The Glass Closet

Last Saturday’s Guardian Weekend published an interview by Decca Aikenhead with Lord Browne, the CEO of BP who had been with the company for 38 years from 1969. He resigned seven years ago when a Sunday tabloid outed him sixth months before his 60th birthday. His story was given to the press by Jeff Chevalier, his first boyfriend, when Browne ceased to support him financially. Browne has published a book about his experience – The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out is Good Business.

Having been fearful of coming out, Browne discovered that the world outside the closet was much less homophobic than he had feared. Aikenhead says his first posting with BP was to the wilds of the Arctic Circle, where the brutal machismo of oil industry culture became abundantly clear to him. His public identity became subsumed in BP. Browne became addicted to the jeopardy of living two lives, sneaking into gay bars which was both thrilling and terrifying. He told himself that hyper-vigilance and steely self-control made him a better businessman.

I wondered what effect working in the oil industry has had on Archbishop Justin. Reading the article, I connected inevitably what Browne says about the effect of homophobia and the closet in industry with its effect inside the Church of England.

Aikenhead says that a 2009 survey asked closeted workers why they didn’t come out. One in five said it was because they feared they would be sacked. And yet, to counter that, when prejudice against LGBTI people is exposed in high places, there is a public outcry.

Browne argues that homophobia isn’t only a problem for gay employees. It’s a problem for business. Firms that allow their staff to be open and honest are more profitable than companies that make gay and lesbian employees live a lie. He used to think he was doing BP a service by staying in the closet. It was only after he came out that he realised what a colossal waste of energy it had been, and how much more of himself could have been devoted to BP had he been able to be open.

This applies equally, of course, to closeted lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex in the Church, whether they are lay people, clergy or bishops.

Although people in industry profess to agree with him, and many businesses have anti-discrimination policies, the execution gets messed up. Browne urges a move from policy or philosophy into the question, ‘How do we get this done?’ Business can and should make it much easier for people to come out, and feel safe to be who they are.

The key, he says, is to make it easier for gay employees to come out at the beginning of their careers. The Church of England is at the moment making it much, much more difficult for potential ordinands and lay ministers to be open and honest about their sexuality.

If a lesbian or gay person continues to invest in duplicity, a point comes where you can’t disinvest. One layer is built on another and the time is never right. How do you with back out of it? You have to take one step. If in doubt, come out. But come out early, before you’ve made the investment. That’s tough advice for ordinands in a Church that is enforcing the closet, and really tough for bishops, who have often spent a life in the Church honing their closet with great care.

Many people entrust me with confidential information. Some of the information I carry is dynamite. Sometimes I’m threatened and abused by those who fear exposure and by those whose task is to prevent the truth coming out. This secretive, dishonest culture is indeed abusive and consumes huge amounts of energy, mine and theirs. How much more of ourselves, our true selves, our time and energy, could be devoted to our ministries of love and healing and grace if we smashed the pernicious church closet?

Changing Attitude asks difficult questions of the Church, of those in ministry, priests and bishops, who are gay. Raising awareness raises anxiety for those in the closet. Noting that there are and always have been many gay bishops and lesbian and gay priests in the Church raises the ire of conservatives. Not to raise awareness and ask questions colludes with those who live in fear in the closet and with those who are terrified of the effect of the Church of adopting a fully Christ-like non-discrimination theology.

Browne says there is nothing about the closet that he misses. “Absolutely nothing, no. I’m just very pleased to be out.”

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