Article Published 28/02/2022

February marks LGBT+ History Month in the United Kingdom, which represents lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, and the history of the gay rights and related civil rights movements.

Scotland is fully supportive of the LGBT+ community and was the first UK country to consult on same-sex marriage, which became law on the 16 December 2014 through the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014. Last year, the Scottish Parliament passed the Hate Crime Bill sending a clear signal that discrimination and hatred towards marginalised groups including the LGBT+ community is not tolerated in Scotland.

We spoke with three industry colleagues, Gordon Hodge, Head of Conferencing and Events, University of Strathclyde; Gordon Dow, Business Development Manager, Conferencing & Events, University of Edinburgh and Derrick M. Johnson, II, CMP, DES, Founder and President/CEO, The Organisational for Social Empact, to discuss their own experiences throughout their career in the business events industry and to understand the current landscape for the LGBT+ community within the sector.

What does LGBT+ History Month mean to you?

Gordon Hodge headshot

Gordon Hodge, Head of Conferencing and Events, University of Strathclyde

Gordon Hodge: LGBT+ History Month is an opportunity to remember that the freedoms the community have today were hard-fought and won by people of conviction and great courage. These people were prepared to challenge the accepted norms which they considered to be unjust and inequal, often at great personal cost.

Within my own lifetime, being openly gay for some people might have meant stigma around their sexuality, exclusion and even the risk of physical harm. In many places, this is still the case. LGBT+ history month reminds me that I owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before me for clearing a path to a world where being open about who you are is more likely to be accepted, welcomed and cherished.

Gordon Dow headshot

Gordon Dow, Business Development Manager, Conferencing & Events, University of Edinburgh

Gordon Dow: For me it is a time to reflect on how far things have come for the community in Scotland and the UK. It is about being proud of the progress that has been made and of those brave and inspiring individuals who have and continue to work tirelessly to support and fight for the rights of our communities.

It also highlights the challenges being faced by LGBT+ communities nationally and globally.  Scotland has made massive strides and could arguably be seen as a leader politically and socially, however there is still a lot of work to be done, specifically around the transgender community. Internationally the fact that 69 UN member states criminalise LGBT+ people is pretty shocking.     

Derrick Johnson headshot

Derrick M. Johnson, II, CMP, DES, Founder and President/CEO, The Organisational for Social Empact

Derrick: LGBT+ History Month is a time to honour and recognise the impact of LGBT+ people on our world and look towards opportunities to strengthen communities through the lens of others. Reflecting on those similar, yet different, past achievements reinforces my drive and determination to see this world as a more inclusive place and to do more to achieve it.

Has the business events industry always been a welcoming industry in your experience? If not, what changes have you seen throughout your career?

Gordon Hodge: I'm lucky enough to say I have never noticed any difference one way or the other.  So, either I am thick-skinned, or the industry is pretty welcoming.

One of the most enjoyable things about working in the sector is the variety of people you meet, and I guess sexuality is just one of very many elements that make us unique as individuals.

The industry is very people-oriented that you must have an open and welcoming approach if you want to enjoy it. So much comes down to building networks of like-minded people, and you can only do that if you accept and celebrate people for the ways in which they're different to you, as much as the similarities you see in them.

Gordon Dow: Overall, yes. I see our industry as a special place to work, very much welcoming and supportive in my experience. It is most likely one of the main reasons I have felt so at home and passionate about being part of the hospitality and business events sector.

I have been lucky enough to work within the business events team here at the University of Edinburgh for the past 13 years. The university has both student and staff networks and actively flies the LGBT+ flag. It is also committed to LGBT+ equality, diversity and inclusion and has been a Stonewall Diversity Champion since 2012.

Derrick: No community has "always" been entirely welcoming. While I believe the business events sector has taken the correct strides in that direction, there is still work to be done by all stakeholders to ensure every person feels they can bring their whole authentic self into every experience. The business events community is founded on hospitality. That principle of putting others first has been the guiding light towards creating a more welcoming industry; however, each individual at every community level must acknowledge their biases. Every second, our minds take cognitive shortcuts to resolutions, mostly without us even knowing. By bringing awareness to our unconscious minds, we can deliberate actions more aligned with our conscious values and beliefs. Before moving the mountains of public and social crises, we must start with the rocks at the foundation, people. From there, we can use the collective hive mind of diverse populations to guide strategy and create more equitable experiences.

What more would you like to see from destinations and organisations to support the LGBT+ community?

Gordon Hodge: Rightly or wrongly, I guess that LGBT+ people will often decide whether they feel comfortable visiting a destination, and this will inevitably be based on generalisations about how open and welcoming it is.

In this context, I think it would be helpful for all destinations to understand that they are likely to attract an audience with diverse backgrounds and needs. How can they communicate authentically with potential visitors, and reassure them that they will be welcomed?

What could they include in the information they make readily available to help LGBT+ visitors understand that they will be safe and treated with respect? The same applies to employers, and to organisations looking to build their customer base. How can you meet individuals where they are, and work with them in a way that they recognise, and which helps them to feel valued and respected?

Gordon Dow: Ideally, I'd like to see destinations decriminalise LGBT+ people. In this day and age there continues to be abhorrent and inhumane persecution of communities and groups. 

From organisers, when choosing a host destination, I believe it is their responsibility to deeply consider the destination's political and social standing on LGBT+ rights and how it aligns with their own core values. If organisations do work with questionable host destinations, what does this say to their own teams, partners, associates and ultimately the world if they do not take these things into consideration?

Derrick: Our industry is one of the most dynamic globally as we work with all other sectors. As conversations of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access grow, so does the understanding of the systemic practices in place that limit us from developing and genuinely embracing the uniqueness of individuality. Instead of allowing individuals to guide change, we have unfortunately built walls excluding individuals and conforming others to the way our organisational cultures prescribe. I would like to see destinations and organisations use a more people-centric approach to empathy (#empact). Question the reality that exists and to have the courage to dismantle and rebuild foundations and leverage marginalised voices like the LGBT+ community to strengthen strategy and outcomes for a more inclusive future.

Are you a member of any business events industry specific LGBT+ support groups? If so, which ones and how have they supported you throughout your career?

Gordon Hodge: I'm not a member of any specific LGBT+ networks or support groups, I've never felt the need for support in that way. That said, I'm a pretty shy person, and I don't always find networking and making new connections comfortable.

I've always found the business events community in Scotland and across the UK to be friendly and welcoming. I've never felt that anyone has questioned who I am as an individual, and there is almost always a friendly face who'll introduce you to new people. I realise how lucky I am to work in an industry that celebrates diversity.

Gordon Dow: I am not a member of any business events groups. However, I have been a member of the University of Edinburgh Staff Pride Network for the past few years, which I am planning to get more involved with.

Derrick: I am in my second year as Chair of the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association. The organisation has contributed to my awareness of the entire LGBT+ community, helped me become a more mindful leader, and created lasting relationships. It is an honour to be part of the leadership driving towards creating a global events community where all are equal, included and welcome.

Our Head of Business Events, Neil Brownlee added: "As an organisation that is part of a country that is fully supportive of the LGBT+ community, we would like to see a global industry that supports all members regardless of their sexuality. Whilst there have been some steady developments, there is still plenty of work to be done to ensure the industry is fully inclusive. My hope is that event planners take the time to consider where they meet and what impacts that going to a destination that doesn't support basic LGBT+ rights has on their members, colleagues and partners. As an industry we can do much better".