Why we still need Pride in 2019

Throughout June and July, London enjoys a host of events celebrating the LGBT+ community – culminating in the London Pride parade on 6 July. This year is the Pride Jubilee, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and beginning of the Pride movement across the world.

A common symbol of Pride and the LGBT+ community is the rainbow flag. This month we’ve introduced rainbow badges to the Trust. Staff can apply to wear a badge and by doing so signify their support to people who identify as being from the LGBT+ community.

Michael Underwood, lead nurse for central outpatients, and Dr Andrew Hartle, consultant anaesthetist, are part of our LGBT+ staff network and instrumental in the introduction of the badges. Here we talk to them about why, 50 years on, Pride is still a necessary and important event.

What does the Pride event represent for you? How you do you think things have moved on over the last 50 years?

Andrew: As a 53-year-old gay, married man, I believe a lot has changed over the years for the LGBT+ community, but we can’t be complacent. We know many same sex couples still don’t feel comfortable to be affectionate in public, gay-bashing happens all too often and people continue to experience discrimination in healthcare. There is a long way to go until we have true equality. There is equality in law – which we almost have – then equality in life and practice, which we don’t have. There are still very few occasions where my husband and I would feel comfortable to hold hands in public. Also, in healthcare we know that many patients don’t feel comfortable to disclose their sexual orientation to healthcare workers because they are scared of being treated as other or discriminated against.

Michael: Ultimately there are still some parts of the world where people are put in prison for being gay and places where they offer ‘conversion’ therapy. Even in London violence towards the LGBT+ community is happening. I think we still need Pride for the same reasons as we need Remembrance Day. It’s important for us to remember our history and educate our youth about our history. There’s a whole culture to being LGBT+. There’s the mental health aspect and the HIV and AIDS crisis – the shockwaves from these are still very resonant in our community. If a young, gay person walks into a shop and sees the rainbow flag, I think it might give them hope. They might not be comfortable being out there yet, but if they read about Pride in the press, see it on the news, or their mum comes home from work and talks about a Pride cake sale she’s been to, then it just opens the door to that acceptance. To me Pride takes everyone in – it’s like a mother. On the day of the Pride parade, everyone is there together – young, old, black, Asian, Muslim, disabled. You can see a whole community enjoying themselves and being free. And you see the allies – the straight people watching and marching with us.

Andrew: I think there are many gay stereotypes and Pride helps to challenge them. I grew up with effeminate and camp as the gay stereotype. When you go to Pride you see there are gay firefighters, lesbian police officers, trans ambulance drivers, bisexual army, navy, air force – all your preconceptions are wrong. It’s an inclusive community and for everyone – not just people who identify as LGBT+.

What do you hope the effect will be of introducing the rainbow badges to the Trust?

Andrew: One of the key messages is, if you are LGBT+ that is normal. There’s nothing wrong, embarrassing, or shameful about it. You are who you are. Whatever you are, whoever you are –that’s ok, we don’t mind and you are important.

Michael: It says I understand your history and what you might have gone through – I’m here for you. I’m not going to judge you. You don’t have to have your guard up. You’re safe. Maybe if you see someone on the tube wearing the rainbow badge, you might want to wear one too. On Twitter one woman said she went into a shop and saw someone wearing the rainbow badge, and struck up a conversation with them about how her and her girlfriend are going through IVF – so it just opens up those doors. Also, it helps take away the feeling of shame – that sounds awful, but it’s ingrained in you from a child to feel a bit ashamed for what you are doing and the badge and Pride celebrations are ways of counteracting that. Marriage equality has helped too, as well as being able to have children. Not being labelled as someone who just wants to have sex, do drugs and party – it starts to make you feel more valued in society.

Andrew: When I grew up in the '70s/'80s, I knew that I was different but there was no-one that I could talk to and I had no positive role-models so that just led me to not talk about it. There was a lot of inner shame and denial. I grew up before and during clause 28 and the law was different then so even if you accepted you were LGBT+, it was quite difficult to be LGBT+ because how did you meet anyone else? I understand how hard it was to let your guard down, and the how you have very careful conversations with other people. If you got it wrong the consequences can be extreme – you got beaten up, ridiculed, embarrassed, or your parents might find out. You carry a lot of shame and guilt, and we know the rate of serious mental health conditions in the young LGBT+ community is significantly higher than the non-LGBT+ population. 

Michael: There’s a huge increase in gay men talking drugs, chem-sex and escapism – which is related to that sense of shame. While we can go to Pride, wear badges and have bake sales and people think “oh gays – happy” – you have to understand what’s behind this movement and underneath it. Hate crimes are still happening around the world and it can make LGBT+ people feel like second-class citizens, so wearing a rainbow badge goes some way to signifying acceptance.

How has the NHS changed in respect to the LGBT+ community?

Andrew: I was a registrar at St Mary’s in 1995 which was probably at the peak of the AIDS crisis before effective treatment came in. We had a lot of people with HIV when it was effectively untreatable. I was an intensive care registrar. I remember seeing young gay men with pneumonia – most of them died – they went from talking to us to dead within a couple of hours. What I remember was how we treated the families and who we often didn’t count as family then. It always reminds me of how far we’ve come. The boyfriends, partners or the friends were often there at the start but when the biological family arrived we might exclude them. Next of kin was what counted then, not what the patient wanted. So that whole experience has changed – firstly, we don’t see that sort of AIDS very often any more – HIV is now a chronic life-long condition rather than a death sentence. We no longer draw that distinction among family. No-one would argue now that my husband is my next of kin. But I’m always very conscious of how it must have felt in healthcare for those families, to be constantly talked about/judged, never sure if they would be able to stay at the bedside with their loved one. I think another part of having the rainbow badge is for LGBT+ people from overseas to know if they land up in hospital during their holiday, it’s going to be ok – they can be with their partner and be open about that. And for people that come from countries where it’s not ok to be LGBT+, to signify that here it is ok.

What are the challenges facing the LGBT+ community now?

Michael: For me, gay men used to die of AIDS and now they are dying from drugs. This year alone I know six guys who have died from taking drugs. It’s a way of blocking out what’s happening in society – like the campaigns against LGBT+ sex education in schools, priests tweeting that being gay is amoral, stories like the two gay women who were beaten up on the top of a London bus. Of my friends from very religious backgrounds, not one of them have told their family that they are gay because they fear the consequences. Even my boyfriend, who is Venezuelan, has been disowned by his family after telling them he is gay. It’s a huge pressure on your mental health. I think transpeople also experience a lot of prejudice. Working here I’ve actually met a lot of transpeople, which says a lot about our organisation, but I know there are transpeople who struggle to find work because no-one will employ them.

Andrew: Part of still needing Pride is recognising that we’ve been given a lot of freedom, but it could easily be taken away – we cannot be complacent. It was never my choice to disclose my sexuality publically, but it happened because I got outed in the News of the World newspaper and thrown out of the military. I was one of the last people that happened to – but I could never forget how awful it was at the time and how much it hurt. I envy LGBT+ teenagers now in some ways, but I think the pressures are still there, they’re just different

What advice would you give to the young LGBT+ community and your younger self?

Andrew: Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. There are no expectations of you. Everyone is different. You don’t have to dress up like the Village People (but you can if you want)! Just be you! I think the advice I’d give is that your identity doesn’t need to hold you back. When I was appointed at the St Mary’s in 2001, I was the first openly gay anaesthetist and I was one of only a few openly LGBT+ consultants. Nowadays I couldn’t tell you how many openly LGBT+ consultants there are because there are so many and it’s normal. So the message is you can do what you want and have a successful career if you are LGBT+.

Michael: I think wherever you go and wherever you work you’re always going to have the LGBT+ label, but I can honestly say I’ve got to where I’ve got because of being me and through pure effort and determination. I believe you can be who you are and get where you want to go.

What do you hope for the LGBT+ staff network?

Michael: It’s in the name for me – it’s a network and it brings people together. I’ve met people through the network who I’ve worked with before and not known they were LGBT+. It helps you feel more confident as you go out into the Trust and like you don’t have to keep your guard up.

Andrew: We as an organisation employ lots of people who are not from the UK who might come from another background and culture and might not realise that it’s ok to be gay. If you are out, you may suffer discrimination so part of the network should be to say, here at Imperial you can develop and progress no matter who you are.

Michael: It’s about creating visibility – it’s ok to be gay and say you’re gay and not have to worry about it. When we are out and about as a network doing things like the cake sales, we’re meeting people and I’m hoping they are thinking “Michael’s gay and he’s a nice lad – he’s not worshipping the devil on the weekend” – it breaks stigmas and creates awareness and a feeling of acceptance.

The network is diverse and growing all the time. It includes staff at all levels, from junior to very senior. Our members are from many different backgrounds and identify as gay, lesbians, bisexual, trans – we’re very proud of our diversity thus far but we really encourage more people to join. We want to be sure we’re representing as wide a variety of experiences as possible.

Andrew: It’s hard to explain to people what it’s like to be in a minority when you’re not in one – especially a minority which has suffered discrimination. The LGBT+ community is part and parcel of the Trust’s wider equality and diversity agenda. The percentage of BAME staff is really high here at the Trust – and some of them will be LGBT+. Ultimately it’s about staff and everyone feeling comfortable to be themselves.

Trust staff who would like to join the LGBT+ network should email imperial.LGBT@nhs.net.

Staff who have a concern about workplace behaviours they want to raise or escalate should contact their site’s freedom to speak up guardian – see the intranet for contact details.

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