A never-ending struggle with self-disclosureby
To kick off Pride Month 2021, Ben Steele shares a personal story of navigating firms as an LGBT+ accountant over the last 15 years, leading to the creation of his own firm.
I’ve always felt different. I didn’t necessarily focus on my sexuality; I just knew I always struggled to be part of the norm.
During my time at my first firm is when I realised I was gay – it was a terrifying time. It was a new world that I had no idea about.
It was hard enough fearing that family and friends would disown me, but to then not know if I should be truthful at work and if I would lose my job (I didn’t understand employment law back then) was worse.
In the end, I was one of the lucky ones though. My family and friends were incredible and made sure I knew that nothing had changed. I was the same son, brother, friend as before.
What did it matter to them who I fell in love with? It didn’t change me.
In the following few years, I would meet people who didn’t have the same luck. People who had to move out of their family home at the age of 16 because their families didn’t want to know them anymore. This was the reality for so many.
Coming out isn’t just once
After a couple of years of remaining “in the closet”, the firm closed down and I had to move on.
What most people don’t understand is that every time you move jobs, as a gay person, you effectively have to come out again.
It’s a risk – a Russian roulette of whether you should tell them, and if you do, how will they take it? In a professional career such as accountancy, will it damage my progression?
You see, when a heterosexual person starts a job, they do not have to think “Should I tell people I am straight? Will it damage my career?”.
This is the reality for us, though. It might sound dramatic and overplayed, but 10-15 years ago, this is how it genuinely was.
Accountancy firms 10+ years ago were often owned by older, privileged men. It might offend some, but it is the truth.
At one of the firms, I came across homophobic treatment and abuse.
I was not just treated differently, but badly. I was the only one in the firm to not be invited to Christmas parties, told I couldn't sit with everyone at lunch and had to sit alone in the kitchen, and so on.
The reason was made very clear to me, so I was left with no doubt.
I am not one to sit back and let one situation or person get to me.
I was raised in a poorer area of Bristol, but there was a real community with a lot of love. Where I grew up, you couldn’t afford to let people walk over you.
My Dad worked hard to provide for us the best he could. I realise now that I’ve learnt a lot from him. I learnt resilience, how to make something from nothing and working hard for what we wanted. If I wanted something to happen and for my career to progress, I had to do something myself.
But the very next day, after receiving homophobic treatment, I found myself in a new job and put the experience behind me. It was shortly after that I found a life partner and was married.
A new story
In 2017, I started my own firm – the proudest moment in my life. A chance to start a firm in the image of what a firm should be – for myself, my employees and my clients.
Does this mean I plastered the office in rainbow flags? No. My intentions were to create a firm where no one was judged for who they are.
It was business. I judged people on how they made deals, what their aspirations were and I worked on a mutual respect basis.
I wish I could say this was the magical moment where I lived happily ever after. Not quite yet.
In the first year of running my firm, I still had the feeling of worry. Would clients be put off by my sexuality if they found out that I was married to a man?
So I did what a lot of gay people do. I just avoided the conversation completely. These types of conversations often don’t come up in business, so it wasn’t always difficult.
But you would be surprised how often clients ask about your personal life.
The good news is, when my firm grew a little, I felt more confident. It didn’t matter anymore.
I wouldn’t bring it up myself, but if I was asked, I would just be truthful. It was who I was so why should they care?
Surprisingly at first, they didn’t. It didn’t matter to them.
Trouble knocks once more
Then weeks before the pandemic, out of nowhere, my husband told me he wanted a divorce.
I was suddenly living alone – my entire world falling apart.
Running a firm is tough enough, but now it was 20 times harder. I had to self-isolate, live alone, get my head around the divorce and keep the firm running. Clients were coming at me, scared, panicked and wanting help.
I had to put my personal life aside and be strong for my clients. And so I did.
We’ve had incredible feedback on our service and client care during the pandemic.
15-hour days, 7 days a week, getting them through it, making sure they were ok.
None aware that my personal life was falling apart.
This is my new proudest moment. It is how I can sit here and tell you my story. I’m now happier than I ever have been, settled with someone. I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
My advice to you
What would I tell someone who is working in a professional career, and scared to admit to themselves or others about who they really are?
I would say, do what is right for you at a time that feels right for you. There is no rulebook. There is no right or wrong.
I will tell you this: It is ok. You will be ok.
The accountancy profession is a very different place now. It is modern, inclusive, fast-paced and constantly evolving. We celebrate different perspectives and experiences.
Be you, and the world will love you. And if you ever need to chat, you know where I am.