Pride 2020: Bringing my whole authentic self to work

Rob Sykes
Culture Partner
3 MIN

Growing up with my whānau in rural, small town Northland there was always a sense of ‘don’t be a poof, don’t be a pussy’. It wasn’t a bad environment, it was just that you’d do everything you could not to be seen that way.

My family was religious too – members of the Latter-day Saints Mormon Church. We were brought up to have good values and strong morals, but conservative ones.

That’s not to say we didn’t have fun. In fact, quite the opposite. From the age of 12, my parents owned a 92-acre farm, so I spent my latter childhood driving tractors and swimming in water holes. I played twilight sports with my aunties and uncles, and my cousins were my best friends. But I had an inkling I wasn’t the same as my mates – I fancied men, not women.

Despite this, I was the most outwardly religious member of my family. The youngest of five children, I was the only one who spent my early adult years door-knocking, passing on the message of Christ. I continued my ‘black sheep of my family’ status by being the first to go to university, and the first to get a corporate job.

When it came to love, however, I didn’t want to stand out. In my early 20s , feeling the pressures and expectations of the church, I got married. We had two children, but by the time I was thirty, my sexuality was uncovered.

What followed was the harrowing process of church counselling and reading scriptures – trying to ‘rid’ myself of my gay desires out of fear of losing the kids. Ten months on, despite wanting to live up to the expectations of the church, I knew there was no going back and was formally ex-communicated.

Coming out at work was a different story altogether. It was only when I transferred from Telecom Hamilton to their Auckland office to work under a manager who turned out to be lesbian that I felt comfortable to do so. It was just what I needed – support from someone who was dealing with the same issues that I was.

In fact, Auckland was a time of self-discovery in a place I felt was big enough I could hide. I met my first boyfriend and made my first group of gay friends. I also met my now-husband Vinnie online.

By 2008 I was ready for a change so I did my research and applied for a role at BNZ. Deciding to be upfront from the get-go, I talked about my husband Vinnie during the interview process. It was a conscious decision to bring my whole self to the table; for my colleagues to see me for who I really was. It turned out to be the right decision.

By 2012, I became heavily involved in the Marriage Equality Act. My husband Vinnie and I were two of 120 people who made an oral submission before parliament. It certainly wasn’t an entirely comfortable process – we received death threats on social media – but we did it. The act was passed and our marriage was backdated to our civil ceremony date six years earlier.

I couldn’t have done it without the support of my team at BNZ., and I’m lucky enough that part of my current job involves reinforcing and encouraging this support. Right now, I’m working with our Diversity and Inclusion partner on how we can give more visibility to our ‘rainbow’ community. We’ve put together a working group that’s looking at how we can involve the regions more, and what we can do outside of the Pride festival to support people. We’re lucky our leadership team are 100 percent behind this.

We’re also conscious of being there for other minority groups right across the organisation. How we show up for the rainbow community reflects our support for all communities right across BNZ.

If I could give any advice to anyone reading this, I’d say: be brave; be yourself; be authentic; bring your entire self to work; and don’t have any regrets. You’ll be much happier that way.

Rob Sykes
Culture Partner
Rob started with BNZ back in 2011 and has made a positive impact in a variety of roles, including his current role as Culture Partner. He is committed to being curious and has a real passion for the development of others.