Today (17th May 2017) is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, or IDAHO for short! While it’s pretty flipping obvious that you should feel comfortable, valued and respected at work no matter what your sexuality is, when you first start out in the working world or at a brand new job, it can feel intimidating trying to figure out what you want your colleagues to know about you, and how much of yourself to give away in the office.

So, we caught up with O2′s Mark, Service Manager, member of O2′s LGBTQ Network and a self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Pride’, to talk about being gay and what that means for him at work.

 Hey Mark! You’re a Service Manager at O2, could you explain what that means?

“I look after all things IT systems for our 470 O2 stores. Essentially I make sure that when you walk into any of our stores you get the best experience first time, and walk out with that shiny new phone.”

You started out at O2 as an apprentice, did you feel like you had to ‘come out’ at work?

“I moved to Leeds from Belfast when I was 18, straight out of school and straight into my apprenticeship after a nice relaxing summer. Well not so straight… I had just come out to my family about eight months before I moved to Leeds! Although I was out to friends since I was 13.

“I didn’t feel like I had to come out at work at all – I’m a terrible liar though, and I really struggled to pretend I was straight to people. Saying the word ‘girlfriend’ made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when in reality I was talking about a boy. I knew that coming out would make things so much easier, and boy was it. Massive stress relief!

“My ‘coming out’ was an accident to be honest. I went to the launch event for the LGBTQ network with a bi mate that I asked to come along for moral support… and my manager was there. So I felt I had to tell him. Then, I just kept going and told one person at a time, and then once I started blogging on a company wide scale with the opening paragraph ‘I’M GAY’ it was pretty hard for people not to know my ‘deep dark secret’! It was great though. People don’t see me as Mark The Gay Service Manager, it’s irrelevant, but I am seen as the Queen of Pride and, to be honest, I love that title. I’m tempted to put it at the bottom of my emails!”

Haha, so what advice would you give other people about coming out at work?

“I recently split with my ex, and as a single man back on the scene dating again and meeting guys who aren’t out yet reminds me of the earlier days of my career.

“It’s a difficult place to be (I’ve nicknamed it ‘Narnia’) when you’re so scared about people finding out that you’re Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual [circle where applicable]. But it’s nothing to be scared about. My message to people is always: find your support net. Find that person that you can rely on if (heaven forbid) something were to go wrong. Be that a partner, friends or even the LGBTQ network at work.”

What should you do if you do experience homophobia or discrimination based on your sexuality at work?

“Be honest, and if you feel confident enough, challenge it. Be strong.

“If you don’t want to, there’s plenty of support from HR processes. Speak to your manager, or a HR helpline if you have access to one. There’s also some great support online.”

You’re part of the LGBTQ network at O2, what does the network do and why did you decide to join?

“The network is there to encourage change inside our organisation. Whether that’s in HR processes, or even just in providing a support net for people who are struggling to come out. We believe you should be able to bring your whole selves to work, not hide the true you. We’re here to ensure our organisation is able to support that.

“I joined the network to provide support to our younger colleagues. I guess at the time I was a bit of a role model! Going out there and saying: ‘I’m Mark, I’m an apprentice and I’m gay’, encouraging others to do the same! We are the future of the organisation.”

Why is it so important to acknowledge International Day Against Homophobia in workplaces? What is your LGBTQ network doing to mark the day?

“As a society we have matured a lot. I know out there it’s still illegal to be gay in some countries. But it’s great to think I can hold a boy’s hand in public or whatever. But back in the day, gays were having to hide. Canal Street in Manchester? Gays used to meet up beside the canal back in the day in the dark where they couldn’t be seen. But now we as a community can be whoever we want! Look at Pride. It’s awesome, and it’s loved by everyone! Every year when I’m on-top of the  big O2 gay pride bus, I see plenty of families, and people from all walks of life enjoying the day. So we deserve this day. A day to reflect. A day to appreciate just how far we have come.

“At O2, we’ll be showing our support on Social Media this year and encouraging people in our stores to express themselves also. We’ll be sharing some stories internally to mark the day.”

Would you encourage other people to create LGBTQ networks at their offices if they don’t have them already?

“Why not? What have you got to lose? Even if you manage to go out for a few drinks after work, I’d say that’s a success. Because you’re there. You’re visible, and although it might not be obvious at the time when you’re necking that Jagerbomb on Canal Street in Manchester, you’re making a change to that business.”

“I’ve met up with people on LGBTQ nights out who aren’t out to friends and family, but they use these nights out as a bit of relief. For one night a month or whatever, they can let their hair down and be themselves.”

Do you have any tips for setting up your own network?

“Stonewall have some great resources for setting up a network, but what you need as a bare minimum is people and a name. That’s the best way to start. Then as a network set out your vision. What do you want to achieve? Where do you want to be in three months, six months, and five years?

“Don’t forget to communicate that plan. Our LGBTQ network is all about education, awareness and support, and we are pretty clear on that. In our emails, our intranet pages. Everywhere.

“Oh, and please don’t be corporate when setting it up. It’s meant to be a bit of fun!”

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

“Pride in London is going to be the best thing you ever do. So do it as early as you can! Oh – and maybe set that stall out a bit earlier. But don’t feel you need to throw it in people’s faces. I’m sure the person in the canteen who makes you a coffee twice a week doesn’t need to know you’re gay. But telling your manager is always a good start to build that trusting relationship. So maybe tell them as early as you can.”

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