Safety is every airport’s top priority. But no matter how much we come to rely on technology to help us, it ultimately comes down to people to keep us safe.
Which is why we have people like Rob Harper.
He began his career as a security officer in 1990 and rose through the ranks to his position of security manager. Any issues escalated by security officers are sent through to him to deal with – and with 76 million passengers passing through yearly, that’s no small task.
Rob is also gay.
In an industry typically associated with hyper-masculinity and before respecting each other became more a cultural norm, Rob trail blazed while keeping us safe. Nowadays, Heathrow does all it can to help LGBTI people feel safe at work, including the introduction of their Proud Network. They exist to support LGBTI people whenever an issue arises at work.
What’s changed in that time? We sat down with Rob to tell us his story.
What did you want to be as a kid?
I wanted to be a vet. I was living in Africa and I was surrounded by animals all the time. That was a completely different world. And then life moves on, things change. Came to this country and I lost that feeling about wanting to be a vet…
Then I got quite heavy into the rave scene, so things completely changed.
You moved from loving animals to being a party animal?
Yes I did.
What were you doing before you were a security manager?
Before Heathrow I trained as a lab technician… but the hours weren’t great and I was looking for something more. When I saw a job advertised at Heathrow it looked interesting and more money than I wanted. So I applied and got the job.
You’ve been here for 29 years – what’s made you stick around for so long?
When I started as a security officer, I could juggle a busy social life and my work professionally. But then as I got older, life changed.
Also, it took me awhile to accept my sexuality and once I did, I changed as well. That made me think of other things as well, rather than just going out and partying.
Is that something that happened while you were at Heathrow?
Yeah, I was 29 when I came out.
Society has changed in that time, how did people react when you first came out?
About six months leading up to that point, I was very angry and my team noticed I had changed. I was finding it difficult to come to terms with my life and I just said, ‘Okay, fine, I’ve got nothing to lose’.
But I didn’t want to lose the support of my team. I’d seen that life had started to become easier for people than when I first started. Some people in the airport were very open, some people weren’t.
There were loads of people from the army and police force in the security teams. If you were gay, you got the mickey taken out of you. It could make things really uncomfortable, especially as we worked in teams.
What happened with your team?
They told me what an idiot I was for being so angry and told me they knew all along. They were really supportive.
That must have been quite the relief. Did that help you with other aspects of your life?
It helped me understand that I did have support. From my experiences outside, of going to clubs and things happening outside of them. And the police just standing by and letting things happen. I didn’t feel like I had support.
But looking back at those doubts, I was probably just scared of what their reaction would be, and I was stupid because the company itself wasn’t homophobic in its approach. However, the Proud Network didn’t exist then.
The Proud Network started two years ago, do you think that’s made a notable difference?
I’m more than glad it exists – I think it’s one of the best thing the company has done for LGBTI people. I think it should have happened earlier. People like me should have been more vocal back in the day.
What kind of difference do you think its made in particular?
It’s just its existence, that it’s there. Often people come up to me and say, ‘What has the company got for me?’ I can reply, ‘We’ve got this group, if you need support, we’ve got a support network.’
They feel that if they do have a genuine issue with people trying to discriminate against them or picking on them, or passengers treating them without respect they know that they have the company there to support.
And it’s important, to give them that confidence to be themselves. When I first started I didn’t know I could have that support. I thought I wouldn’t get support from a company. Officers coming in now – and if they are gay – they don’t have to pretend they’re straight, or not trans, or whatever. They don’t have to pretend about who they are.
Do you know many other LGBTI people in Heathrow?
Yes I do – it’s an airport!
Do you speak to each other much?
When I was out at the bars and clubs more, we used to see each other a lot there. But back then there were quite a few people – and even now – who are in the closet. So it’s difficult in that sense.
When we were outside, I got quite friendly with them. But when you’re at work they don’t want to be seen, as they think someone might suss that they are.
What advice would you give the Proud network to reach out to people?
Just be there, make sure you are visible. Make yourself visible to everyone, from the work shift people, to the Monday to Friday people.
What advice would you give someone who hasn’t come out at Heathrow yet but would like to?
Whoever your best friend at work is, speak to them first. Once that first person knows, then, it’s a lot easier. Don’t be afraid to come out.
Heathrow is a partner of Gay Star News.