I knew from a very early age I felt different. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I just knew I didn’t fit the mould. Eventually I came to realise what that difference was: I was gay.
It was in the 80s, in Christchurch; the hub of conservative New Zealand. Homosexuality had only just been legalised following a long battle, but was still shrouded in negativity.
The effect on me was significant. My family was fairly conservative and there was always a sense that being gay, while not openly discussed, was wrong – not just in my clan but in the community as a whole. It certainly wasn’t a positive environment to grow up in when it came to thinking about coming out.
As I grew older and really came to grips with my sexuality, I became even more conscious of my environment – being stuck in a place where it wasn’t ok to express myself or even discuss the concept of homosexuality.
Even in the workplace, I still didn’t let on. I knew people who were openly gay and it certainly didn’t do them any favours. The comments behind their backs,the way they were treated – it wasn’t openly nasty, but there was certainly a difference in how they were spoken to, and even how their work performance was judged.
Of course, I was acutely aware of the situation because I was hiding it myself. As an employee, I was always looking over my shoulder and creating a persona to protect myself, which became increasingly hard.
It wasn’t until I came to Auckland in my mid-20s that I decided: no more of this; I am gay and I can’t keep pretending I’m not. I soon met some like-minded people and it was nice to interact with them openly. My view on things started to change, and I began getting involved with what’s commonly known as the ‘community’ – events, social groups, business associations, and community groups.
Coming out to friends and family was decidedly more confronting. My grandparents, in particular, had been very conservative and, as the only male of my generation, expected me to carry on the Donnelly name. I hadn’t wanted to disappoint them but, by now, they had passed so I eventually told the rest of my family. It turned out to be a very positive experience.
In the workplace, however, I’ve never officially announced my sexual preferences. I’m a part-time Customer Service Consultant at BNZ and run a business on the side. It’s not something I bring up with my clients, customers, or workmates, but if someone asks what my partner does, I’m honest and say: he’s a doctor. It’s interesting because people almost expect you to introduce yourself as gay because you’re a minority. I don’t want to make it my defining feature.
This isn’t my first stint at BNZ. In the early 2000s I got a job as a teller. My manager was gay, and for the first time in a workplace I felt good –having a superior who was quite open. Coming back, I’ve enjoyed the interaction of BNZ’s internal online community, Workplace, and the groups I’m involved in. I’ve also enjoyed seeing BNZ and other companies supporting the Pride parade, which I’m often involved with as a photographer. It signals a massive shift in people’s views that wasn’t there 15 years ago.
I have to say, it’s an inclusive and supportive organisation, and I simply don’t want to be anywhere else. Workforce attitudes of 20 years ago have broken down, partly due to generational change. And from what I’ve seen, there’s more support at an executive level.
In fact, right across New Zealand organisations, things are very different now. Young people are coming out in their teens and are completely comfortable in themselves by the time they get full-time jobs. They’re arriving at work feeling happy and safe, and that’s how it should be.
It’s certainly a change that needed to happen; and undoubtedly a change for good.
Photo captured by George Lim Photography