Out and Secure – An Interview With GCHQ

The Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, is part of the stonewall diversity programme and has a proud record of diversity and inclusion. Pride Life spoke to two of its staff about being gay and working in the security and intelligence services. Luke, 28, is an IT auditor and Toby, 25, is a cyber-liaison officer

What attracted you to a career in the security services?

Luke: Since I was young I’ve had an interest in technology and much to my parents’ frustration I became very competent at taking things apart to learn how they work; less so at putting them back together again! I went to university to study computer science and it was around this time I started to hear more about the intelligence services. After graduating, I went to work for an IT department in another public sector organisation. I enjoyed the job but the mystery and intrigue of the intelligence services made me visit the GCHQ careers website. I knew it wasn’t going to be like Spooks but I saw a job that sounded interesting and appealed to my interest in computers and technology. It was necessarily a very vague job description but I took the plunge and applied. It wasn’t until my second day here that I actually found out what my job would be and it was definitely worth it.

Toby: For me it was the incredibly interesting nature of the work; after postings in other government departments I was familiar with the work of the security and intelligence agencies and decided it was a natural next step in my career progression.

How important is it for you, personally, to be out in the security services? And how important do you find it, generally, to be out in the security services?

Luke: I would hate to feel I couldn’t be myself at work. I’ve done the gender neutral terminology thing before and it’s tiring. As with any job, being able to feel comfortable and not on guard about everything you say in case you out yourself makes a massive difference to your enjoyment of work. Every employee in the intelligence services has to be circumspect about where we work and what we do, so once you walk through the gates, I think it’s vital to bring your true self to work and be open with your colleagues.

Toby: Being out at work allows me to be myself; it avoids the need to be guarded and prevents any unnecessary awkwardness. More widely, knowing someone’s sexuality at work usually doesn’t matter – but working in a small team and knowing a little more about your colleagues always helps to make everyone feel comfortable, friendly and sociable.

Have you ever encountered any discrimination in the workplace on account of your sexuality?

Luke: I’ve been really fortunate and not experienced discrimination anywhere that I’ve worked. I won’t say the intelligence services are perfect — just like any organisation, there is always work to be done; but I’ve never had an issue personally and senior leadership are making a determined effort to promote diversity and inclusion not just for LGBT people but for all minority groups.

Toby: Never! The organisation takes its responsibilities for promoting equality and diversity quite seriously; even without that, most people have really modern and mature attitudes. Being gay and out is no big deal at GCHQ.

If you were discriminated against on account of your sexuality what courses of complaint are open to you?

Luke: Initially, if it’s appropriate you should report the issue to a line manager or someone in your management chain. If this is not appropriate or you want further support, then you can speak to HR. There is also a section called Employee Assistance who you can go to confidentially to discuss any problems and they can put you in contact with the right people or provide any support that is necessary. There are a lot of avenues available to staff and discrimination isn’t tolerated.

Toby: As you’d expect with any employer, there is an internal complaints process (which is pretty serious and detailed). Additionally there is help available through staff support networks. If I did feel discriminated against I’d probably talk to my line manager first and definitely wouldn’t ignore it.

Do you have an LGBT support or social group and what does it do?

Luke: There are a number of support and social groups in GCHQ for various minority groups, including black and ethnic minorities, disabled staff, faith groups and LGBT staff. The GCHQ LGBT group is called Pride. Its primary purpose has been to support LGBT staff, raise awareness of LGBT issues and encourage organisational change to ensure policies are inclusive. The group runs educational sessions for managers on LGBT issues and a representative from the group gives a talk to all new entrants as part of their induction week. Due to the nature of the work, we’re unable to openly represent the organisation in events such as Gloucestershire Pride as this would compromise our identities but the Pride network celebrates events such as IDAHOT each year and has for the last two years raised the Rainbow flag on the GCHQ flagpole. This year, the illumination of the building with rainbow colours for IDAHOT has demonstrated how far we have come in recent years and was a very proud moment.

Toby: Yes, there is a very active LGBT staff group known as Pride, it is one part of GCHQ’s much wider diversity and inclusion strategy and one of a set of staff networks. Ultimately Pride works to allow people to be themselves in the workplace, this activity is steered through a committee of elected staff. Key work includes: raising awareness of LGBT issues, providing management with guidance, supporting staff, liaising with networks in other departments and running operational activities such as community events and engagement projects. There is a social element too, of course!

GCHQ-aerial-view

What qualities do you think are required for a gay man or woman to enjoy a successful career in the security services?

Luke: The same qualities as everyone else. The security services have come a long way since the days of Alan Turing and the ban on LGBT people holding security clearances. Today, we can enjoy a successful career based entirely on our skills to perform the tasks required. It helps to be able to keep a secret though, and I think most LGBT people have a unique ability to do this.

Toby: There is nothing more or less that a gay person would need in order to work at GCHQ – everyone is recruited based on individual merit and their ability to do the job. So, like anybody else, I think you’d need to be full of enthusiasm, ready for a challenge and have a good sense of humour. Being out at work is easier for me personally, but anyone joining can be sure that there is support available whether you decide to be ‘out’ or not.

What is the most satisfying part of your job?

Luke: Making a difference to the UK’s national security yet being able to go home at the end of the day and forget about work. Given that much of the work is highly classified, it’s not something you can really work on at home. Previous colleagues who have since left for large companies often say it’s come as a surprise how much pressure is on them to work at home after a full day in the office.

Toby: I get satisfaction knowing that what I do – although it’s a small part of a big team effort – genuinely has impact and contributes to the overall mission. Working with people from so many backgrounds and with so many skills makes GCHQ an awesome place to work, and I learn quite a bit along the way.

Would you recommend a career in the security services for a gay man or woman?

Luke: I would recommend a career in the security services to anyone regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality or disability. It’s a unique place to work and whatever role you have and whatever skills you bring, you can be proud to contribute to protecting your friends, family and the rest of the country from those who wish to do us harm. GCHQ is known for its world-class staff and this can only continue with a diverse and skilled workforce.

Toby: Yes, GCHQ is a modern employer with plenty of forward thinking when it comes to diversity and equality – there is support for anyone that needs it plus champions throughout the organisation, including the Director. If anyone was hesitant to join because of their sexuality then I can honestly say that it’s really not a barrier and shouldn’t be a worry.