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Reflecting on my own history for LGBT+ History Month

Andy Cole at his desk working from home

I’m a service manager in User Support Services, part of Technology Services in DWP Digital. I’m also a gay man, and as it’s LGBT+ History Month I wanted to share my experiences.

I started working at DWP shortly after I met my partner more than 20 years ago.  Back then I wasn’t confident at coming out to people straight away, and even today I’m adept at using non gender-specific language to refer to my now husband. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why, during a conversation with a member of my team just this week, despite having known each other for several years and being out at work, it came as a surprise to realise neither of us knew the other was gay.

We chatted about some of our earliest memories of working for the department. He joined about ten years before me, and mentioned a colleague who never spoke to him, only later did he find out this was simply because of his sexual orientation. Looking back, I remembered an unrepeatable inappropriate comment from a manager, and on another occasion being told that my sister-in-law wasn’t my ‘proper’ family. We talked about how throwaway comments or group emails with transphobic undertones can really contribute to people from the LGBT+ community feeling less valid or rejected by their colleagues. I’m pleased to say there has been a lot of progression since then.

It’s a Sin

I grew up feeling ‘different’, but could never really put my finger on the reason why. I remember the first time I heard the word ‘gay’ being used as an insult in the primary school playground. I didn’t know what it meant, just that it was something bad that no one would want to be. Looking back now, I see this as the catalyst for the internalised homophobia which stayed with me throughout my schooling and followed me into my adult life.

Many of the themes that the recent Channel 4 drama ‘It’s a Sin’ explored really resonated with me. The programme, set in the 1980s, portrays what life was like for young gay men during the emergence of HIV and AIDS. Had I been born a few years earlier, there’s little doubt in my mind that I would have been counted amongst those devastating statistics.

The impact of Section 28

The year before I started at secondary school, the government introduced Section 28. It mandated Local Education Authorities to not ‘intentionally promote homosexuality’, ‘publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the…acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. Although I was only 11 when the 1980s came to an end, this piece of legislation impacted the entirety of my 11-18 education. Unbeknown to me, this meant that my teachers wouldn’t, for example, talk about LGBT+ issues or explain anything in social education classes about non-traditional relationships.

I grew up in a churchgoing Christian family, attending Sunday school and various church youth groups.  Later at university, I joined the student Christian Union, attending weekly meetings as well as church services. I’d started to ‘come out’ during my final year at school, but hadn’t really told many people about the fact I was gay. Anyone who knows me now will find it hard to believe that I was very quiet, shy and naïve when growing up. I also felt that my sexual orientation wasn’t compatible with my religion, which led to a great deal of inner turmoil. This, coupled with the fact that I’d had no education on same-sex relationships led me to make some bad decisions and my default response was to run and hide. I withdrew from university and threw myself into a new church where I was given a mentor who ‘helped’ me in my efforts to ‘pray the gay away’. I even found myself an actual girlfriend, needless to say that didn’t work out so well!

A couple of years later I was out at my local gay club when I met my husband, and we’ll celebrate our 20th anniversary next month.

Looking forward

So much has changed in those last 20 years. Both my husband and I now volunteer for a national youth charity which allows us to prepare young people with skills for life.

Like everyone, we’ve had to adapt how we work to deal with the ongoing challenges presented by the pandemic. This LGBT+ History month is unlike any other. During 2020 I’d normally have attended several Pride events across the country but instead this week is my 50th of working from home.

I’m proud to have been part of DWP Digital at a time when society has needed us more than ever. In the space of a few weeks last year I helped to develop a home deployment process for our users, meaning that there was no interruption in the vital services that DWP provides.

Pride in the work we do

That flexibility is one of the other great things about working for DWP Digital. I started with the department in Devon, moved to London, Yorkshire, back to London and then to Devon again. In this role I’ve been able to fit my career around my life, moving base to 9 different locations, whilst visiting hundreds more.

We take pride in putting our customers, and the 80,000 or so DWP colleagues, at the heart of everything we do. One moment we might be helping a colleague who urgently needs to provide a senior civil servant with information to brief a minister, the next we might be getting a Universal Credit case manager back online so they can process a payment. There aren’t many jobs where you can lay claim to the fact that your work can have an impact on every single person in the country during their lifetime at one point or another, often when they are at their most vulnerable.

I’m also pleased to work for an organisation with robust diversity and inclusion policies and I now know how to deal with any issues I encounter, whether it’s intentional or because somebody wasn’t thinking I have the confidence to face the problem. There’s genuine care and support from my line managers as well as senior managers, who don’t simply pay lip service to diversity issues, nor treat it as a mere tick box exercise but will back up any colleagues dealing with discrimination.

It should be a given that people shouldn’t experience prejudice just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Yet simply being gay is still illegal in around 70 countries, and shockingly punishable by death in around 10 of those.

I look forward to a time when articles like these aren’t necessary. I feel very proud that I can be me in DWP Digital and the wider Civil Service but am only too aware that there is still so much to be done.

If you’re looking for a new role in an organisation where every person matters have a look at our Careers Website for the latest vacancies.

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  1. Comment by Deborah Fox posted on

    great article Andy- thanks

  2. Comment by Katherine Stubbs posted on

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  3. Comment by Ian posted on

    An interesting read - thanks

  4. Comment by Diana Thomson posted on

    Great article Andy, which is really insightful. Thanks for sharing your experiences, and I am really glad that your experience in our team, and more widely, is positive & inclusive - exactly how it should be.

  5. Comment by Phil posted on

    Fantastic article Andy, thank you for sharing it with us all. I shudder now when I think back to the treatment meted out to friends and colleagues in DHSS over 40 years ago, and the complete lack of departmental policy or protection. I endorse your view that DWP has indeed come light years since those dark days and is an organisation to be proud of.

  6. Comment by Steven Farrell posted on

    Andy, thank you for sharing your journey and experiences, this was so well written and I found it very insightful.

  7. Comment by Phil Elliott posted on

    Great article Andy and the internalised homophobia really resonates with me. It has such an impact on our lives, with out us realising at first.

  8. Comment by Rachel Woods posted on

    Thanks for sharing your experiences Andy. The Universal Credit product development teams were looking at some of the headlines from the 80s and how the gay community were portrayed in the press - particularly in relation to HIV/AIDS - and it was heartbreaking. I don’t know the sexuality of my young children yet but we celebrate Pride every year and we always talk about having a choice about who (if anyone) you marry so hopefully whatever their sexuality and/or gender identity they know that they belong and are supported and loved.

  9. Comment by Amanda posted on

    A very insightful read Andy - thank you for sharing your experiences so candidly. I too look forward to the day when such articles or not needed.

  10. Comment by Angela posted on

    Thanks for sharing this Andy, I know my own experiences in DWP have also been very positive and long may it continue

  11. Comment by Zoe posted on

    Thanks for sharing Andy. It's great that things have improved so much in DWP and beyond and hopefully, the more people feel able to talk about their experiences the better it will get

  12. Comment by Simon Rolley posted on

    Wonderful article Andy, the world is changing without a doubt, slowly but surely we will get there.

  13. Comment by Sue Griffin posted on

    Fab blog thank you for sharing Andy ???️‍?

  14. Comment by Andrew B posted on

    Great read, insightful and thought provoking (also love the Yeti look).

  15. Comment by Ane posted on

    Thanks for sharing this with us Andy - really well written and heartfelt experiences. It's brave to be this personal and so important in breaking down the barriers. Thank you!

  16. Comment by Bryan Sharp posted on

    Great blog Andy - informative and insightful. Proud to call you my friend and to have shared some of your journey in DWP.

  17. Comment by Carol Swift posted on

    Thankyou for sharing Andy, great article and really insightful

  18. Comment by Elizabeth Seed posted on

    Excellent article Andy. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Comment by Charlene Squires posted on

    Thank you for sharing Andy an insightful, touching articulate piece.