Originally published 28/06/2019
What age were you when you came out as a gay woman?
Around my late 40’s – 11 years ago. I was married at the time. I had been married very happily for 16 years and I had two sons as well as three step children.
I fell in love with my best friend, artist Lucy Ash, who was lesbian. She lost her partner to cancer and I was helping as a co-executor of the estate. We grew close and I became distant within my marriage. My husband guessed that something had happened and confronted me one day when we were cleaning our teeth together. Within that moment my life changed. When challenged about my emotional closeness to her I admitted to an affair.
When I first came out I described myself as bisexual. I could only come to terms with the enormity of what had happened by explaining that I was attracted to the person not their gender. My marriage, the love and affection I had for my husband – that was all real and it seemed incongruous to state that I was gay – that would have felt like a sham at that point. It took me some time to understand that I was gay. It was only when my relationship with Lucy ended and I then became romantically involved with another woman that I realised I identified as gay.
You prefer to identify with the label of Gay rather than Lesbian. Why is that?
That’s right – I identify as gay as for me it means I am more overtly aligned with gay men. We are working towards many of the same goals and law reforms, so it makes sense to me. In my first interview after coming out, with The Telegraph, I described myself as a gay woman, and some lesbians wrote to me to criticise me for not describing myself as a lesbian. I was taken aback by the strength of feeling. I understand it better now. However, whilst I know that language matters, I don’t believe describing myself as gay causes any misunderstanding. Obviously there are more glass ceilings for a gay woman compared to a gay man, but gay men are important allies and I am not trying to distance myself from them.
What reaction did you get when you came out?
It was a complicated path. I had some friends who were incredulous that I didn’t know about my feelings for women before that first relationship. There was a real feeling of distrust from some family members too – they were dismayed and couldn’t understand this change of romantic path. For many people close to me, they had a real ‘need to know’ more about how it happened. Although it was quite intrusive, I did my best to accommodate their curiosity to help them understand and rebuilt trust. I didn’t expect people to feel the need to interrogate me quite so deeply, and sometimes quite hurtfully. That was tied into to my initial coming out experience.
How has it been being out and coming out at work?
For me integrity is so important, so coming out in the workplace seemed inevitable. I was going through a lot in my personal life and I told my boss about what was going on. I had become more withdrawn due to the stress of ending my marriage and embarking on a new relationship. So I came out easily in British Gas, where I worked at the time. I had seen others be out at work, and I didn’t really understand that it was actually quite a big deal until it was my turn.
You were persuaded back into the closet – how did that happen?
I was changing jobs, into Aviva (Jan was the Group Brand Director at Aviva) a well-meaning friend said ‘Jan, you are going to be working in the City of London, a very conservative, male dominated place. You are going to be a very senior woman, in a function (marketing) that isn’t always seen as the most credible. You have an uphill struggle as it is, and my advice to you is to avoid being the most famous lesbian in Aviva.’
I listened to what they said and this, coupled with the news that one of Lucy’s friends had been beaten to death, in London, for being gay – well I decided to stay quiet. The death of Ian Baynam in a seemingly safe space (Trafalgar Square) really affected me – I was frightened and decided I didn’t want to take any more risks.
But then you did come out?
Yes. Being in the closet affected me very badly – it affected my performance, productivity and esteem. I remember attending an Aviva Pride (their LGBT network) as an Ally. Seeing all the brave and strong individuals being out at work felt very shaming. I realised I had to make a change. So I came out and soon after I was invited to co-chair Aviva Pride. Having equal male and female chairs sent a strong signal, and soon LGBT women including Trans women gained confidence to join the group. I also took the opportunity to learn more about Trans people from colleagues and attending Trans events.
As a senior exec you are a very visible role model to our network – what advice do you have for them?
For me the issue of gender balance is incredibly important, and diversity is key. But as women, we have a glass ceiling. As a gay woman, that adds a second layer. If you are also Trans or a person of colour that adds a further layer. So to understand the issues of intersectionality and the different ways in which people feel excluded is so important to recognise.
The battle is around inclusion. Having communities and safe spaces to discuss negative experiences and discrimination is great – it helps to understand what and how to challenge.
We need to get Allies speaking up too. For them to lend their voices to speak up on our behalf creates generosity of spirit, and contributes to the creation of an inclusive culture that they will benefit from too. It also need to be acknowledged that there is real emotional labour for people who come out, if they are additionally expected to educate others and challenge negative behaviours. Sometimes we don’t want to do that, and that’s where Allies can be so important. So having a network which is more than just social means that together we can tackle issues and push for change. So much work can be done, from sharing good practice to being allies for each other.
Tell me more about your work with Stonewall
I have been on the Board for 6 years – firstly as a trustee and then as Chair. We have put in strategic changes from making Stonewall a Trans inclusive org, for which we consulted heavily within the Trans community to get it right. The Trans community has an Ally in Stonewall, giving power and voice.
We have also forged links and a formal partnership with the Rainbow Project in Northern Ireland. Here they are still fighting for rights such as Equal Marriage. Our diversity champions told us that they wanted representation in Northern Ireland and I am so proud that we made that happen.
What are your hopes and fears for the future, both in the UK and globally?
I hope that with the continuing progress and momentum in the law, attitudes will follow. Countries such as India have made good progress, and it’s important to remember that the UK will influence other countries laws – after all we made many of them. Anti-LGBT laws are being dismantled.
But on the flip side there is a counter-force globally meaning that some laws may then be reinstated. Hate crime is a big worry, with violent attacks increasing. This is all under a backdrop of the move to the right, and it is disquieting to see a rise in intolerance and hate, with people using a flimsy excuse of freedom of speech to hide behind. The reaction in Birmingham from parents and organisations protesting about school children learning about same sex relationships is disquieting. It’s a throwback to the days of Section 28 with latent homophobia and less latent transphobia coming out.
There needs to be a change in the attitude around LGBT people so people can live their lives in safety and peace. Networks like WOW are so important to connect with the people going through the micro aggressions – these grass roots experiences educate us and teach us to be brave. The work you do is fantastically important.
We need to remember that we are all allies to each other. We all have some privilege in some way – we need to use it wisely. Affirmation is so important.
How do you think we as LGBT women should be more visible?
Take time to attend Pride events – we need to be visible to each other and to the world. March proudly – and if you can, use the Philadelphia flag to support people of colour within the community (a rainbow flag with the addition of black and brown to represent people of colour).