‘The only place where I’ve ever had stones thrown at me for holding my partner’s hand is in 2016 Britain’

“We’ve made great strides towards equality. I say strides because clearly the job isn’t done. The only place where I’ve ever had stones thrown at me for holding my partner’s hand is 2016 Britain.”

These were the words with which Steve Collinson, head of HR at Zurich, opened up about his experience of homophobia in the UK as part of his speech at the PinkNews summer reception in Westminster on Wednesday. As a representative of the insurance company, the event’s lead partner, Collinson was tasked with introducing the nominees for the PinkNews corporate role model award, and took the opportunity to reflect on the progress of LGBT+ rights both in society and in the workplace. “Things are starting to change,” he said.

PinkNews spoke to Collinson one-on-one to discuss more specifically the topics he raised during his speech, which are as relevant as ever. According to a government survey of more than 100,000 people published this week, two thirds of LGBT+ couple are afraid of holding hands in public. According to a Stonewall report published in April, more than a third of LGBT+ employees (35 per cent) fear coming out to their colleagues.

Collinson asked not to disclose the specific location of the homophobic attack mentioned, simply describing it as a “beautiful seaside town” in the UK, one “really sunny Summer afternoon.”

Q. What happened on that day?

A. We sat on a grass verge, chatting away. We’d been holding hands, I had my hand on my partner’s shoulder and some youths came to us and started throwing some gay insults around.

We tried to defuse the situation saying we didn’t want any trouble—we weren’t doing anything wrong, but the situation did not defuse so we decided to take ourselves out of the situation. [They were] four or five people, probably two ring leaders. They were really young, I’m sure under 16, but even as adults in that situation you feel threatened, you feel intimidated. So we got up to walk away and, as we were walking away, we felt stones being thrown at us.

I was incredibly shocked. Speechless. The youths went their own way, but they had walked the way we needed to move to leave the area. We felt intimidated walking through it. We walked back to our car and drove away and [have since] never been back to this place, that we love, because it has very sad memories. As an adult gay man [it felt] very disempowering.

Q. Did you consider reporting the incident to the police?

A. I did, but decided not to. We were only in the area for a couple of days. We wanted to put it behind us. I’ve reflected long and hard since then and realised that actually that was not the right decision to make. Too much time has passed, but I wish now that we had reported it, because it’s the only way to bring about change.

Q. Did you recognise your experience in the results of the government survey?

A. Very much so. If we even think about the simplicity of holding hands with a partner, there’d be plenty of times, not completely shaped by that experience, but there’d be plenty of times when we’d be somewhere and think ‘mmm’. I’ll give you an example, and it is unfair to be really specific, but walking past pubs is the thing where we’d often drop hands because it feels…—and it’s probably unjustified—but we’ll break hands. Sometimes, if we’re on the tube, in the evening, or traveling anywhere late in the evening, we’ll drop hands. and it’s a shame, because I love being tactile with my partner.

Q. Does that have any impact on your relationship?

A. No, I don’t think so. We’re very secure in our relationship. Dropping hands for us is about keeping each other safe. I don’t think we’re in a minority, as the research showed, it’s just a very sad reality.

Q. Does it help to know there are so many other people in the same situation?

A. It does. It helps you to feel less disempowered by the situation, knowing that other people face the same fears as you.

Q. What do you think should be done about this?

A. Education is so incredibly important. If I think about what life was like when I was at school versus now, I think young people today are generally much more accepting and much more aware of the need to treat people equally and with dignity.

It’s a cultural challenge though, isn’t it? If we think about it as a challenge of younger people, they’re often guided by what they see and hear at home, on television, in the programs that they watch. It’s incredibly sad that the term “gay” is such a prevalent insult in life, but it’s really important to realise how much progress is being made.

A couple wearing T-shirts reading “Celebrating 26 years together” hold hands as they march in the Gay Pride parade 26 June 2005 in New York (Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Q. As a business leader, do you struggle being “out” at work?

A. I came out in my mid-30s. I was older when I realised who I was and came out and yes, it took a long time before I felt comfortable to talk about myself at work. But now I have no problems about it, I don’t feel any fears.

I feel incredibly supported by the people around me. I have an amazing team, a fantastic boss, I feel no concern where I work and I am in an incredibly lucky position because, as HR director, I am in a position to help shape the agenda for colleagues where I work.

Q. What is your recommendation for other workplaces that want to be more inclusive?

A. The first step is to realise that your place is not unique. Many workplaces faces the same challenges, but let’s be really honest—there are lesbian, gay, bi, transgender people in every workplace the same way there are people with disabilities, people with mental health issues… The sooner your organisation reflects the reality of the people who work for it, the more you unlock the creative influence of your people. Being able to bring your whole self to work is such a crucial part of unlocking who you really are and your potential.

Q. As an HR director, what is the one policy you think it’s fundamental for an inclusive workplace?

A. Having a policy that makes very clear that people are safe to raise concerns. If people feel they have experienced unfair, incorrect treatment in their organisation, having the approaches in place for people to come and talk, to know their fears will be respected, and that they will be listened to and believed, I think it’s the most important thing that you can do.