a life of acceptance, happiness and freedom available to them. I think if you are not from the LGBTQ+ community or do not necessarily have lived experience of marginalisation or discrimination, it’s easy to see Pride as just a ‘fun’ kind of carnival experience, where we might be celebrating the idea or notion that LGBTQ+ people don’t face the kinds of discrimination or criminalisation in the UK that our ancestors and predecessors have. However, for people like me, events like Pride and community hubs for trans people have, quite literally, saved my life and given me the kind of psychological strength in knowing there are others out there like me.

This was critical when I was finding my feet in my own identity as a man, and navigating things like depression and anxiety that can often come with the process of transitioning, as well as elation! I mentioned activism earlier; a lot of people also forget that what we now see today in the Pride marches has been built on decades of riots, marches, political hostility and the ongoing fight for equating LGBTQ+ rights with human rights, which is fundamentally what it’s about for me.

Stonewall, for example, the UK’s leading charity for LGBTQ+ people, was built on the back of what you might think of as ‘ruptures’ in the political system; and in fact whilst Stonewall has been accused of disproportionate representation of white gay men, lots of people tend to forget or are unaware that the riots themselves were started by black transgender women against the police. I guess where we are now is that people in 2021 see the celebrations, the glitter, the rainbows, the unicorns.

Don't get me wrong, I love all of that. I don't know anyone that doesn't love that, but I think it's important to remember that a lot of that kind of came from struggle. It came from the fact that we couldn't walk down the street and be who we are without being attacked, arrested or imprisoned. Pride doesn’t hold the same kind of captivation for me now as it does, and part of this is personal as I feel now very settled in my ‘normality’ (or is it privilege?!) as a man, and don’t feel I necessarily need to draw on things like Pride for the support reasons I once did, although I do feel that being proud of who I am, finally, after 25 years of living a lie, is a kind of internalised pride in it’s own right. Perhaps with less glitter.

One of the most difficult challenges for LGBTQIA+ youth is the question of family acceptance. How was your coming out story?

Yes definitely. I was petrified of coming out. I suppose in many ways I'm somewhat of a common example of a binary trans person, in that I've I felt this way from as young as I can remember and feel that my male identity has always been core and unwavering. I think from the age of about four or five I knew that something was wrong, and I can't really explain that in too much detail because I think something as complex as gender dysphoria a difficult thing to attempt to categorise and define as well. I think the closest I can get to it is that I felt at that age that there had been a fundamental mistake; I didn’t understand how I could have been given a girl’s name, why I was wearing dresses or being expected to behave in a feminised way. Obviously at that age I had no idea about the concept of ‘transgender’, and I didn’t know there were others in the world that existed like me. So I think I grew up feeling there was something wrong with me, and it became apparent to me that this was something I had to deal with by just pushing right down, like a big secret that no one could ever know about.

Somewhat perversely, I think I managed to do this so well that I had ‘trained’ myself to ignore it, and I felt in doing so I would ‘normalise’ myself out of being this way. By the time I got to puberty, my body obviously started becoming even more removed from how I felt internally as well. So it's a really difficult and psychologically traumatising process for anyone to have to go through. My mum and dad were somewhat traditional and quite conservative in their views about LGBTQ+ people before I came out; I think in many ways they were a product of their generation. They never knew anyone from an LGBT background and subsequently I felt as though I could never really explore the possibility of coming out with them. I was so afraid of getting rejected by my family, and I know many friends and others who have had this experience. It then got to the point, for me, where the repression of this significant part of me had done so much mental damage over the years, that the idea of ending my life seemed a much more realistic option than coming out. Unfortunately in the trans community, over half of us will have attempted suicide by the age of 25, and I am definitely one of those statistics.

Fortunately, my attempt was a failed one and I decided that if I had the courage to do something stupid like that, then I had nothing to lose in trying to speak with my parents and closest friends about my identity. My parents were amazing but I remember the fear of coming out so clearly. I planned to tell my dad first, and I recall having a bag of clothes and stuff packed, in case he reacted badly. I think the first thing that my parents felt was relief at knowing that there was a reason for all of my depression and anxiety, and that something could be done about it. Equally, my friends were incredible – they even threw me a ‘coming out’ party and then, latterly, a testosterone party when I started hormones, complete with “It’s a Boy” balloons, which was incredible. One of my very good friends said to me, “we feel like we’ve lost you in the last few years to all the difficulty, and now we’ve got you back, but it’s the better version”. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that conversation.

For my parents it must have been hard; I had the advantage of thinking about this all my life, but for them it was suddenly dropped on them, and they had to navigate this very quickly and support me at the same time. I think they felt a certain element of grief for the daughter they were losing, although my dad couldn’t have put it better when he said “I would rather lose a daughter and gain a son, than lose a child altogether”. They didn’t have a manual or textbook on how to support me, but they did through love, learning and acceptance, and I love them both very much for that.

I've got trans friends that have been made homeless. They've been rejected by their family or friends. They've been outcasted, they've been placed at the margins of society. And it's sad despite all of the Pride celebrations, despite all of the positivity, there are so many contexts where you cannot be trans, or other identities, and are forced to compartmentalise that side of your life. I'm so grateful that I don't have to do that. I don't have to hide who I am and, if anything, being trans is seen as a positive. It's not just tolerated, but embraced.

Did you notice a difference in your world in terms of things like male privilege?

Oh god yes. The change was overnight. From being addressed as “sir”, to walking into a room and feeling as though you have a kind of unspoken right to be in that room, to not being afraid of many of the things a lot of women are very conscious of in society, not being seen in a sexualised way but in an authentic way, to being listened to if you make a point. I think for trans people who have transitioned, privilege is quite literally experienced in real and tangible terms. Being a transgender man does expose you to gaining male privilege.

I imagine, and know from transwomen in my social circle, that there is a loss of privilege on that side. So you gain it or you lose it, but privilege is there, and it operates in such a systemic and all-encompassing way that has been naturalised throughout history that most of us don’t necessarily see these indicators, but they are there. I think being a transgender man who ‘passes’ and is not necessarily ‘visibly’ trans is also an interesting one; I feel I’ve gained access to male spaces that can often be fraught with misogyny or tacit sexism, and have sometimes been afraid of calling it out myself for fear of being outed, and so masculinity and ‘maleness’ I think are very interesting, complex and often problematic identities in themselves, whether one is trans or not.

What is your view of employee pronouns in email signatures?

I think pronouns in email signatures are a really positive thing; it’s about being visibly supportive and allyship is very important. If people who are LGBTQ+ or questioning, and they can see a visible openness to having that conversation from their fellow colleagues or CEO, that’s a tangible market of support; it's not just about lip service, I think for me as a Trans person it says this is a company where if the chief exec has her pronouns on an email, that is someone that I could talk to if I needed to if I felt unsafe.

If I felt that I was closeted, if I felt that I was exploring my sexuality or my gender, this is a business that endorses that and endorses that as a safe space for me to be able to do that. There will be people in this business that will be LGBTQ and there will be people in this business currently that are not explicit about that and that might feel like they're struggling. So the fact that we're showing our visibility as an organisation, beyond putting a pride flag up once a year like many others do, is fantastic.

What do you think organisation leaders can do to raise awareness about important issues that impact the global LGBTQIA+ community?

LGBTQIA inclusion needs to be something that has buy in from the top down and I know that a culture of a business is everyone, but I do feel as though the chief executive, the board, the chair needs to be fully behind this agenda. If you're not hearing a narrative which is consistent at that level, then actually something like this could be very quickly something that's sort of boxed into HR.

Or it's in diversity and inclusion. I think the fact that we have a chief executive that is vocal around LGBTQ equality in terms of things like blog posts, that's really heartening to see, because it shows individuals that she is a leader who genuinely champions this and Bev is bold in that this narrative comes directly from her.

I also like the fact that we have a chief executive that challenges inequalities as well, so it's not just about vacuously paying lip service to EDI, but it's about thinking creatively and practically. I think the fact that the senior leadership team across the Group have been interested to hear what's my experience of being an LGBT person within our business is also very important.

What message would you send to someone who no longer wants to stay in the closet?

I'm very conscious that I stayed in the closet for 25 years of my life. So it's not an easy one at all. From my perspective, the most difficult person to come out to was me and I think I was at one and the same time the prisoner and the jailer in the closet. I was the person that was putting myself in there everyday, and I was also the person that was trying so desperately to get out, and I think that's the that's the experience of a lot of people. Actually, I think once you start to overcome that fear, because if you fear something every day, it becomes bigger than what it actually is. It becomes this massive thing in your mind and you worry about it constantly.

I think as a business we've done a lot to be really open around who the allies are in the business as well. Yes, I'm a Trans person, but I'm also an ally, and so you know, I like to feel as though if there is someone in the business that might be questioning their gender or questioning their sexuality, they would see me as someone that just simply wouldn't judge.

As one of HNG top successful Directors, what sort of ongoing commitment have you made to cultural competency?

I'm very conscious of the fact that this is a business that I've progressed in, so you know when I joined the business four years ago, I was in a research function, so I certainly wasn't a senior as I am now, I then took on a head research function across executive search. Since then I’ve taken on leadership of the Higher Education Practice, which I absolutely love, and have grown this significantly in the last two years and am very proud of this. I think a lot of the learning curve for me has been stepping into that leadership role as someone from a minority background, I think this comes with its challenges as well.

I think it's been eye-opening in terms of thinking about what are my qualities as a leader, but what also things that I need to improve on? How do I motivate others? How do I create an inclusive culture? And just because of the fact that I'm from a minority background doesn't necessarily mean I'm the most inclusive leader, and I think I've learned a lot about myself in terms of how I set a genuinely inclusive culture, and I think that's a constantly evolving thing as well for me for a senior leader in the business.

So I think it's about looking at inclusive and equitable best practice and having a strategy around this as a business. It’s making sure that our brands speaks inclusively to others and, internally, that our people function champions best practice across the entirety of the organisation, and I know our Chief People Officer, Melanie Hayes, has been an incredible force in this space. For me personally, I think there is something to be said around being visible as a senior leader in the business who is openly trans; there aren’t many of us out there in leadership roles, and so now I’m at the upper levels I want to “send the lift back down” as it were, and not just draw up the ladder but ensuring that people from other backgrounds can see that we are a business that promotes individuals from underrepresented backgrounds and does that in the right way. We are recruiting senior individuals and senior leaders of tomorrow in this sector every day, they need to see that we are a team that has those values at the heart as well. So it's really trying to do that. I think it's an ongoing process, hence I'm certainly not the finished article in terms of growing this team as of yet. But yeah, it's something that's I think the importance.

Can you name top 3 things not to say to LGBTQIA+ people?

LGBTQIA is such a wide and intersectional spectrum and so I could probably list three things for each of the letters. I know from a lived experience that there is a whole host of nightmarish things that are said to us, most of which comes not from a place of transphobia or bad intent but naivety, ignorance, intrusiveness and misunderstanding. I have had lots of transphobic comments and so I think just educating people on the do’s and don'ts, and what constitutes microaggressions.

What active role should companies play when offensive comments occur?

It’s a really difficult one to call and depends on the situation and context, and so I think any action needs to come from type of emotionally intelligent leadership, because, again, not all of these comments are made with deliberate malice or offence in mind, although of course some situations are a lot more clear cut. This is why I feel I am able to use my visibility as privilege in itself, and if I can be visible and educate people through my own lived experience then it’s important to do so. So I think to deal with things proactively, and if it's comes from a position of ignorance just educating that person, making sure that we've got the right training in place, making sure that you know as a business that we are vocal in the sense that any hatred or judgment of people from my background or others won't be tolerated.

I feel that in the case of trans, most people who might come across as offensive haven’t, ironically, met or spoken with or known a trans person, and can often have quite outdated or misaligned views of what trans actually means or looks like. They might think of trans as being sort of to do with drag or performance or superficiality. So when it becomes apparent that trans is very much the opposite of this, and is to do with authenticity in the face of societal adversity, it becomes a very real experience for most people, and more often than not it’s just about education and having a practical conversation.

What do you want to say to your partner?

I think she's supported me immensely over the years. She's been someone that I think has been a real rock for me in terms of my identity and I think to have that reflected in in a relationship is a really unique thing as well. We have certainly been through some difficulty which we are navigating and which has meant it’s not always been straightforward compared with most cisgender heterosexual couples, I imagine. So yes, just an immense amount of kind of love and support there, from both sides.

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