Mental Health Awareness and National Coming Out Day
This week sees both World Mental Health Day, and National Coming Out Day – two things that are closely linked for me.
In my lifetime I’ve had the experience of being forced to be in the closet or face the prospect of losing my job – resulting in many mental (and physical) health challenges, as well as the opposite experience of being fully supported and allowed to simply be my whole self.
This week, I’d like to share with you how those two experiences made affected me and shaped my journey through life.
In my family, serving in the US Military was something that was in my blood. Going back many generations my family has served in the military, from recent conflicts to the American Civil War (both sides) and even the American Revolutionary war. It’s a family tradition, and one that we are fiercely proud of.
Growing up, I always wanted to continue that tradition. I started my training early - I was a Civil Air Patrol Cadet and a Junior ROTC cadet in school. I earned a scholarship to attend a military boarding school for my high school, and eventually attended Virginia Military Institute (similar Sandhurst here in the UK) for university.
I was pretty sure I had everything figured out – at least on the surface.
In my early teens, it became apparent that not EVERYONE felt the same way I did about other females. My “moment” came when I realised that my friends did not have actual CRUSHES on Xena (Warrior Princess) like I did. I started realising that when my friends got all giggly over boys, and talked about how much they wanted to kiss them etc, they weren’t joking. They weren’t making up those feelings – they felt them. I simply didn’t – at least not for boys....
I tried to ignore the feeling that I might actually be gay. I tried really REALLY hard. On my father’s side of the family, being gay wasn’t seen as a bad thing – which was handy as I had several LGBT family members on that side.
But I also knew that I couldn’t be gay and serve in the US military. You see, at that time being gay was actually illegal in the US forces. If found guilty of “homosexual conduct” you were dishonourably discharged – effectively kicked out.
I knew deep down that I wasn’t straight, but I felt like I had no choice but to deny that part of me if I wanted to pursue my dream of serving in the military.
I remember as a teenager (14 or 15) chanting to myself in my room “It’s ok to be gay but it’s not for me” over and over again, trying to convince myself I was straight.
In the late 90’s, as I was getting ready to join the US Air Force, a new ruling came into effect called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. In theory, this allowed gay people to serve in the military as long as they remained “in the closet” about their sexuality. They weren’t allowed to ask you if you were gay, and you weren’t allowed to tell them you were gay.
In practice, this also meant that if someone “found out” you were gay (seeing you off duty and in town holding hands with your girlfriend, for example), this was seen as you “telling” since you apparently hadn’t kept the closet door closed tight enough.
So in 1999 I joined the Air Force in complete denial of my sexuality. My first duty station was in Florida, on the beach. I know - a real hardship, huh?
Do you know what happens when you spend so much of your internal energy on pretending to be something you’re not? You are constantly pushing your feelings down, squashing them into a little ball and pretending they don’t exist. You’re allowing pressure to build. Forcing it to build. And pressure always finds a way to escape, it’s just science.
Amongst the backdrop of sun and sand, I started my secret relationship with self-harming. It seemed like the only way to release some of that pressure that pretending to be someone else was causing. It was a twisted attempt to exert some control over my own life. I had to wear long sleeves on the beach to cover up the wounds I inflicted on myself.
You see, in my mind, every drop of blood represented pain. Every time I cut myself, I would release the blood, and have less pain. Of course, if you follow that through logically, I was basically saying if I got rid of all my blood, I would have no pain. As a 20 year old at the start of my life, I was cutting myself and contemplating suicide. I knew my life was at stake if I continued to deny my sexuality.
I began building a double life to try and protect my career while allowing me to be as true to myself as safely possible. Through whispers and rumours I became aware of a woman in my unit who had recently divorced her husband because she was gay, and cautiously I approached her. “I heard you were recently divorced” I said to her. She seemed a bit confused at my rather smooth conversation starter, so I followed it up with “I heard...a rumour...about why you got divorced. I just wanted to say that if it’s true, you and I should talk more...”
Luckily for me the rumours were true, because if they had not been she would have been in the position to turn me in to the authorities for “telling”, and I would have lost my job. She and I turned out to be really great friends, and she introduced me to other queer people in the area, and the sort of “underground network” that was in place.
It felt like finally breathing with both lungs. But it also was the start of my actively living “in the closet”. At times I felt like a spy. I became obsessed with people’s shoes in the nearby gay club, convinced that people with very conservative shoes might actually be from the base trying to catch people out. Eventually, I stopped going out and became isolated once again.
Eventually I was transferred to a small base in the UK, and I found myself having to locate that “underground network” all over again. I met a lovely man called Jake (not his real name) on base, a fellow soldier who was also gay, and secretly dating a local British man. He was in need of a cover, and so was I. As single woman in the barracks I was the subject of many MANY pickup lines and it’s much easier to say no without causing suspicion when I could say “I’m dating Jake”.
So Jake and I began to “date”. We’d make sure that at least once every week or so we’d be seen together at the local bar on base. This also helped to squash any potential rumours about our sexuality, because it was easy for people to say “oh but she’s dating Jake so she can’t be gay”.
Living a double life was exhausting. I was constantly looking over my shoulder when I was out on (real) dates, scared to show any affection in public – something as simple as holding hands or an arm around the waist – for fear that I might get caught by a complete stranger.
Eventually I met a British woman in the local town and we started dating.
Ironically, the happier I became in my personal life, the more stressed out and difficult my professional life became. Monday’s were a great example. I’d walk in the office and my troops would say “Hey Sgt Richards, how was your weekend? Get up to anything much?”
What seemed like an innocuous question became a loaded gun to my forehead. I couldn’t be honest and say “It was great, my girlfriend and I are looking to adopt a dog so we’re getting everything ready, she is really excited!”. They would have turned me in and I would have lost my job.
My second option was to engage in what many people call the “pronoun game”. I could say “It was great, my other half and I are looking to adopt a dog so we’re getting everything ready, they are really excited!”. I cannot properly explain how stressful that option is – monitoring every word that came out of my mouth to make sure I didn’t slip up and say “she / her”. The terror at the back of my mind in case I got it wrong was huge.
The third option, and the one I usually went for, was to simply not engage. “Fine thanks, you?” I wasn’t rude, but I also wasn’t allowing my team to truly get to know me. By extension I wasn’t encouraging them to be open and honest with me. We were a team in name only. Can you imagine how great a military unit performs when they don’t know each other very well? The answer is – “Could do better”.
I woke up every day with a knot in my stomach, dreading the day I would accidentally slip up and out myself. The career that I’d trained so long for, and so looked forward to, was making me absolutely miserable.
In 2001 I came out to my parents back in the US – I did it over the phone in case the response was negative. I thought maybe if I could come out to my family, maybe the stress load on me would lighten a bit. My Dad and his side of the family were great, my Mom and some of her side of the family were not so great. In fact I didn’t speak with my Mom for a long time after that because of her belief that my “lifestyle” meant I’d never get into heaven. There’s a long (and rather lovely) story here which I’ll share in another post as it’s worthy of one all on it’s own.
In 2003, still in the UK, I re-enlisted for another 4 years and received a healthy sign up bonus for doing so, because my career field was very technical and very under manned. I used that money to take my girlfriend to the US and have what we considered a “honeymoon”. We knew we wanted to be together forever but couldn’t get married or do anything official about, so we decided to at least have a honeymoon. She met my Dad’s side of the family, we hit all the tourist spots in DC, Mississippi and Missouri (there are some I promise!) and had a great time spending my bonus money and making memories.
In 2005 everything changed. My new boss found out I was gay (long story!) and wrote a letter to the base commander telling him he didn’t agree with it for religious reasons, and therefore felt his only option was to make them aware of my sexuality - effectively outing me. The base commander was a good man and didn’t care “as long as I did my job to the best of my ability” so his response to my boss was to tell him to drop it. Not being happy about that, my boss then went to the commander’s boss at a neighbouring base. I’m sure you can imagine how well that went down. And as pleased as I was that my boss was severely reprimanded for “jumping the chain of command”, I was also now subject of an investigation into my sexuality and facing the possibility of being charged with “homosexual conduct”.
I was now faced with a choice, and this was a choice that would define the rest of my life. I could deny all charges, break up with my girlfriend and maybe be able to stay in the military and continue my career that I’d worked for most of my life - or I could admit who I really was, who I really loved and face the reality of losing out on the career I had always wanted - and potentially face jail.
It was a much easier decision than it sounds. J
I knew that my life in the military was over, and if that was the price I had to pay for being with my girlfriend, then so be it. But I needed to find a way out that – ideally – didn’t involve prison.
Oddly, the investigators weren’t allowed to come out and ask me if was gay, and it would have been ill advised if I were to admit it to them as that in itself could be seen as breaking the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, so there was this odd sort of dancing around the subject.
I was appointed my own military attorney to represent me during the case. In our first meeting my attorney mentioned in passing that because I hadn’t completed my 4 years re-enlistment, I may be forced to pay back my bonus – which I didn’t have. He told me that if I was unable to pay it back and was found guilty of homosexual conduct, I may be facing prison time for the remainder of my enlistment. Of course not only would I then have a “dishonourable discharge” on my record, prohibiting me from working in any government jobs and making it extremely difficult to get any job at all, I would also have a prison record.
I was terrified. I desperately explained to the attorney that I hadn’t made any comments to anyone that could be construed as “outing” myself, and his response hit me like a ton of bricks.
I can’t remember the guy’s name, but I remember his words like it was yesterday.
“Well look at your hair, of course people assume that you’re gay”.
It was at that exact moment that I knew my career was over.
If you’ve never heard about the physical effects of stress on the human body, let me enlighten you. I couldn’t sleep. I had no appetite and rapidly lost weight, dropping from an athletic UK size 10 to a bony UK size 6 with room to spare. I broke out in a bright red rash in my elbow pits that was extremely painful. I learned that “elbow pits” were a thing. I had an upset stomach and diarrhoea for weeks at a time. I had my first panic attack and legitimately thought I was having a heart attack and dying. Luckily I wasn’t dying. All of this was caused solely by the stress of the investigation, and ultimately by forcing myself into the closet.
Luckily for me, my commander stepped in and did what he could to help me. He couldn’t stop my discharge, but he was able to convince them to drop the investigation and process my discharge as an “honourable” discharge, based on there being too many people in my career field. This would stop me from having to pay back money I didn’t have or face potential jail time, as well as stop me from having a “dishonourable discharge” on my record. I gladly took the opportunity, and very quickly found myself out of the job and in a foreign country – but with the love of my life.
I bounced around between jobs for awhile whilst I tried to work out “what I wanted to be when I grew up” as it was something I’d never really had to consider before.
In 2006 the UK laws changed and Toni and I had a legally binding Civil Partnership ceremony. I was happier than I had ever been.
Eventually my Mom got in contact and we began rebuilding our relationship – and now she absolutely adores my wife and introduces her as her daughter in law. I realised that she had a journey to go on as well – dreams about her daughter’s life that she suddenly needed to examine and adjust. We are much closer now than we were before, so I count the rough journey we went on as a bonus.
I spent a few years at a security company which was my first real experience of working for a company that honestly wasn’t bothered if I was gay or not. It was refreshing, and I enjoyed my time there. Following a restructure I ended up being at risk so I left and moved on to a job within Santander UK, and suddenly a whole new world opened up.
Santander UK had diversity networks, including an entire employee network dedicated to supporting and empowering LGBT+ colleagues. I was enchanted. I joined the Embrace network in 2015, and at the end of 2016 I was asked to step up and take on the National Co-Chair role. Also in 2015, Toni and I converted our Civil Partnership to a proper marriage (yay!).
What I found at Santander was that not only was it not an issue that I was gay, but it was actually a benefit - my involvement in the network gave me access to a number of development and networking opportunities that I might not have had otherwise. I began to work with people in other areas of the business that my job wouldn’t normally interact with, and I began to get a bigger picture of how our business worked. I went from being a solidly average performer to having ambition again and wanting to move forward with the business. My performance improved. I found my “groove” and began to progress. I became better at speaking to audiences and sharing my story as a very real example of the difficulties of trying to work while in the closet. I’ve met so many inspirational people whose stories have inspired me to redouble my efforts to promote diversity and inclusion both in the workplace and in society at large.
Our employee network now has over3,500 members in the UK – both allies and LGBT+ colleagues who truly believe in equality, diversity & inclusion. We have a diversity and gender identity & expression policy, a transitioning at work guide, and information resources available for allies to learn about the different aspects of our community and how we can all help. I helped our team deliver the bank’s very first LGBT+ focused print ads in Northern Ireland and helped to create a workplace culture where people are visible allies. I became a trustee at Q:alliance, a local LGBT+ charity in Milton Keynes, and helped to found a Milton Keynes based intercompany LGBT+ network, called RoundabOUT.
Now I wake up in the morning not feeling that overwhelming sense of dread that I used to have in my days as “Sgt Richards”. I’m able to focus my energy on being the best version of me that I can be, and not on censoring my every word to maintain a lie. I’m not constantly trying to conform to a made up version of myself that others think I should be. The support and empowerment that I’ve had at Santander UK is really amazing.
And now, when my fabulous colleagues say “Hey TJ, how was your weekend, what’d you get up to?” I can say “It was great! My wife and I took the dogs and went for a lovely hike and even had a few pints at the pub on the way back. We’re booking a trip to the states to visit my Mom again in Michigan, have you ever been?”
And that is a wonderful thing to be able to say.
So this week and every week – be nice to each other. Be compassionate. And be accepting of others.