Visibility at Work

Steve spoke about being bi at work, at the Stonewall North West Awards in Manchester earlier this year.
Here’s what he had to say…

Good evening. My name’s Steve Ratcliff and I work for the Co-operative Food Business here in 1 Angel Square. It’s a privilege to stand here tonight and talk to you about my experience.
In a way I feel fortunate in that I found my sexuality evolved quite late in life. I never suffered taunts or worse at school, college or university. I’ve never been bullied because of my sexuality, perceived or otherwise.

Until I was about 50 I regarded myself as heterosexual. Then, as I say, I began to have different thoughts. Over a period those thoughts, those feelings, began to get stronger and I discussed them with people close to me. I met people from a support group here in Manchester, and eventually I discovered that I was now a fully-fledged bisexual.
Yes, bisexual. I’m not confused, not gay and won’t admit it, not on the way to being gay – bisexual.

How do I know I’m not on the way to being gay? I’d put it like this, as this has also happened to me. I’ve always loved strawberries. I didn’t like olives. One day, for some reason, I tried an olive and found my taste had changed and I now really like olives. I haven’t stopped liking strawberries; I know I’ll always like strawberries, but now I like olives too.

So, I came out to myself first, as we all do I guess. Since then I’ve come out to more and more people… selectively. By this I mean that I feel no need to tell my 82 year old Mum, for instance. I know some people probably think that’s wrong, but I don’t intend to tell her. It also means I only tell people when the occasion arises. When I was straight I didn’t tell people, I just was, and that’s pretty much how I feel about being bi – although standing up here seems to contradict that!

One coming out story I’ll tell you was when I first got involved with the Respect Network Steering Group. As a trade union representativeI mentioned this to another of the representatives in the Co-op and she said, “Aren’t you afraid that people will think… you know…” she paused and because I can be a bit mean I didn’t help her. “Think what?” I asked. “You know, think you’re gay”, she said. “Not really – I’m bisexual”.  It was mean, and in fairness, she took it on board and has never been any different with me since that time.

The support group I mentioned was BiPhoria, here in Manchester, and it was through helping out on their stall that I first encountered any negativity or hostility, “biphobia” as we call it – and it wasn’t from straight people, it was from gays and lesbians telling us things like “I don’t believe in bisexuals” or that we were closet gays who needed to come out and so on. I was stunned! I thought we were all supposed to be in the same boat! Anyway, I’ll come back to biphobia.

So, I had support and the knowledge that I wasn’t alone from BiPhoria, a group of friends associated with the group and most importantly, from my current partner who introduced me to them. I’ve also found it very rewarding to attend BiCon, an annual gathering for bisexuals and their allies. This event allows people to network, to party, to take part in various workshops on everything from politics and activism to knitting. Bookings for this summer are open online!

I mentioned being a trade union rep. I’m now the Branch Secretary of Usdaw here at Co-op Head Office and one of my roles with the Respect Steering Group is to liaise between the unions and the Network and, indeed, with the Co-op’s Diversity management team. I’ll give you an example of how this can work. Last year I had a ‘phone call from the Usdaw National Equalities Officer saying there was a union member working in one of the Co-op shops who was a transsexual in transition and could I help him. I spoke to him and emailed him at home and, with his consent, put him in touch with the Co-op’s Diversity Manager. As a result, the member got a lot of support and reassurance and, crucially for them, assurance that they needn’t reveal, or have revealed, their gender status in their workplace.

I’m also very pleased with an event which happened here in this very building four months ago today on September 23rd, which some of you will know is Bi Visibility Day. The Steering Group Chair, Thomas Anderson, was keen that we should do more for this day than we had in the past and asked me to take on the project. So, we managed to get an article on the intranet for staff to see, we got the Bi flag (there is one!) and some information on the interactive screens in the atrium here and we got some speakers in here to a well-attended meeting about the challenges facing bisexuals. The speakers were the main author of The Bisexuality Report, Meg Barker, the editor of Bi Community News, Jen Yockney, and Darren John Knight from the Lesbian & Gay Foundation, and we had not just Co-op people here, but people from the Police, from other networks and even from Tesco. Not everyone can do the same things, of course, but it’s important to do something, even if it’s just some mention in a network newsletter.

So, why Bi Visibility?

After all, it’s not that there aren’t many of us. The best estimates tend to agree that there are as many bisexuals as there are gays or lesbians. The Co-op has an annual anonymous staff survey and in the last one more people said they were bi than lesbian.

Well, bisexuals are perhaps the least, how shall I say, obvious, of LGBT people. I, for example, have a bisexual female partner, so when we hold hands in the street it’s not like when a same-sex couple do it.

Also, remember what I said about biphobia? The bisexual- deniers and so on? Let me give you another example, from Manchester Pride a few years ago. The owner of a gay club in Manchester, and many people have tales to tell of being denied entrance to his club because they weren’t with a same-sex partner, was introducing the first night’s event from the stage. He asked people in the crowd to cheer if they were gay and there was a big cheer, the same happened for the lesbians, then he asked the bisexuals to cheer and there was a smaller cheer, to which he said “…bisexuals, don’t know if they’re on this side or that side”, running from one side of the stage to the other! Imagine if he’d made a homophobic remark on stage at Pride!

So bisexuals are invisible because some people still don’t believe in bisexuality and because they keep their heads down.

What does this mean for you? For employers and employee networks? It means you have to be particularly, overtly, inclusive. For instance, if your network committee is all gay men with maybe one lesbian, if it looks like a gay men’s club, don’t tell me there aren’t any bisexuals in your organisation, because there are, but they don’t feel welcome!

Finally, I want to say that, for me here at Co-op Head Office, with the Respect Network and a Diversity team in the management structure, it’s pretty easy compared to that transgender member in the shop. We have to recognise that isolation is a terrible problem for many people – and reaching out to them is a huge but vital job. That’s why the Inter-Retail Network and other inter-employer networks are also important. How about if you’re, say, a car mechanic in a little repair shop under a railway arch – how isolated might that be? Support Groups and trade unions have a big role to play too.

Despite the billing on the programme for this evening, I don’t think of myself as a role model – but we can all do our bit, by how we act day by day, to bring diversity and inclusion closer.

Have a great evening and thank you very much for listening.


BCN 126 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 126, August 2014