Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Why visible LGBTQIA leadership makes a difference

By Chris Cutts, Regional Director , Health Education England - NorthWest

While the lived experience of inclusivity in the world of healthcare work may feel OK I can be gay at work, the real world still has many challenges at so many levels and history seems to repeat itself.

Every time you think we have made a step forward to enable inclusivity then something happens like the racist abuse of our England Footballers last summer, the failing of national public organisations to support the LGBTI+ community or a divisive narrative is espoused by a politician, then you realise society has a long way to go. Leaders’ visibility plays a key part in challenging and supporting change in these ongoing difficult times, by offering safety, support, allyship and inspiration. 

I’ve been a pharmacist for over 30 years and in the past 20 years I’ve been in positions of leadership at a local, regional and national level. It took me some time to realise that I was gay and once I did, I just felt scared.

Being scared

Scared of losing family, scared of losing friends, scared of homophobic abuse, scared of what people would think at work, scared I would be alone all my life and scared of people thinking I was weak.  

When I studied pharmacy in the 1980s in Sunderland, being a gay pharmacy student seemed impossible. There were some support groups within the polytechnic, but these felt really inaccessible to me.

Homophobic times

I grew up in Liverpool during the AIDS epidemic, which had a subsequent fallout in the way gay people were talked about. I’d heard family members say they would disown family if they were gay. I was bullied at school for being gay, even though I didn’t know I was, try to work that out! They must have been psychic.

The only real ‘role models’ were Mr Humphreys on the TV programme ‘Are You Being Served’, or Larry Grayson. And at a time when the Thatcher Government wanted the ‘managed decline’ of Liverpool following the Toxteth Riots, and Section 28 prohibited the promotion of ‘homosexuality’, I felt surrounded by homophobia. In my profession, as I started my early career in hospitals, being gay was invisible. I heard potentially homophobic comments about some staff and patients but it was just not discussed.

I’ve just watched the recent BBC TV series about Denis Nilson whose crimes were facilitated by the prevailing homophobia of the time. I couldn’t see a future being gay, and if I did, then it was bleak, weak and lonely.  I always wondered why nurses could be gay but doctors and pharmacist couldn’t. I think I know why now.

It got better

But my story really hasn’t been one of those imagined eventualities. I didn’t lose family, I only gained friends, homophobic experiences have been limited to mainly clumsy comments. I’m in love, I’ve had an amazing career and people tell me I’m a pretty good leader. I’ll be honest, the ‘gay’ descriptor has been in the background.

Please don’t get me wrong, it’s been a bumpy road. ‘Coming out’ was a long and drawn-out experience. I had many fearful moments ‘telling people’, but none of these conversations ended badly. I don’t like the phrase ‘coming out’, it feels like we need to announce our sexuality to others, why can’t I just be Chris? I really do celebrate now when I see younger people feeling comfortable to be who they are and do what they want.

Visible leadership is vital

It feels like the openness and inclusivity in pharmacy has changed, but I also feel we need more significant gestures by leaders. Unsure leaders, managers and colleagues need to be curious, so they can understand their teams and develop an inclusive environment.

Now, I am so glad to just be me, with family, friends, even in my local pub. And especially at work.

By bringing my whole self to work and sharing personal stories of my life, through my approach to leadership, my continuous robust support for the diversity and inclusion agenda, supporting advocacy groups and leaders and offering personal support to anyone in my team, I hope I am able to positively impact colleagues, even though there’s still a long way to go.

Role models and allies

Role models and allies are so important, from Tom Daley to Leo Varadker to the late, great George Michael. I’ll be honest, I’m desperate for a gay footballer in the Premier League to come out - it would be transformational – but there’s still too much fear.

I’m so proud of Jordan Henderson, the Liverpool FC Captain, for his public support and actions for the LGBTQI+ community. He’s a great ally and I see more and more people in the pharmacy professions stepping forward to be important allies and thank you all for that too. But we can go further. There’s still much to do.

Oh, and I realised I really do like Mr Humphreys after all!

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