Going beyond Pride month: the LGBTQ+ experience in 2021

ROMBA scholar Connor Van Gessel MBA2022 and Thanh-Vi Le MiM2021 discuss what Pride means today and how leaders can support LGBTQ+ talent

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London Business School’s Out in Business Chief of Staff, Connor Van Gessel MBA2022, and VP Marketing, Thanh-Vi Le MiM2021, sit down for an honest conversation about the realities of LGBTQ+ people’s experiences in business. Here, they examine the pressure and privilege of passing, the role of allies, and how businesses can drive real belonging and inclusion in the long term.

Thanh-Vi Le: For me, Pride is about celebrating the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community. But it’s also a reminder of the challenges we’re still facing, and the need for continued support of LGBTQ+ rights and equality.

Connor Van Gessel: It depends, doesn’t it? Are we talking about Pride in general or Pride month specifically? I’ve always felt that Pride month is an intentional time to celebrate the successes of the LGBTQ+ community, while also thinking about how we can help certain subgroups, who are still disproportionately impacted by discrimination, to expand their rights.

And then there’s another dimension of Pride month, where organisations can use it to signal to LGBTQ+ people that they’re going to be valued and included.

Thanh-Vi: Yes, I feel like a lot of the corporate Pride activities work best when they’re celebrating people’s identities and making it clear that everyone should feel able to bring their whole self to work. It’s about saying ‘yes, you are part of our community.’

Connor: A lot of what we’re doing with Out in Business is providing a community within a community to encourage that. Everything we do is within the context of a business school, so it’s not just about being present and enjoying the School but thinking about the future and how to ensure people can get the skills they need, without feeling like they have to conceal their sexuality or gender identity.  

Personally, it feels very liberating to be ‘out in business’. But on the other hand, I’m not an especially flamboyant gay man. I ‘pass’ as straight, which does create some interesting dynamics.

“Even well-meaning people still assume that straight is the default”

Thanh-Vi: What have your experiences of that been like? I find this really interesting but it’s not something I feel I can speak on much. It’s harder to identify someone as queer, so I haven’t ever dealt with ‘passing’ – or not in the same way.

Connor: Even well-meaning people still assume that straight is the default. I’ve had clients ask if I have a girlfriend, that kind of thing. But while ‘passing’ can lead to some awkward situations, it’s also a privilege. Not having people immediately be aware that you’re not straight can be a form of protection. Not everyone has that. And of course, ‘passing’ means different things for different people. A trans person being able to ‘pass’ is very different from someone like me passing as straight.

I suppose it all comes down to the need to not have to make ‘passing’ the default. Which is something we’re aiming for with Out in Business. We want people to feel comfortable not passing.

Thanh-Vi: I agree with what you’re saying about heterosexuality still being seen as the default. One of the biggest privileges straight people enjoy is their model of love being the standard rather than the exception. Imagine having to research your civil rights when considering a move to another country. Unfortunately, this is still our reality in 2021. LGBTQ+ relationships are still illegal in 70 countries, including eight with a death penalty. Having to think this way is exhausting.

Connor: Yes, exactly. It’s the same for people who feel they can’t come out, isn’t it? Being unable to be your true self at work can make people feel like they’re some sort of spy at the office. They’re forced to maintain dual identities, which is psychologically and emotionally draining.

Thanh-Vi: This is where organisations can help by going beyond just ‘celebrating’ Pride month. Leaders need to proactively show support for gender inclusion by adopting neutral language such as ‘partner’ to avoid implying that heterosexuality is the norm. These are such small behaviour changes for most people, but they can make a huge difference. You’d be surprised by the number of people who hide their partner’s gender when talking about them at work to avoid discrimination.

“Imagine having to research your civil rights when considering a move to another country. LGBTQ+ relationships are still illegal in 70 countries, including eight with a death penalty”

Connor: The speed at which the community has become accepted and celebrated is something I don't think a lot of people could have ever dreamed of. It’s incredible. But at the same time, I think we need to be very wary of Pride becoming a way for organisations to pay routine lip service to LGBTQ+ issues – you know, tick them off the diversity checklist. Really, there needs to be strategic year-round thinking about how to help people to do their best work.

Thanh-Vi: This is an area where allies can add value. It shouldn’t always be the case that the LGBTQ+ community is having to shoulder the responsibility of educating people – we have lives and jobs to get on with. In Out in Business, we have some incredible allies who are really proactive in helping us share the workload.

Connor: Hiring diversity consultants is another way organisations can take the onus off their staff – who, like you said, need to focus on their day-to-day roles. Not everyone wants to be, or has time to be, a spokesperson for the whole community.

Thanh-Vi: I’ve definitely been on a journey in terms of feeling able to represent others.

I researched Out in Business before I joined LBS. I’d read great things about it and realised that moving from Paris to London was the perfect opportunity for me to start a new life as an openly ‘out’ queer woman. Before that, I’d been quite discreet as I thought that my sexuality shouldn’t define me.

But I started to realise that this was preventing me from doing much for our community. Becoming a part of Out in Business and representing the LGBTQ+ community has taught me the importance of being my true self and standing up for what I feel is right.

As part of Coming-Out week in October, I shared my story with my Masters in Management cohort. I was terrified to share something so personal but having a voice was so much more important than being scared of what other people might think. My sexuality still doesn’t define me, but representation is crucial, especially for ethnic minorities. I want Asian LGBTQ+ people to know that they’re not alone in the unique challenges they face.

“The unfortunate reality is that in certain countries, LGBTQ+ people are just less likely to have made it to this point academically and professionally”

Connor: It’s true; representation goes such a long way in bringing about equality. I said earlier that the speed at which LGBTQ+ rights have advanced in much of the Western world is incredible, and I do think a lot of that is down to the subtle influences of the media. Just seeing LGBTQ+ people on TV or magazine covers normalises our identities. More awareness creates more empathy. I suppose that’s what we’re trying to do with Out in Business, but in a professional context.

Thanh-Vi: Yes, we’re trying to give people role models in business.

Connor: One thing that surprises me is how our LGBTQ+ community at LBS is smaller than I’d have expected, given the size of the School. LGBTQ+ people make up about 5% of the population, but those numbers aren’t reflected in our membership.  I've hypothesised that part of that might be tied to the fact that the unfortunate reality is that in certain countries, LGBTQ+ people are just less likely to have made it to this point academically and professionally.

I’d love it if Out in Business could get more involved with systemic issues – one thing I’m trying to do is see where exactly in the recruitment pipeline we’re losing LGBTQ+ people. We have a duty to these people; they could be future members of the club. I think next year’s Co-Presidents, Roomi Chowdhury and Aaron Cho, are going to be great at that.

Thanh-Vi: Scholarships and other really clear offerings from schools like LBS can help too. The Out in Business Early Careers Scholarship is an amazing initiative because it actively shows students that LBS is looking to attract more diversity. It demonstrates that LGBTQ+ students are not just welcomed but wanted within LBS.

Connor: Yes. I don’t think an LGBTQ+ scholarship would have been the difference between going to business school or not, but it can definitely be the deciding factor in which school to go to.

I was awarded the ROMBA (Reaching Out MBA) LGBT+ Fellowship. It’s offered by lots of top schools and it’s brilliant. You get access to a community of hundreds of former fellows, so there’s always someone who shares your areas of interest.

Thanh-Vi: A clear commitment to equality has become a major deciding factor for me when looking for jobs too. I’m trying to get back into the product space at the moment, as I worked as a Product Owner for two years prior to LBS. I want to use everything I’ve gained through Out in Business in my new role, wherever that may be. When I meet recruiters, I tell them that inclusivity is non-negotiable for me. In fact, it’s absolutely essential.