“It started with a place called the Stonewall Inn. Gay bars had been raided by police for decades. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people had been routinely arrested and subjected to harassment and beatings by the people who were meant to protect them. But, one night, in this place called the Stonewall Inn, when the police stormed in to continue their abuse, the clientele fought back.”
I didn’t know much about the Stonewall Uprising. I mean, I knew the base facts. I knew it had something to do with a police raid on a gay bar in New York. That it sparked riots which in turn sparked the LGBT Rights Movement in the US and around the world. But I didn’t know the full story. Until, on a rare lunchtime walk in the sun, I listened to an episode of the design-focused podcast 99 Percent Invisible called ‘Remembering Stonewall’.
It’s an incredibly well put together episode; if you have the inclination, I highly recommend listening to it. By the time I made it back to my desk, my eyes were truly and irrevocably widened.
The construction industry, in general, has a poor reputation when it comes to inclusiveness, particularly in the LGBT community. It historically has a very traditional, male-dominated and heteronormative culture (male and female threaded pipes anyone?), which doesn’t leave much room for those who don’t “fit in”. Change is slow to implement too – gender equality has been a key focus for years. But encouraging diversity is not a battle fought on one front.
A survey done by Construction News in October last year found that 71% of LGBT construction workers felt they couldn’t be open about their sexuality on site and 51% felt their sexuality prevented them from progressing in their careers. It’s not just professionally that this inequity has an impact; 45% would feel uncomfortable bringing a same-sex partner to an industry event, and many in the LGBT community don’t feel comfortable discussing what they did at the weekend at work.
It’s clear that things need to change.
And, don’t get me wrong, they are. Many companies within the industry are creating and promoting open and safe networks where all staff, regardless of sexuality, can discuss issues openly and safely. “No bystander” approaches in offices and on site are enforced to embolden workers to stand up to unacceptable behaviour and language. Positive role models, supported by great management systems, are putting themselves forward to prevent those suffering from feeling isolated: such as Balfour Beatty’s Senior Planner and Chair of their LGBT Network, Christina Riley, who is one of the first women in the construction industry to come out as transgender.
In an article for the Huffington Post, she wrote: “Looking back, Balfour Beatty were the catalyst to me changing to be my true self as I continued to hide and lead a double life until one day I saw a notice at work that they were launching one of the construction industry’s first LGBT networks. I don’t know why I felt drawn to attend the meeting after so many years suppressing myself but it just felt right to go.”
But things are not changing quick enough.
One of the respondents to the Construction News survey, who identified as a gay man, responded by saying he felt driven out of the industry by the everyday prevalence of homophobia. This isn’t one person’s experience either. Only 18% of LGBT workers would recommend the industry to prospective colleagues.
Skilled and qualified workers are being pushed out of their careers, or discouraged from even pursuing one, for no other reason than just who they are. This is deeply troubling – unimaginable for those lucky enough to never have faced such discrimination. It also makes poor business sense. The sector is suffering a skills shortage which is only set to get worse. Breaking down the macho construction worker stereotype, giving more visibility to and education on the issues faced by LGBT workers in order to tackle homophobia at all levels of the industry will lead to better staff retention, high productivity and, in turn, attract new talent to the industry.
Gary Coetzee, co-chair of the LGBT Employee Resource Group for Lendlease, summarises: “Today’s way of thinking is that you can’t work to your full potential if you spend half your energy hiding who you are. The ethos of good management is for people to be happy and to be themselves. People [in the industry] are acknowledging the capacity to be different – and an organisation that taps into that and brings people in who are different to them – be it gender, religion or sexuality – will be more powerful.”
July will mark the 50th Anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. I came in to work this morning and saw that today German MPs have voted to legalised same-sex marriage, which will give gay men and lesbians full marital rights, and allows them to adopt children. The world is making definite strides in the right direction. Let’s make sure our industry keeps up with it.
 ‘Remembering Stonewall’- 99 Percent Invisible- 28th June 2016