Imagine how it would feel to walk into work every day and have to lie about who you really are, to be forced to masquerade as someone you are not, to have your sense of your individuality shattered and be forced to mask your sexuality to fit into a corporate landscape of homophobia and prejudice. 

This scenario has been common in workplaces around the world for decades.

Employees have pretended to be straight when gay, hidden their bisexuality or pretended they were not transgender in order to fit in.

This was something that Michael Kirby AC CMG had to deal with for a number of years, and he certainly isn’t the only one.

A former Justice of the High Court of Australia and Australia’s longest serving judge, Mr Kirby has served as a member of the World Health Organisation’s Global Commission on AIDS, as UN Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia, and as High Commissioner for the Human Rights’ Judicial Reference Group and UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights.

Mr Kirby, champion and campaigner for human rights for decades, said that it was traditionally preferred for people to pretend they were heterosexual at work.

“The basic problem about gay people living in society has been that everyone accepts you as long you pretended you were straight,” he told Leader.

“I did that for years. I pretended at work that I was straight. That was what was expected of me. Everybody gossiped about me, and many people would have known about me, but they were very happy that I was pretending I was straight.

In the past, Mr Kirby said, employees did not feel it was wrong that homosexual individuals felt they had to masquerade as heterosexuals at work.

He said it was an expectation homosexuals were forced to oblige with and stemmed from their co-workers’ homophobic tendencies and discomfort.

“Unfortunately, this is a very irrational situation to adopt and it’s also bad for the mental health and physical health of gay people. They should not be subjected to it. Well, those days are over.”

Following the legalisation of same-sex marriage in December last year, as well as the landmark decision by the Northern Territory State Government to join other states and territories in legalising same-sex adoption in March, the recent 2018 Australian Workplace Equity Index (AWEI) Employee Survey found Australian workplaces were demanding, and subsequently enacting, change in the form of inclusive initiatives.

According to the findings, which surveyed over 23,000 employees from 89 organisations, 3709 respondents (16 per cent) identified as being LGBTI and 86 per cent of LGBTI employees who worked at places with active inclusion initiatives felt comfortable being open and honest about their sexuality.

Over 88 per cent of non-LGBTI respondents believed that LGBTI employees can comfortably be themselves at their workplace, compared to only 80 per cent of LGBTI respondents. However, LGBTI employees working at organisations that had active inclusion initiatives felt much more comfortable, with 86 per cent saying they were comfortable being themselves at work.

The survey also revealed that while 91 per cent of LGBTI respondents thought inclusion was necessary, only 73 per cent of non-LGBTI employees felt the same way, indicating there is still much to be done in supporting diversity at work.

Sixty-two per cent of LGBTI respondents said they felt being more open about their sexuality or gender identity at work had a positive impact on their productivity, a finding Mr Kirby said was accurate.

“An employer gets 100 per cent of the employee’s time and devotion to work [if they aren’t pretending], but if the employee has to pretend to be somebody else, they will not give 100 per cent,” Mr Kirby said.

“When people are comfortable, relaxed and open about their personalities and their lives, they fit in better, and that’s not only positive for them but also good for the organisation.”

The survey also asked LGBTI respondents what influenced them to be more open about their identities at work. The most commonly cited answer (70.8 per cent) was a desire to ‘be authentic’. Almost half (47.9 per cent) said they wanted to put less energy into censoring themselves while 44.8 per cent said they wanted to be a role model for others. Other reasons cited by respondents included a desire for greater freedom to talk about life, partners and the community (42.7 per cent).

Placing a spotlight on leadership, over 95 per cent of senior leaders were confident their managers would address bullying or harassment of LGBTI employees but only 83 per cent of LGBTI employees concurred, highlighting the divide between the perception of senior leadership and actual experience in the workplace.

Mr Kirby said those in leadership positions had a duty to discover what was beneficial for the corporation and should make it their responsibility to weave themes of acceptance into a company’s DNA.

This sentiment was echoed in the survey, with over 83 per cent of LGBTI respondents saying that they felt managers should be trained in inclusion.

Shareholders were served best, Mr Kirby said, when a company was able to achieve good profits and succeed in meeting corporate goals.

“That’s why this is becoming a major factor in good employee relations,” he said.

“You do find there’s less of this pretence than existed in the olden days. This is in part because of social networks and the fact that people are much more revealing of their lives nowadays.

“If you’re pretending to be something other than you are, that is simply catering for a prejudice.”

Sandra Argese is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.