“When did you come out as gay?”
If I had a dollar every time somebody asked me — I’d probably be penning this piece from a luxury yacht in the Bahamas.
And while the technical response for me is when I was 24 years old, they should be asking the question, when did I last come out?
Yesterday probably, if not the day before.
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It might be as simple as a tradie coming by the house to fix an appliance and asking where the wife is.
Up until recently when someone Googled my name, one of the first suggested searches was — ‘Paul Zahra wife’.
You can imagine the surprise when they find out that my husband and I met more than three decades ago!
Those in the LGBTQ+ community know all too well the primitive fear and dread that accompanies the coming out process. The idea of embracing your inner vulnerabilities and revealing something so personal to the world is extremely overwhelming — if not terrifying.
It is a constant journey. And it only amplifies the need for acceptance.
We’ve made terrific strides as a society. The case of John Browne reluctantly resigning from his post as BP CEO in 2007 after his sexuality was leaked by a media publication is thankfully considered heinous today. But homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination are still very real issues that members of the LGBTQ+ community wrestle with daily.
This is where the importance of events such as Sydney WorldPride is profound.
With WorldPride coming to a close on Sunday, we are reminded of the need for a safe and inclusive space to express ourselves and celebrate our difference without fear of judgement or ridicule.
But so too is WorldPride an opportunity to raise awareness about the ongoing fight for equality and to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ+ people all around the world.
It’s imperative that the success of WorldPride is not seen as simply an event but a coming of age in Australia’s attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community.
While I admire the strides Australia has made in inclusivity, the crushing reality is that a lot of countries still hold archaic views.
In today’s globalised world, there are still places we simply cannot visit without facing criminal charges for who we are.
That’s why raising awareness is so important.
‘Pinkwashing’ must be avoided
Naturally, an event the scope and calibre of Sydney WorldPride garners significant corporate interest; part and parcel of said interest is the allegation of “pinkwashing”.
Ultimately, the LGBTQ+ community, unfortunately even today, can be seen as a social taboo. So corporate support of the community is the ultimate litmus test of inclusion. When corporates are inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community they are more likely to understand and accept every other minority group.
It is increasingly important that businesses and retailers walk the talk and take action beyond sponsoring an event.
Genuine action goes beyond a public statement. It means providing a welcoming, friendly, and safe environment for all employees so they can feel comfortable and proud of who they are regardless of their sexuality and or how they identify.
That’s why the Australian Retailers Association developed the LGBTQ+ equality position statement, to support retailers on their journey to create more inclusive workplaces but to also avoid pinkwashing.
And it is essential for businesses to lead on inclusivity with genuine poise.
While the modern consumer is shopping cautiously, thoughtfully, and repetitively, favouring companies that align with their values and beliefs – they are also increasingly educated and informed.
Being authentic is key.
It is extremely important that retailers are open to listening and learning. By engaging with the community, LGBTQ+ organisations and staying up to date with the latest research and trends — retailers can have a genuine understanding of the challenges of minority groups — rather than simply paying lip service to them.
It is also important that retailers make a conscious effort to hire and train diverse employees, while also providing a welcoming, friendly, and safe environment for existing employees so they can feel comfortable and proud of their sexuality and however they identify.
Having a diversity, equality and inclusion focussed strategy led by the CEO and not delegated to the HR department is imperative. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it also makes economic sense.
The LGBTQ+ demographic is highly engaged, many of whom tend to have a high disposable income. Many of those individuals are highly educated, making great leaders and team members in organisations.
Symbolic gestures such as the use of the Pride flag still play an important role in promoting equality — but businesses must be able to back that up or fail at their own peril.
To many, pinkwashing is considered a harmful and exploitative marketing strategy that undermines the LGBTQ+ community’s trials and tribulations.
My advice to those companies is simple: listen and learn. WorldPride is a fantastic example of an event that can help businesses discover not only the why, but the how.
Remember that the process of coming out is not a single life event, but a life-long journey.
Pinkwashing will be caught out. Ultimately, the consumer will serve as judge, jury, and executioner.
Paul Zahra is the chief executive officer of the Australian Retailers Association.