The gay executive
Ian Mehrtens, Chief Operating Officer, London South Bank University, shares his story of becoming an LGBT leader in HE
I was a latecomer to being ‘out’ at home and at work.
Being born in the early 1950s didn’t help at all – only artistic or theatrical people were homosexual, or so everyone thought. It went with the job.
I went to university where I was free to express myself but, very soon, work was upon me and like 63% of young LGBT graduates today, I became very ‘straight’ conforming to all the expected norms.
In my early 20s, I knew I liked men, however, I also knew that I wanted to have children. That thought then made me question my own sexuality – how could I be gay when I wanted children? and to have children, you needed a woman, or so it was then, unfortunately. Remember, at this time it wasn’t even possible for a straight white couple to adopt a black baby.
So, I married at 26 and (eventually) had two lovely children, a daughter first and then a son. They are both adults now and are both gay. I spent my life devoted to my children and was lucky that at the time I was a university lecturer and could spend more time with them than most fathers. The relationship that I built up with them both ensured that even with what followed, our relationship survived and is as strong now as it ever was.
I came out as gay some 20 years later and at 45 found myself on a journey of self-discovery.
My life until I was 45 was outwardly a straight one, but inside it was turmoil, having feelings that I couldn’t freely express to anyone. It was a lonely life. I could understand how some people may find that unbearable and take drastic actions.
I was lucky; I was strong enough to eventually come out to my then wife, my children and my family which was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, and yet the most liberating.
How I came out at work was that I arranged to have coffee with the person I knew to be the biggest gossip in the university, and after telling her, true to form it went around like a wildfire.
I assumed at this point that because of my colleague’s intervention, everyone at work knew about my sexual orientation.
Then I realised that not everyone gossips at work!
My colleagues would ask me “do you have children?” I could honestly say yes, but this resulted in assumptions being made about my sexuality. Although I thought I had dealt with being gay in the workplace, I still found myself simply saying, “oh, I’m divorced” which again was true but was hiding the absolute truth.
It was some years before I faced that demon, partly because it didn’t happen that often, but mostly because it was never the right time.
Once again, I faced a new challenge – how to deal with the questions.
My life until I was 45 was outwardly a straight one, but inside it was turmoil, having feelings that I couldn’t freely express to anyone
I was mostly out at work but how then to deal with the inevitable lifestyle questions as I progressed in my career and attended more and more functions where social chit-chat pervades?
Serendipity intervened and I took a new role in a different organisation. How should I introduce myself at work, “Hi I’m Ian and I’m gay”? Well, interestingly in this role social media preceded me and on my first day I was asked to go to HR. I was told that a group of staff in my department had been to HR to say that they had googled me, I thought naively to find out about my career and discovered, somehow, that I was gay. Why they went to HR I never found out, but the HR member of staff just wanted to “warn me”.
A great start to a new senior role!
Once again though, it was very soon apparent, that this information had not got very deep in to the organisation and hardly beyond this group. So, the first of many questions occurred. “Does your wife work?” “I’m divorced, but yes she does work” – conversation moved on and situation avoided.
I went home angry that again I had avoided the truth and resolved not to do that again.
The next occasion was quite soon. “Do you have a partner?” “Yes.” “What does SHE do?” “Oh, HE’s an engineer,” I said proudly and waited for the next question. The person asking never flinched, took the whole thing in his stride and moved on to other topics. This lack of reaction gave me the courage to go further, and I did.
In my current role, I am the most senior out gay person in the organisation.
When I arrived three years ago, I decided to tell people as early as possible that I was gay. Being comfortable and not hiding the truth meant that people just knew I was gay, so there was no need! No need for the office gossip!
I have Clive’s picture in a frame on my desk and looking at him regularly as I do, it gives me strength and courage to be authentic.
My Board members know I am gay, as do all my executive colleagues and, as far as I know, as does everyone in the university. I am the executive lead for diversity and inclusion across the university, a role I am comfortable with and one that I feel passionately about.
Despite being out at work for many years now, I clearly had some issues that emerged through my recent professional coaching as part of my personal development.
What I discovered was that there was two of me; the free-and-out gay man at home and then the out-but-more-controlled gay executive at work. This created for me a barrier to being one person. My wonderful coach was my inspiration and allowed me to explore those issues and face them.
I am now very much one person at home and work; I can show emotion at work and have discovered how powerful this can be if managed skilfully. I no longer face those difficult moments at work; I’m happy to deal with them and regularly deal with people in shops and on the phone when they refer to “your wife” and after correcting them usually say “you know you should never assume”.
I now mentor young gay aspiring leaders and hope that I can guide others through this journey. There is no one-size-fits-all.
My sexuality does not define me as a leader; I am just me.