Thursday 1st February 2024 marks the beginning of LGBT+ History month in the UK. Mindful Employer Project Coordinator, Leigh Staunton caught up with Kat Denvir, LGBT+ Staff Network Chair at Leeds City Council to talk about what LGBT+ History Month means to her and how employers can celebrate it in their organisation.
Tell us a bit about you and your role at Leeds City Council?
Hello! My name is Kat, she/her are my pronouns and I’m a queer Northern Irish woman. I’m a working carer, someone with issues with anxiety (the great Millennial struggle) and a cat mum who came to Leeds the best part of 20 years ago for uni. I fell in love with Leeds (and fell in love), so I’ve never left!
I’ve worked for Leeds City Council for 12 years – started as an administrator within Children’s Social Work Service and now I’m a Senior Project Manager who currently works on IT projects. Life takes you some interesting places considering I did my degree in English Language and Literature!
Mostly relevant for this blog is that I’m also the LGBT+ Staff Network Chair for the Council. I’ve been the chair for 5 years this June, and it’s been an amazing experience – frustrating and invigorating and humbling, sometimes all at once!
Also! I will use LGBT+ and queer interchangeably in the answers below. Queer is a term that I align with and resonates with me, so don’t be afraid of it – but also respect that there are a lot of our community that have very strong feelings about it being used because it has been used against them to cause harm.
What does LGBT+ History month mean to you?
LGBT+ History Month has come to mean a lot to me actually, even more so since I became the Staff Network Chair. I hadn’t actually known there was a LGBT+ History month really until I came into the Council – which isn’t that uncommon because it’s really grown in visibility over the last 5 years or so.
The biggest reason it’s come to mean so much to me is it’s helped me reflect on my own life and experiences. I grew up in Northern Ireland – which has a wealth of complexities when it comes to LGBT+ inclusion – and under Section 28. I didn’t see or hear anything about other queer people when I grew up – not ‘out’ people in my life beyond some school peers, not really in the media or in my education.
Growing up and knowing that there’s a part of you – very personal, very true – and without people to share that with, without seeing elders of my community around me and thriving…. you feel alone. You feel maybe you’re the only one – so then, is there something wrong with you? Are you an anomaly? Luckily, I had very supportive parents, wonderful real life friends and also an astonishing online friendship group. I realised I wasn’t the only one, I wasn’t alone, there was nothing wrong with me, that I was still respected and loved.
So, imagine growing up without that. Without those stories, without those images, without knowing that queer people have always existed throughout history, across the globe. Or to realise that you know there’s nothing wrong with you being who you are – but people have re-written history to not include your community or didn’t understand your community. The stories that are lost, the lives we see but we’re left to pick up the implications of their life because diaries were destroyed or libraries intentionally burnt down. Because historians thought same-sex couples were “just friends”, to have people be identified as “curiosities” in our graves because people didn’t know how to explain a male skeleton buried in a ‘female’ manner.
That’s why it’s so crucial.
That’s why we bring those stories to life. That we celebrate our lives as we live them. That we exist and revel in the joy of our existence, knowing what our elders faced. That we re-imagine the world we want to see, where LGBT+ people live and exist and thrive and are remembered.
Why would you encourage employers to celebrate LGBT+ History Month this February?
I think you’ll see from my previous answer that I have a lot of passion for LGBT+ History Month! Beyond the usual answers of “it demonstrates your commitment to being LGBT+ inclusive within your organisation”, I think there’s a couple of really good reasons to mark LGBT+ History Month.
Firstly, it is February. Whilst there are always visibility days over the course of the year, having a bit of time at the start of the year can really help to set you in good stead for the year ahead. And even though the fact that it is a whole month can be intimidating, don’t let that scare you. You don’t have to mark every single day of the month – commit to one action like a blog or a lunchtime social (fuddle, for all your Yorkshire folk!). Start small, build it up and keep building.
Secondly, it’s a good opportunity to challenge your biases and learn from our community. That’s not to undermine the efforts you’re already doing – but as a chair of a LGBT+ network, I am consistently finding out new things about our community – new people to celebrate, new ways of seeing the past or having my perceptions questioned. The benefits of adopting a growth mindset, some might say!
And from that, there’s the obvious and well-documented benefits of people with a more inclusive mindset tend to be better innovators, are more likely to start in organisations where they are respected and accepted, less instances of sickness etc etc. Those are all important aspects to remember to – there’s nothing wrong with considering the pragmatic benefits of diversity.
Finally, it’s an opportunity to reflect. A challenge I think a lot of us face is that big chunks of our work can be very reactive, or we are (understandably) focused on driving forward with to deliver that KPI, the delivery of that report, getting to the end of the day – whatever the case may be. But having space to step back and consider the bigger picture, taking a moment to stop and learn – that genuinely pays off in dividends because it helps reinforce a reflective mindset, even when we’re in the thick of work kerfuffle. Bet you didn’t imagine learning about the lived experience of LGBT+ people could have so many benefits, right?
What plans has your organisation got in place to celebrate this year?
We’re doing a few things to celebrate – some of which is just sharing some of the amazing activities going on in Leeds like Queer-ying The Museum at the Royal Armouries! I love every year seeing more and more events take place, it makes my heart glow.
Internally to the Council, we’re posting a few blogs for our staff to read and highlighting the content we’ve produced before. 2021 was a personal record where I wrote 22 blogs over the month, with 18 of those highlighting significant LGBT+ events in history like the AIDS crisis, Section 28 and the Stonewall riots and people such as Michael Dillon, the Public Universal Friend, the ladies of Llangollen or Josephine Baker. Don’t ask me how I managed that, I’m just as baffled looking back on it.
This year the theme is Medicine – #UnderTheScope which looks to highlight the achievements of LGBT+ people in the healthcare and medical field whilst also reflecting on the barriers most LGBT+ people still face with health inequalities. So, we’re working on some content around that too!
We’re also working closely with our colleagues in Museums to collate some stories from the LGBT+ people of Leeds to share over the rest of the year, exciting times!
What different kinds of things can businesses to do engage employees in LGBT History month celebrations?
The first thing I’d say is DON’T PANIC!! If this is your first time celebrating LGBT+ History Month or engaging with your staff on it, don’t try to do too much. It actually ends up being counterproductive as it ends up stressing everyone out so much that they don’t want to do it again next year!
Instead, pick something to do over the month. If you’ve got an LGBT+ Staff or Employee Engagement Group, ask them what they’re doing and highlight it in your team or service communications. Offer to support them – sometimes just having another set of (virtual or physical) hands makes all the difference.
Have you got someone brave enough to run a “Lunch And Learn” session? You don’t need to be an expert or even from the community to run events, although always be mindful and see if you can get someone to check to ensure you’re using the right language. Maybe pick an LGBT+ figure that you’re interested in learning more about – and then sharing what you’ve learnt with the organisation.
Or cultivate a queer content list! Whilst there’s an ongoing issue with LGBT+ media being out in the world and then being cancelled, there are more and more works accessible to us. Go down to the AMAZING folks at The Bookish Type for recommendations! Seek out LGBT+ musicians to add to your work day Spotify playlists! Pick up a new TV show to binge watch like “Pose” or “Our Flag Means Death” or “A League of Their Own”! Watch a movie with a LGBT+ theme or main character – like “Moonlight” or “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” or “God’s Own Country”.
Just get engaged, I promise you that the rest comes from that first step. And because I love to end things with a quote, and because it was recently Dr Martin Luther King Jr Day in the States, this felt apt; “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
A huge thank you to Kat for chatting with Leigh for this blog.
“Supporting LQBTQIA+ employees” is one of the themes that will be explored at the Leeds Mindful Employer Network Conference 2024.
Tickets for the Leeds Mindful Employer Conference are now available!