Looking Out and Taking Care

Fostering a profession of care for our LGBT+ colleagues

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While we have made massive leaps forward in recent years with LGBT+ equality, notably with marriage equality in 2014, in the last five years reports of anti-gay and lesbian hate crime have more than doubled and crimes against transgender people have tripled.

In 2017, the UK Government surveyed 108,000 LGBT+ people, which revealed that they are proportionally more likely to have mental health issues and to have attempted suicide. The survey also found that 24% of the respondents had accessed mental health services in the 12 months preceding the survey, and 5% of those surveyed had been offered conversion therapies of which 2% had taken part.

It’s estimated that 62% of Generation Y graduates (those born in the 1980-90s) go back into the closet when they move into employment. I did this myself during my Part 1 placement at a top 10 AJ100 practice in Birmingham in 2006. It felt suddenly different to the university bubble. There were no LGBT+ role models within the wider business and no inclusion policies in place, and I was unsure what the reaction would be. You end up in a scenario where you edit your life for work, and you don’t bring your whole self to work. It becomes borderline lying, and this is not a healthy space to be in.

The AJ’s survey in 2018 revealed that only 73% of architects are out at work, and it falls to 62% outside of London. The majority, 62.5%, said they felt uncomfortable being out on construction sites and 39% of architects have heard homophobic and/or transphobic comments in the workplace.

Parade for equality.
Parade behind the Architecture LGBT+ Rainbow Digger, Pride in London, 2022. Photo © Aaron Hargreaves

The corporate world is in many ways decades ahead. Computer giants IBM included nondiscrimination on basis of sexual orientation in its equal opportunity policy in 1984. To put that in some context, this was four years before Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced Section 28, which put into law that schools could not intentionally promote homosexuality or promote the teaching of the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

The reason the likes of IBM have had a progressive agenda regarding sexual orientation and gender identify is because they realized early on that the business case for LGBT+ supportive policies are linked to greater job commitment, improved workplace relationships, job satisfaction and overall health, as well as better productivity.

Internal staff networks, diverse recruitment policies and role models, and empowering environments are standard practice for lots of industries, something that has been lagging behind within architecture. In 2016, on the morning of Pride in London we started Architecture LGBT+ with a Pride Breakfast at the RIBA that included a panel discussion chaired by the BBC’s Evan Davis. We now have regional chapters in Scotland, Manchester and the North East. We hold design competitions, such as designing a Pride Pavilion, talks, networking events and in 2021 we held our first exhibition of graduate’s work Designing Out at the Roca London Gallery.

Intersectionality is a key factor in equality work.
“Designing Out” Exhibition, Roca London Gallery, 2021. Photo © Aaron Hargreaves

Foster + Partners realized at one of our events in 2018 that they had staff attending our network who weren’t out at work. They are now Platinum Sponsors of our network and they’ve started an internal network. Likewise, Grimshaw has been leading the way in holding diversity CPDs (Continuing Professional Development) and discussions and have been Gold Sponsors of our network since 2019.

One of the topics that we, as a network, have been concentrating on over the last few years has been intersectionality—those that face discrimination from multiple identities. Many people face multiple intersectional challenges, for example a black lesbian woman has to contend with her race, sexuality and gender, but these aren’t necessarily her only challenges. Others such as faith, age and class can be struggles that are multifaceted, especially at work where these vulnerabilities can overlap and create situations of inequality.

We have to be aware of who is within our circles, our businesses and our workplaces and understand their challenges. It is vital we take care of those within the profession, by putting the mental well-being of staff, colleagues and peers at the forefront. It will reap the rewards.

Panel discussion on intersectionality at Grimshaw, 2019. Photo © Grimshaw

Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t just be in policy and on paper, it should be part of the fabric of our businesses. A colleague making a homophobic slur such as “that’s so gay” while not realizing they have a bisexual Part 1 will affect that individual’s mental well-being and could well prevent them from not coming out.

We need to recognize that people might be falling through the cracks of support within our practices and design teams and acknowledge unique experiences that are not similar to our own. Discrimination often happens unintentionally because others are not aware of the complexities and multifaceted aspects of each individual—and so it is vital we foster a profession of care for others.

Main image: ”Rainbow After the Storm,” Architecture LGBT+ Pavilion for Pride in London, 2021, Foster + Partners. Photo © Aaron Hargreaves.

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