Honesty is so powerful

Belonging begins by ending self-censorship, says Gautam Sreekumar MFA2022


I was born in Dubai. It’s an extremely diverse place and living there for 15 years really helped me to understand the importance of learning about other cultures and nationalities and gave me quite an international mindset at an early age.

But, in 2015, I decided to try something new, which prompted a move to Bangalore, our home country of India, with my sister. It was just us, no parents. Suddenly we were alone in this cosmopolitan city – there was so much freedom.

It was that sense of freedom that allowed me to revisit questions I had about myself and my sexuality. The UAE is so conservative – and yes, India is also socially conservative, but people have a different mentality there. They’re far less institutionalised and less likely to try and impose their views on anybody else.

I’d always wondered who I was and where I really fit in and by 2019 I was really ready to explore my identity and get some answers. I was living in a central part of the city, where the LGBTQ+ community was very accepted. Still, it took me a long time to properly come out. It wasn’t until 2020 that I felt ready to start telling people in my life I was gay. I decided to tell just one friend and gauge their reaction. They were accepting and it was a very cathartic moment for me.

How LBS helped

Another thing that actually really helped me come out was, believe it or not, my LBS application. I hadn’t mentioned my sexuality in my essay but, as I was getting ready to submit my application, I kept looking back at it and feeling something was missing. It didn’t really feel like me, so I decided to be honest. I wrote about my experiences of moving to India from Dubai and embracing the fact I was gay. Honesty is so powerful – I believe we all respond well to others being genuine.

I’m immensely proud to have been awarded an Out in Business scholarship. It’s actually kind of a funny story. I don’t know how, but I actually missed the email informing me I’d been awarded the scholarship. I couldn’t believe it when I did find the email in 2021 – I just assumed someone else had gotten it. It was an amazing moment when I finally realised, but I was definitely freaking out a bit. In all seriousness, the fact that the scholarship exists in the first place did signify to me that LBS really does value diversity and that the School is willing to invest in all kinds of diverse candidates. 

I have to say, in terms of support for the LGBTQ+ community, LBS has exceeded my expectations. I actually met some LBS students, along with students from other business schools, in one of the EUROUT conference network events just before I started my MFA. It was a relief to meet and speak with people who were completely out but still enjoying exciting careers and doing interesting things in business. Until then, I was still under the impression that it was an either/or situation. I felt people in industries such as financial services, where I’m hoping to work, couldn’t be publicly LGBTQ+. Hearing these students talk about how honest they could be with their colleagues, even their bosses, was a turning point for me. 

Progress means different things for different people

In a way, realising how free I could be in my career has inspired me to give back. I want to centre my work around people who, like me, come from non-Western backgrounds. As a gay man from South Asia, it can sometimes feel like I’m in a different group to other LGBTQ+ people. Progress for me looks slightly different than it might for others, because there are different factors and variables to consider. The way we talk about sexual identity in the UK or the US is so different to how we think of things in South Asia or East Asia – being at LBS and getting to interact with people from all over the world has taught me the importance of going into conversations with an open mind. I know from my own coming-out journey how much harder it can be to embrace your identity when you come from a more conservative culture.

Photograph: Rob Greig

“I’d like to see more international organisations, who work across countries and cultures, asking themselves what belonging looks like for them”

On the other hand, when I think about my future and the kind of career I’d like to have, I don’t want my LGBTQ+ identity to be my USP. It’s a part of me, but it’s not all of me. I think that’s a misconception we’re still fighting. I want to be known for so much more than my sexuality. I’m also ambitious and a hard worker. Really, it’s just about creating a culture where we can come in and do our best work and then say, “I’m meeting my boyfriend for dinner tonight”, without it being a big deal. This kind of thing, just mentioning who you live with or throwing your partner’s name into a casual conversation, isn’t something straight people need to think twice about. When LGBTQ+ people hold back on sharing these small details about their lives, it becomes a form of self-censorship. 

Interacting with older students

Another thing I’ve found interesting about being at LBS has been the opportunity to interact with older students. I love talking with MBA, EMBA and Sloan students because they actually have experience of being out in the workplace. Hearing their experiences has helped me think about how I’d like to approach my own career and has shifted my expectations.

To me, belonging is about removing the need for self-censorship. It’s about everyone, regardless of their background, gender or sexuality, being assessed on the quality of their work alone and not being treated differently for who they are or discriminated against. I’d like to see more international organisations, who work across countries and cultures, asking themselves what belonging looks like for them. It’s true that talking about LGBTQ+ rights is easier in some places than others, but organisations need to think about how they can build a culture of belonging.

In many places, including parts of the Middle East, LGBTQ+ people don’t have employee networks or support systems. Even if the police aren’t coming to drag them away, they’re really suffering. We need to ensure that these are the people who are at the forefront of any D&I agenda. They are the ones who are most affected, so of course they should be the first people we help. This is why I’m so passionate about the work we do with the Out in Business club, which I know is having a real impact on people’s lives.

3 tips for change

  • Don’t be afraid to ask your LGBTQ+ colleagues questions
    Rather than being afraid of coming across the wrong way by asking too many questions, ask your LGBTQ+ colleagues questions about their life, story and coming-out experience (if they’re out!). It’ll also help strengthen your personal and workplace relationships with them.
  • Be an active ally
    One of the hardest challenges faced by workplace LGBTQ+ networks is the lack of participation of allies in an organisation. Sure, donning a PRIDE T-shirt helps, but get active and work with your organisation’s LGBTQ+ network to organise events and onboard more allies!
  • Think globally
    LGBTQ+ discrimination is worse in ultra-conservative countries and laws may prevent your organisation from hosting LGBTQ+ events. Keep this in mind and think of ways to make people feel welcome. It’s easy to restrict yourself to a particular region, but LGBTQ+ discrimination is global and a global mindset is pivotal to finding a lasting solution for employees in not-so-safe countries.

Early career

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