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Stephen Frost: ‘Some people perceived me to be an activist simply because I was being myself.’

Stephen Frost: ‘Some people perceived me to be an activist simply because I was being myself.’

Growing up as a country boy in Yorkshire, England, I had always been fascinated by the Olympics. One of my earliest memories was watching Seb Coe win gold at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow on my parents black and white television set.

I didn’t realize that I would end up working for Seb 27 years later, when he became chairman of the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG).

In 2007 Paul Deighton, the Chief Executive of London 2012, appointed me to be his Executive Assistant (Chief of Staff). Paul knew that I was gay. I had developed the consulting practice at Stonewall, Europe’s largest LGBT organization.

I had led the development of the Diversity Champions best practice program for employers, founded the first ever LGBT recruitment guide and established the Workplace Equality Index, which benchmarks the best employers for LGBT people.

I was in many senses a fruit in a suit, a professional homosexual. My CV was marked for life.

Coming into the world of sport I was nervous. It was not a sector famed for its progressive approach to diversity and inclusion. It quickly became apparent that I was the only visibly out gay person in the Organizing Committee, and I was in a key, high profile role.

Some people perceived me to be an activist simply because I was being myself. When the norm is 100% straight, anyone who does not conform is a radical, regardless of whether you are or not.

So I had to think strategically about how I would play my identity in terms of my job.

A mentor helped me understand the difference between my self and my role. My self is non-negotiable. As the phrase goes, I am who I am. If people don’t like that, that’s their problem.

My role, however, can be adapted and played strategically. Coming in to the Olympics, a few less welcoming folks were eager to see me play the gay card and favor gay-friendly policies to confirm their own biases.

I never compromised on who I was, but I did lead on gender and disability issues. Disability, in particular, gained widespread support because we were the first Organizing Committee ever to include both the Paralympics as well as Olympics in the same organization.

I’d like to think that my being out helped others to find the personal courage to come out too. Slowly at first, and then more often, many lesbian and gay people in the closet sought me out to discuss their circumstances.

I offered whatever support I could. In the end 6% of our entire workforce identified as LGB, including our Security Chief, our Ceremonies Director, our Head of Sports Presentation, and several venue managers. From receptionist to board member, we had authenticity at all levels.

For me, a real litmus test was our attitude to transgender people. The Olympics has a very imperfect history in this regard and we were determined to be different.

One of our transgender colleagues, Delia, became an active member of the LGBT network and was a true leader in changing people’s hearts and minds on inclusion. At Games time, she was a Senior Manager in the Uniforms and Accreditation Centre.

The LGBT group developed a Pride Pin. This sounds simple but it is often the simplest of acts that have the most profound consequences.

Despite opposition from some quarters, and with a little help from the Deputy Mayor, we succeeded in developing an official merchandise item that had the logo on top of a rainbow flag.

Those who know Olympic licensing rules can appreciate that this was a revolutionary outcome. Because the Olympics will not endorse any ‘political’ statements, we had to work hard to demonstrate that a rainbow flag was not a political statement, but a human rights norm.

Its true value only became apparent two years later when people would wear them in Sochi to challenge Putin’s repressive homophobic laws. They were, after all, official London 2012 merchandise, sanctioned by the Olympic powers that be.

The Olympics did not merely reaffirm my commitment to gay rights. It also left me thinking about a new form of inclusion.
Paul Deighton joined me at a round table on tackling homophobia in sport chaired by Theresa May, Home Secretary, and Lynne Featherstone, Minister for Equalities.

It was my job to go. But Paul was a busy Chief Executive who didn’t have to. Paul didn’t just attend. He also spoke with fluency about why he was there and what he wanted to achieve. At half time, many chief executives from other sports organizations made their excuses and left. Paul stayed.

Diversity and Inclusion are leadership issues because they do not have universal acceptance. Whilst diversity is a reality, inclusion remains a choice. It is only through people exercising leadership, and stressing real inclusion over token diversity, that thought becomes action.

Whereas it is sometimes easier for individuals to debate more ‘mainstream’ issues such as gender and age than talking about ‘controversial’ issues such as sexuality or Islam, at LOCOG everything was on the table.

The table was initially set by the Diversity and Inclusion team. But the issues were kept there by a widening group of allies who saw the value in discussing relevant issues and creating an open environment.

The strategy paid off. The Olympic Games were stronger because our people could be themselves.

Stephen is the author of The Inclusion Imperative: How Real Inclusion Creates Better Business and Builds Better Societies

You can follow him on Twitter @frostincluded