Rainbow flags at Leeds Pride: photo by Clare Bell, published under a Creative Commons license.

The 9th Leeds Pride takes place this Sunday (2nd August 2015) – a celebration of diversity and acceptance. Kimberley Saggu and Stephanie Lewis from the Community Development Service reflect here on how acceptance and non-acceptance are learned at different stages of life and how we can choose to make a difference.

We both have personal experiences though our working life that have influenced and shaped the way we feel about LGBT. We would like to share some of these with you.

Kim’s experiences:

From a very young age (about 9 years old) I first became aware when one of my friends introduced me to her mum and said “I have two mummies”.  I remember thinking at the time how lucky she is to have two mummies.  I didn’t think of why this was or anything about her home life. They were both very loving women and made me feel very welcome in their home.
My next experience was when I moved to Armley. Our neighbours there were two men living in one house.  I was about 11 at the time. I remember asking my father if they were brothers and he said “no actually, they are gay”.  That was the first time I had heard the word gay. When I asked him what that meant he explained very simply that instead of a man and woman living together two men lived together. I asked nothing else because in my mind, I didn’t need to know; it was fine and acceptable.
The next time was when I was growing up as a teenager. In high school we had sex education and this included talks about LGB relationships. I never saw anything different or negative about it. My way of thinking was “if you love someone does it matter? It shouldn’t matter who you have that relationship with.”
My realisation about the challenges and issues faced by people in the LGBT community began when I started working at Touchstone with someone who was transgender. When I first met this person they were very visibly a man; very dominant male features e.g huge hands, big arms, Adam’s apple, strong male facial features etc.  But they also dressed like a woman.  I had a lot of turmoil going around in my head about how I would talk to this person.  It felt awkward at first.
It was important for me to be able to accept that person for who they were. I needed to know how she wanted to be addressed, what I could do to support her and what she needed me to do if anything. I initially introduced myself by saying “my name is Kim, but I don’t know your name.”  She gave her name and although it did feel strange that’s how I continued to address her.
My awareness of the oppression and the issues that someone from the LGBT community goes through made me want to know more. I decided to research more about this and became more aware about how such a person’s life is impacted.

Steph’s experiences:

My very first awareness of this was during my first post as an admin clerk back in 1979. I remember being in the work canteen at lunchtime and noticing a woman sat on her own. It was a large area and with a workforce of over 300, many of whom took lunch at around the same time, it struck me as strange that she was sat by herself. I was new to the company so didn’t really know who people were. I was part of a team where all of the other staff were men, so I asked one of them at the lunch table who the lady was and why she was sat on her own.
At first they either smiled at each other, laughed or sniggered.  I asked again and I remember one of them saying something like “You’d better watch your back, Steph. She might take a fancy to you.”
I was really confused by this and thought “Why would she?  She is a female.”  At the time it didn’t make any sense to me as I hadn’t been aware of gay people before then.
I then asked them why she was sat on her own.  They said something like “Who else is going to sit next to her.  She might try to convert some of us.”  They then proceeded to make some sounds like “YUK” & “disgusting.”  They also commented that “her sort” should be kept away form the rest of “us”.  They were describing her as though she carried some kind of contagious germs, not as a human being.  My ignorance and prejudice at that time meant that rather than feeling enough empathy towards her and, being the newcomer in the place so wanting to ‘fit in’, I also stayed away from her.
I remember going home that night and thinking about what had happened that day. Whilst I didn’t understand ‘her sort,’ it also seemed unfair that she was segregated because of her sexuality. What was even worse was that when I tried to discuss it with family and friends, they all were of the same views as my work mates. They all viewed the LGB (as it was then) community as freaks of nature that needed ‘curing’.  As my parents were quite religious I couldn’t even approach the subject with them.
Eventually, I thought about how in church we had been hearing about ‘everyone being treated equally in God’s eyes’.  This made me feel quite hypocritical and I decided that as an adult, it was up to me to ‘challenge the status quo’.  The following Monday at work I chose to sit next to the lady at lunchtime.  I remember getting quite a few ‘dirty looks’ & my workmates even asked me whether I was ‘going the other way’.  It felt really insulting and I explained to them my reasons for changing my behaviour towards her.  Although they clearly didn’t understand or want to, I didn’t care about their views. Not long after that I heard she was made redundant from her job.
It made me realise the discrimination some people have to face because of their differing sexual beliefs or preferences and more so, how some people can be manipulated into discriminating and prejudging about something without having all of the facts.

Touchstone will be at Pride this Sunday, come and say hello.