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Pride Month 2021: Free to be me - Dr Joe's story

Dr Joe Bagley is Head of Operations for Primary Care at Solent NHS Trust. Dr Joe is an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the Trust and leads our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Plus (LGBT+) and Allies Staff Resource Group.  

Dr Joe joins us to share how he’s navigated through discrimination and mental health challenges to find his own path and embrace his identity. Joe’s pronouns are he/him/his. 

My earliest childhood memory is of my fifth Birthday party, I invited all girls. I loved riding a second-hand pink Raleigh bike. I loved swimming and competed regionally most weekends. At college I qualified as a lifeguard and a swim instructor, working part-time to pay for additional tutoring so I could get into Medical School.  

I had a great childhood. I have amazing parents and I am truly grateful for the opportunities I have had. However, one thing that wasn’t great was feeling that I was ‘different’. A feeling that at times made me sad, angry and inconsiderate of others.  

I watched other pupils get bullied for being ‘gay’. I too was bullied. I didn’t even really know what ‘gay’ was. I was just me. I tried to dissuade people by having more ‘masculine’ hobbies or lowering my voice.  

I was doing fine until I got to university. I soon found myself juggling lectures, clinical placement, research projects, presentations, exams and coursework as well as living away from home. We had to pass every module to progress to the next year. 10% failed each year. 

Suddenly, things got too much. At 21, in my second year of university, I was struggling. I had realised I was gay and I told a friend in confidence. She told everyone…my secret was out.  

I panicked. My life had been shattered. I couldn’t sleep or concentrate. I withdrew from life and most social interactions. My health and my performance soon took a hit and I started to fail exams. A place I’d worked so hard for was slipping away.  

I stopped, pressed pause and after a period of rest, I got a temp job working in Human Resources for an emergency services organisation. They were working towards a more inclusive and diverse culture, for their employees and their communities. After working in recruitment, I got promoted to the Diversity and Inclusion team. My life changed. My outlook really changed. For the first time, things started to make sense. I was free to be me, actual me. I felt safe and I felt valued. I joined their LGBT+ staff network where I was encouraged to take further development opportunities. I attended a Stonewall workplace conference where I learnt about LGBT+ inclusion, inequalities and I met some inspiring individuals. 

In the months that followed my manager helped me to write my ‘coming out’ letter to my parents. She was a true ally; empowering me to be myself and to be proud of who I was. Her words ‘underestimate me, that’ll be fun’ have resonated with me ever since and they still encourage me today if I feel discriminated against.  

It felt like most of the insecurities, anxieties and unhappiness I had carried for so long had disappeared. My friendships and family relationships also improved - I was myself. The next year I returned to university. I saw my GP, who had witnessed how ill I had become previously. I felt able to come out to him and finally be honest about the things that had affected me; he came out to me too. There I discovered my first male, gay role model who was also a Doctor. I respected and trusted him a great deal. 

I dedicated myself fully to my studies and I started to pass exams again, this time even better than I did before. Now, there’s no big Diana Ross moment here (as much as the world needs glitter right now) other than to say that I’m out, I’m a proud member of the queer community and I’m also a qualified doctor.  

That said, however, it’s taken years and continual work. It’s been a challenge for me to be myself when it’s easier to pretend to be someone else. To ‘fit in’ to the ward you’re working on by referring to your boyfriend as ‘they’ or ’them’ so as not to out yourself. Or not challenging your consultant when they make ‘innocent homophobic banter’ with your clinical team as you weigh up whether passing your rotation with them is more important than speaking up. 

When I feel safe to be me, without constantly having to self-check or inhibit my talents or traits, I can embrace my true authentic self without prejudice and I perform better. 

This is why I lead the LGBT+&Allies staff resource group. It’s a safe space to facilitate open and authentic discussions, we are a network that supports and empower each other. The group works together to make Solent NHS Trust a more LGBT+ inclusive environment for employees and our communities.  

Staff can show support by making an ‘NHS rainbow pledge’ and wearing an NHS Rainbow Badge. The badge signals to patients and colleagues that Solent NHS is a welcoming, inclusive and safe place. 

Inclusion initiatives help people to feel valued and safe. Be an encourager. Be kind. Embrace difference. Today more than ever. 

For more information on the LGBT+ &Allies Resource group or to make a rainbow pledge, email: LGBT+&allies@solent.nhs.uk or follow us on Twitter: @solentlgbtplus @doctor__joe 

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pals@solent.nhs.uk

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