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LGBT History Month - Supt Derek Frew

What is an LGBTI Ally?  Why should I be an LGBTI Ally? What does an LGBTI Ally do? 

These are three basic questions that on the face of it should be very easy to answer, however having posed myself these questions a coherent and confident answer does not just trip off my tongue.  So this is the first time that I have properly taken the time to consider what being an Ally means to me and I hope my reflections will resonate with you or will result on you taking the time to think how you may be able to support colleagues, friends, families and neighbours.

An Ally by definition is a straight person who supports gender equality and challenges homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.   Clearly there are lots of people in the workplace and communities who believe in these values and ethics but don’t sign up to be an Ally.  Why should you? – this is my journey.

When Police Scotland came in to being, I was working in the policy world (I can hear you groan as you read that!).  Seriously, this role opened me up to elements of equality and diversity that I had never experienced before and challenged me to think about things in a different way.  I thought as I was level headed, inclusive, open and could apply professional judgement to policies and procedures that would not negatively impact on individuals or protected groups.  Taking aside our legal obligations to adhere to the Public Sector Equality Duty (which we followed) – I genuinely believed that I had the experience and professionalism to consider the impact of decisions on others.  My new found friends and colleagues in the E&D world taught me differently – apologies for name checking a few - Alan, Allan, Nasreen, Paul, Ruth, Sharon, Gill and Aaron.

One trusted colleague who I had never met and had only spoken to over the phone (pre Microsoft Teams) crystallised the issue with my hooded one-track thinking by professionally but strongly challenging and educating me.  I was adamant that I had carried out sufficient consultation on a Force Policy and that the Equality Impact Assessment was of a competent standard.  I was an Inspector at the time and he was a Sergeant but he rightfully stood his ground and provided me with a learning opportunity by providing me with a challenge that could have been considered argumentative and offensive.  He said the following to me on the phone that I have never forgotten and has helped me throughout my career since (wording changed slightly for publication!) - this is not meant to cause offence and I only share it in case it resonates with you too.  He said, “Derek, we have never met but I am making the assumption that you are a white heterosexual male who is probably either side of 40. (I confirmed this).  How do you know how this policy will impact on a lesbian from Lesmahagow if you don’t ask them”.

This then sparked a very energised debate between us as I claimed to be enlightened and considerate of disability, gender, sexual orientation and race.  But the bottom line was that I could not describe the lived experience of individuals with these characteristics.

The outcome of this was truly enlightening for me – I do not walk in the shoes of other people – it doesn’t matter how ‘professional’ and ‘ethical’ I think my approach is, I can’t confidently and assuredly speak for others.


This experience is at the heart of why I became and remain an Ally. 

It became evident to me that conversations and attitudes in the workplace and in my social sphere were not as progressive as I thought they should be in the 21st century in respect of the LGBTI community.


An opportunity arose to sign up as an Ally and I realised that for me to be able to be a positive advocate I needed to engage with members of the LGBTI community and hear their stories and concerns.  I am stealing a colleague’s phrase when I say that proximity breeds compassion and understanding, whereas distance allows distrust and suspicion to grow – I have found this to be true so I would challenge you to consider when was the last time you were in the company of, or spoke to a member of the LGBTI community.

Since becoming an Ally I have heard stories that have surprised me as being a straight guy in the police I would never have even considered the issues raised.  One of these was a colleague who was out as gay in a legacy Force but told of the anxiety they experienced when we became Police Scotland as they were going to be working in a different management structure and felt they would need to ‘out’ themselves again and the apprehension that brings as the level of acceptance and support in unknown.  This is equally true for members of the LGBTI community that may move shifts, departments or divisions – us heterosexuals don’t even have this in our psyche as an issue.  This is one example of why it is important to have visible Allies in the workplace.

This brings me on to the toxic and overused phrase – ‘tokenism’.  The sceptics like to level this at an Ally for different reasons.

I have heard colleagues say that being an Ally itself can be seen as tokenism.  I know that this is not the belief or views of our colleagues in the LGBTI community – having visible Allies of any rank / grade / position is welcome and promotes an inclusive and safe working environment.

Lanyards and mugs – it has been said by some that these are tokenistic.  I believe that these are basic methods that promote visibility in the workplace.  How do members of the LGBTI community know who the Allies or supporters are if there is not a visible sign.  An LGBTI colleague recently told me the comfort they got when they observed a colleague wearing a lanyard as without requiring to have a conversation there was an assumed level of support available if required,  This is another example of how I as a straight guy would never even consider that as an impact if I didn’t have that proximity.

So what do I do as an Ally?  In truth, I don’t think I do much and being self- critical I always think I should be doing more.  That said, the key thing that I do is being  visible – that for me is central to being an Ally.  Yes I have a mug, a sticker on my door and my auto-signature reflects my Ally status – these are not tokens – they are methods of identifying myself as an Ally.  I pro-actively engage in meetings and conversations and never shy away from asking the difficult or challenging questions.  That is nothing to do with my rank – its about meaningfully contributing and progressing LGBTI issues in the workplace.  Ironically, having been lucky enough to be promoted a few times some of those challenging questions rightfully come my way now!

Recent discussions with the LGBTI Association on what the future role of Allies should be have been very positive and I look forward to people bringing new ideas to the table and being part of that conversation.

I end with a challenge – whether you are an existing ally or considering becoming one - ask yourself the following three questions – can you articulate what your answers would be?

What is an LGBTI Ally?  Why should I be an LGBTI Ally? What does an LGBTI Ally do? 

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