LGBT and mental health

By Lee Buss-Blair, Director of Operations

We often talk about the importance of being able to be your authentic self at work, and of visible role models. But why is that, why are these things so important?

I’m a man of a certain age, and while it would be impolite to ask me what age that is, let’s just say I’m eligible for a Covid booster jab! I grew up in the 70s, and even in Brighton, the gayest city in the UK, there was a lack of visible positive role models.

Representation of LGBT people on telly was either the archetypal comedy flamer (think John Inman on Are You Being Served?), or a psychotic killer (a bit later but think Buffalo Bill), or tragic figures who were destined for misery and an unpleasant and untimely death. Sadly, the last one is something we have made little progress on, with LGBT characters rarely getting a ‘happily ever after’.

Casual homophobia wasn’t limited to the telly. The playground was awash with it. The joke of choice in Brighton made direct reference to the high proportion of gay people living there. It went like this… Person 1 – “did you know one in three people in Brighton are gay? Well I’m not gay”, Person 2 – “I’m not gay”, Person 1 & 2 to Person 3 “You’re gay!”. And to my shame, I actively engaged in it, knowing I was myself gay, and fearful that I would be found out.

So as a child, I grew up thinking that I was destined to either be a figure of ridicule, evil, or consigned to a life of misery.

After school, I joined the Army. This was 1986, so 14 years before homosexuality was decriminilised. Fear of ridicule was supplemented with the very real fear of not only losing a job I loved because of my sexuality, but going to prison for it as well. Suffice to say, I hid my true self from everyone.

My decision to leave the army in 1992 was for a number of reasons. But key to that decision was the impact of living in fear and suppressing my sexuality for all that time. I was beginning to accept who I was, and not being able to live my true life was having a significant impact on me.

I wasn’t a star pupil at school, and I wasn’t a model soldier. But then again, I was never my authentic self.

So when I left the army, I made two promises to myself. First, I would never shave again (check!). Second, I would never ever EVER be force back into the closet (big gay check!).

But, you could argue that the damage was already done. In Care & Support we know all too well of the impact that trauma, especially early in life, can have on someone’s mental health for the rest of their lives. It’s fair to say that my own mental health for the decade after leaving the army was extremely poor. I’ve no doubt that the years of living in fear, of hiding my identity, was a key factor. Not the only one, I’ve been open about the effects war has had and continues to have on me, but a key one nonetheless. I was left in a dissociative state where I was too gay to be a soldier, but too much of a soldier to feel that I truly belonged in the gay community.

It wasn’t until I started working in housing that I felt that I was able to acknowledge both aspects of my identity, the authentic me that is a gay veteran. And my work at Riverside as the Group Veteran Lead has allowed me to fully realise both to the point that they are on equal footing.

And that’s what I love about working here. We are all able to be our authentic self, the cornerstone of having happy, healthy and productive work lives.