George Oatridge – LGBT Staff Role Model

Role: Research Support Officer
Department: School of Psychology
Member of the University since: 2001

 It is incredibly difficult to have to hide something like your sexual orientation, especially if you don’t want to live a lie and to have to watch your every word and reaction.

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Where did you grow up and what was it like to be LGBT there?

I grew up in Deal, Kent in the 1970s and 1980s.  I think it is important to say when, not just where, as in general the atmosphere gay people find themselves in in England today is so much better than it was twenty or so years ago.  I have heard homophobic comments all my life and I think that is very damaging to a gay child’s or teenager’s or even a young adult’s development.  I think, though, what made me most upset, when I properly recognised my sexual orientation in my late teens, was the feeling that information had been deliberately kept from me which would have helped me to understand myself earlier.  I think not understanding properly that I was gay, and what that meant, as I was growing up, and the negative attitudes to gay people that I experienced, contributed to making me rather shy, unconfident and withdrawn as a young person.  I think schools should take a proactive role in tackling homophobic bullying, but also that it is important that they provide positive information about gay people.  Some children are gay and if they experience a lot of homophobia that can be damaging and in some cases the damage can last a lifetime.

Your coming out story?

I liked reading novels when I was young, but no-one was gay in any of the ones that came my way.  Finally, in my late teens, I found one by chance which dealt with what it means to be gay and so gained the information I needed in order to start to understand myself better.  I then told my parents I was gay, which was a major step as I wasn’t sure how they would react, but fortunately after initial surprise they were quick to be supportive.  However, despite my parents support, I felt very isolated and threatened by the prevailing negative political and religious attitudes to gay people in England at that time.

Have you suffered prejudice in your job or personal life and, if so, can you describe what effects it has had on you?

In a previous job I did not feel comfortable with coming out, due the homophobic comments I kept hearing around me.  I found that extremely stressful and oppressive.  It is incredibly difficult to have to hide something like your sexual orientation, especially if you don’t want to live a lie and to have to watch your every word and reaction.  Someone once said to me “Why do you feel you need to tell people at work about your sexual orientation?” Well, let me just say that if you are straight and have a husband or wife, girlfriend or boyfriend, or if you simply like to talk and joke freely about who you find attractive, just imagine having to try to keep all that secret, watching your every word in order to hide that you are straight.  And if you do keep your true feelings secret, people might sense that something is wrong, especially if it is making you grumpy or withdrawn, and they may even turn against you.  Working life has plenty of potential stress in it as it is, please don’t let’s add to that with such a pointless thing as homophobia.

What would you say to those who may be facing difficulties regarding their LGBT status at work?

If there is one of your colleagues you feel you could trust then maybe just tell them to start with.  It makes it easier to tell the other people. It has made me so much happier to be open about being gay.  In addition your colleagues will have the opportunity to get to know you better and to understand you better.  It may also be that they have already guessed, but that they don’t like to say anything to you about it, for fear of upsetting you, and that you may also be making life easier for them too by coming out.  I feel that the more of us who come out, the easier it should become for people to overcome this hurdle.  However, I feel that we shouldn’t be pressurising colleagues to come out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, if they are currently uncomfortable with doing so.  I don’t think this exercise is about that, it is an opportunity for those of us who are happy to be more visible to be so, because they think there is still value in that for other people.

How do you think your work is affected by being LGBT?

Me being gay does not seem pose a problem for anyone I work with, at least I can say no-one makes me feel uncomfortable at work for that reason and in fact I feel that there is a lot of genuine goodwill towards gay people amongst my colleagues.  This means I am happier at work than I would be otherwise and I’m sure that that helps me to do my job better.

How did you come out at work?

A straight male colleague, who was feeling a bit down and lonely because he couldn’t find a girlfriend to settle down with, referred to that fact that I must know what he felt like, as I had not referred to ever having had a partner.  In fact I have never lived on my own and had already been with my partner for ten years by then, so I felt I should be honest with him and tell him the truth, as I did not want to deceive him.  He was supportive and said he thought if I were to be completely open and natural about it most people would be more comfortable than if I was secretive about it and there were rumours. I think he was right.

What can we all do to make Kent a better place for being an LGBT Staff member?

It doesn’t have to be hard work to do this and most of my colleagues seem to have got the right idea anyway!  I think that bearing goodwill to your colleagues matters most.  I’m not perfect and I don’t expect other people to be, and we can all say the wrong thing sometimes, but let’s at least have the intention to say the right thing if we can and to try to be forgiving on both sides if for some reason we don’t.

What do you think of being gay in Kent?

I have lived all of my life in Kent.  Just like so much of the rest of the UK, apart from maybe Brighton or London, things were much more difficult 20-30 years ago when people were more prejudiced and gay people were therefore less open.  Then things began to improve and I am happy to say that I have been living with my partner for over 20 years, in Whitstable and then Canterbury, and we’ve been happy here as an openly gay couple.  As far as working in Kent is concerned, as generally in the UK, I think things have improved over the last 20 years, although I’m sure it depends where you work, who with and what you do for a living as to how much that is the case.

Why do you want to be an LGBT role model? Why is it important?

I think it was more important to have role models in the past when it was harder to come out and people needed that sort of encouragement more.  However, I still think it useful, as some people in the UK are still prejudiced about gay people.  I also think it important to do this exercise in an international organisation like the University of Kent.  There are many people here, whether staff or students, who come from countries which are less readily accepting of gay people, and in some cases which are, in fact, extremely hostile to them to the point of putting them to death.  I would like to think that an LGBT person thinking about whether to come to the University of Kent to work or to study, or who has already done so, would find it supportive to see that people can be open here about their sexual orientation, if they choose to be.  I also think that some of the straight people from homophobic countries could learn something from this exercise and that our role models might challenge their preconceptions.   However, I do recognise that some people from even the most homphobic of countries will, fortunately, be enlightened already.

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