Guest blog by Lauren Peel, who works for insurance company Aviva:

Lauren Peel, LGBT blog

With the end of my three years of university in sight, the agonising quest of securing a place on a graduate programme occupied a huge amount of my time. There was the applications, the interview preparation, the waiting in fact, a lot of waiting – but there was another concern too, which my friends who were graduating didn’t share. It was the worry of whether I could be ‘out’ at work in the same way I could be ‘out’ at university. The prospect of going ‘back into the closet’ felt very uncomfortable but I had no idea what the atmosphere at my workplace would be like.

When I first joined Aviva, I wasn’t out. This instinctively felt wrong. Unlike my colleagues, I didn’t have a photo of my partner on my desk. I sometimes told people I lived with “a friend”, instead of telling the truth. I would avoid talking about what I’d done at the weekend with my partner for fear being judged or thought of differently by colleagues.

Luckily, I soon realised that these perceptions and nerves were all in my head. When I took the risk one day and came out to some colleagues, reactions were positive or even non-existent. “You should have said sooner!” was the most common response, leaving me feeling silly for ever trying to hide it before. Since then I’ve come out again and again to different teams and colleagues and most people give a sort of “So what?” reaction – the best reaction you can hope for, as someone’s sexuality shouldn’t be news. It means I can bring my genuine self to work, and when you know who people really are and can see they’re happy, it’s much easier to work together and be productive. That seems obvious to me.

It’s obvious to Aviva as well. It’s a core part of our way of working that we will improve the company’s performance by embracing people who think and act differently. That means we are open to fresh perspectives, different experience and novel insights. We’re ranked 15th in Stonewall’s Top 100 list of gay, lesbian and bisexual friendly workplaces and we’ve got some great LGBT role models in amongst our people, including the Chair of Stonewall, while Aviva Pride, our LGBT Network, is a powerful voice within the business.

I’ve found Aviva a great place to work – whether you’re LGBT or not. But I know that I’m lucky, and it’s still a challenge for many people of all ages to come out at work. And there’s a lot more we can do to help them. For example, I have set up an LGBT financial services network in the north of England because we all have stories to share, and because we can learn from one another.

This is all good news, but we can’t stay blind to the fact that there are still terrible examples of prejudiced behaviour and attitudes across society. For me, the scariest thing is staring, pointing and inappropriate and uncomfortable questions when I’m with my partner. It’s things like this that mean sometimes you don’t hold hands in public, when everyone else seems able to, because you’re afraid of what might happen.

That’s going to take time to change, and why my involvement with our LGBT network, Aviva Pride, extends beyond the workplace. I’ve often heard people ask whether pride events are still necessary. My answer is always an emphatic “Yes.” When people still don’t feel comfortable being out or still face prejudice and discrimination, events celebrating our diversity, history, and culture can only be a good thing – and can only help. I think they are particularly important for younger people who might not have any LGBT family members or friends. They can feel terribly isolated.

Before I came out at work the idea felt terribly daunting, and the worry consumed far too much of my time. Looking back now, I had nothing to worry about. Since being involved in LGBT activity at work I’ve done some awesome things, and met some incredible people. I know that being out at work and helping Aviva fly the rainbow flag – literally and figuratively – has benefitted me and Aviva greatly.