Inclusion has been a constant thread through Geff Parsons’ life – and sport has been no different.
Admittedly, it was not always through an LGBTQIA+ lens, as Parsons did not come out as gay until he was 28. That meant that his love of sport, and tennis in particular, stretches back far longer than acceptance of his sexual orientation.
Perhaps that is why he never really felt that being gay and playing tennis were at odds with each other. The two rarely crossed paths for a large portion of Parsons’ life, until the last two decades or so after he had met his husband while working in Hong Kong.
The pair decided to pick the game back up together, and it seemed like a natural progression to continue when they moved to London back in 2005.
“I didn’t come out until I was halfway through my life – I’m 56 now and I was 28 when I came out, so exactly halfway through my life,” Parsons said.
“Obviously there were plenty of clues before that, but it wasn’t something that I was in denial about so much as I just didn’t really believe it. I just thought everybody’s like this, right? Everybody’s got various things going on in their life, and I was conventionally married to a woman at the time and everything was just how it was ‘meant’ to be.
“There was a lot of societal and family pressure to make me go along with that, which was probably part of it, but I didn’t feel any real compulsion to declare myself as being gay because I didn’t think I wanted to be in a relationship with a guy – until I met the guy who totally changed that. Once that happened it became very clear to me that that was the direction that I had to go in otherwise I was going to be a mental mess.
“When all of this happened, tennis was kind of by the wayside. I was working all hours, tennis was just a luxury, so that didn’t really happen, but I never saw a tension in any of that.
“I’ve always been bemused in a way by the fact that idea isn’t something which more professional players, not just tennis players, but in all sports, don’t embrace more.
“I get it, of course, around the commercial aspect, but it’s so interesting in tennis particularly because it’s very open on the women’s side and completely the opposite on the men’s side – which is statistically impossible, of course.
“There was an article I noticed on social media a couple of months ago, maybe just before Christmas, about two international professional tennis players from France who, without declaring they are in a relationship, showed a few pictures of themselves which really left it in no doubt.
“I’m aware that there may be quite a few other potential cases out there, and indeed it has been mentioned to me that there are a couple of players that the LTA are trying to help in this space, but they have to do it on their own time, you can’t force it.
“Regardless of tennis, being gay was clearly an issue for me because it took half my life to deal with it, but once I had dealt with it that was it. If I had been a professional tennis player – which would have been lovely – I like to think I would have dealt with it then as well, but of course I don’t know what my position would have been. I don’t know what my sponsors and everyone else would have said, so it’s very contextual.
“I’m just living in hope that we get an equivalent of a Jake Daniels sometime soon, particularly if it’s a young player who just says ‘this is just part of who I am, no biggie’.
Pride In Tennis
Joining Tennis London, an LGBTQ+ club, helped Parsons and his husband make new friends, and has taken them all over the world to compete in LGBTQIA+ tennis tournaments, as well as several editions of the Gay Games.
While injuries have reduced Parsons’ own court time, his passion for the game has not wavered – and last year a brand new opportunity was served up to take inclusion in tennis to the next level.
Pride In Tennis, the inclusive network for the sport in the UK, was launched, and Parsons was quickly brought in as treasurer to make use of his background in the financial services industry.
Despite spending a chunk of 2022 overseas, he has still seen the effect that the group is already beginning to have, bringing visibility that is in stark contrast to what he would have seen growing up.
“It’s Ian Pearson-Brown and James Swanson’s baby really, and it must have been in the very early stages where they popped a couple of things on social media,” Parsons explained.
“I just reached out, as you do, and I wasn’t always expecting things to go anywhere, but I got an email back very quickly from Ian and James saying they’d love to talk to me, and we jumped on a zoom and it kind of all went from there.
“My husband and I went to Vancouver for most of the second half of last year, so I wasn’t able to participate in a lot of the things that were happening – particularly during Wimbledon season when they had Pride Fridays at each of the major grass court tournaments. That was great visibility, but I missed all of that, so I can take no credit for the progress that has been made other than the fact that I’m the one who pays the bills!
“Other people have been doing the real legwork, Ian and James have been doing a stellar job. It’s grown a lot and I’ve brought an awful lot of people that I know into that space as well, so there has been a nice organic growth in it.
“It’s mind blowing to think that we could even be able to do this, and this is what these days I spent my day job doing. I’m banging the drum for LGBTQ+ inclusion 24/7 as a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion consultant. I did that ‘side of desk’ for an awfully long time in my previous career in financial services, from which I retired last year to set up my own consultancy business, and I received an awful lot of great publicity and visibility and success based upon the work that I was doing.
“This is something that really matters to me, promoting inclusion of people who are LGBTQ+ in all walks of life. That could be the professional organisation you work for, or it could be the way you spend your weekends which might be some sort of sport, so seeing things like Pride in Tennis take off is fantastic.
“I really take my hat off to the people who initiated it. Now you can see people visibly being role models in places like Wimbledon or Queen’s Club or wherever, pros wearing rainbow laces and making a big deal about the fact they’re doing so, tournaments like the Billie Jean King Cup happening in Glasgow with massive visibility for the community in the UK.
“That is an amazing win for people who need to see role models out there. One of the phrases you hear in LGBTQ+ world you can’t be what you can’t see, so let’s make ourselves visible.
“Let’s make it clear that this is something about which we believe that there should be no issue. We should, in fact, be celebrated, and our differences should be celebrated, rather than just tolerated or accepted, and be very visible about it and doing it in big tournaments.
“We didn’t get to Wimbledon, but there’s ambition to do that and there’s no reason that that shouldn’t work. The noises we’re getting so far from people are all very positive.
“There’s great precedent, because the Australian Open is one of the four Grand Slams and in the second week they hold the Glam Slam on site. There are dozens of rainbow flags everywhere, and that is exactly the sort of exposure we would love to get at somewhere like Wimbledon, and the same thing in the French Open and the US Open, the other big tournaments around the world.
“Given that we’re in the UK and Wimbledon is right on our doorstep, we will be fighting for that going forward. It might take a little, but Wimbledon’s reputation of not being the edgiest place has softened an awful lot in the last few years and they’ve been very forward thinking in the way they’re planning things for the future now.
“If we can get it on their radar, we’d love to have something like a tournament which is very visible on site during the championships in June and July, and that would be huge for any young kids who are playing tennis and just happen to be thinking that maybe this isn’t for them because they’re gay, or they’ve got gender identity issues, or whatever their worry is. That would be something which would be a great boon for them.
“It’s mind blowing for me to think what it would have been like if I had seen that 40 years ago. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed to take half of my life to come out, maybe I would have embraced it more quickly. Hopefully that would work for kids as well.”
The Inclusion Imperative
Pride In Tennis came along at a fortuitous time for Parsons, who had just retired from his job in finance and was looking to strike out on his own with The Inclusion Imperative – his own Diversity, Equity & Inclusion consultancy practice, specialising in promoting LGBTQ+ inclusion within and through commercial organisations.
A long time before fighting for LGBTQIA+ equality, he was not afraid to rock the boat when it came to improving working standards for women or ethnic minorities. Then in the latter years of his career, Parsons became a key figure in his companies’ staff LGBTQ+ networks, going on to win individual awards and leading his employer, Macquarie, to the number one spot on Stonewall’s workplace equality index.
Realising that his passions increasingly laid in that area, more than in the day job he was actually paid to do, convinced him to strike out on his own and launch an inclusion consultancy service for companies and organisations.
So far, he has found them to be very open to having conversations around diversity and inclusion – even if they are not always sure of the best way forward.
“It seemed to me like in the last few years of my job that what was giving me a skip in my step in the morning was not what I was being paid to do, my day job – it was actually my gay job that motivated me,” he reasoned.
“Early last year that conversation couldn’t really be resisted any more. I asked myself: if not now, then when? So I left to start The Inclusion Imperative.
“I now call myself the CEO, but meaning Chief Empathy Officer, because I genuinely believe empathy is one of the most important ingredients in leadership skills now.
“What I was always at pains to do – and why I didn’t want to have anything with LGBT in the title – was avoid any possibility that people who don’t identify as LGBTQ+ could say ‘this is not my problem, it’s got nothing to do with me because I’m not gay’.
“It’s amazing to see the amount of light bulbs that go on above people’s heads when they are able to see that there’s no sense in working in an organisation that’s brilliantly LGBTQ+ inclusive if it’s sexist, or racist, or vice versa. You have to address ALL of those things, and for me the principles across them all are the same.
“It’s not just something that’s just a ‘nice to have’, it’s not something that should be discretionary. People need to understand that there is a real value in doing this not only for the individual’s well being, which is important, but that it’s also very important for the organisation’s success and it’s future proofing and robustness.
“You really get to the conversation when you ask if they are getting the best out of difference – first of all, do they have difference? Are they in a situation like the one I found myself in in 30-odd years ago at my first professional job, when as one of a graduate intake of 15 people I looked around the room and saw 15 people who basically looked identical?
“That’s the diversity aspect, which is very important, but if you stop at diversity you are setting yourself up for failure and disaster because you need to layer on the work to make the environment truly inclusive. You’ll just have a bunch of diverse people who cannot relate to or communicate with each other meaningfully unless you do that, which is why chasing quotas is dangerous unless coupled with full efforts to promote inclusion.
“I think most organisations that I have spoken with now get it, but it is challenging. It’s the DNA you’ve got to change, systemic processes and culture and how people interact with each other day to day at the office. It’s not just having somebody come and give a one hour session and editing policies that probably no one ever reads anyway.
“It doesn’t work if you just do unconscious bias training, for example. Telling people they have biases is pointless in isolation. What you need are solutions, you want some practical things to build on, and if you don’t have that it can make organisations wrongly think it isn’t working and they’re not getting any benefit.
“So I think there’s a lot of willingness out there, but organisations need to stop focusing on optics, on rainbow washing and on just ticking the boxes around quotas, and actually think about inclusion rather than the optics of diversity. That’s the harder conversation to have, but it’s absolutely what they need to do to see success in this space.
“This is not a second career as much as a passion project for me. At my age I could be retired, so for me it’s really about trying to make people understand that I genuinely believe this is the right thing to do – and not just for moral purposes, but also for practical, commercial purposes as well.
“In the first half of my career, I often distanced myself from conversations or functions at work, because I did not feel comfortable putting myself in a position where I felt at risk, or maybe felt that the conversation was toxic.
“I did not want to put myself at risk of being outed, and what possible use is that to an organisation or a team if somebody is not giving their fullest inputs and instead self editing, self regulating, self segregating from conversations? That’s the opposite of what an organisation should want, they should want to maximise the value of difference.
“When I finally get around to writing a book, it will be about the value of difference, because I genuinely feel all progress comes from difference. If we all just agree or carry on doing the same thing the same way we always have, yes, there’ll probably be a nice shallow growth curve, but eventually someone else will come along and the market will overtake you, so you need to future proof yourself by embracing things like innovation and creativity.
“That requires people to be willing to change things and that requires people to be willing to step up and question the way things have always been done. Creative destruction is one of my favourite phrases from when I did my MBA, and that is necessary for progress. You need to break things down to mend them and make them better.
“So it doesn’t make sense for organisations not to celebrate difference, and especially doesn’t make sense for organisations not to celebrate invisible difference. Most of the time when you read about diversity it is things that are most easily measurable, which are visible. You’ll see things like how many women they’ve got and how many minority ethnicity they’ve got.
“That’s great, and it’s very important that they do that as long as they layer on the necessary inclusion work. But what about the people who are LGBTQ+, who are neurodiverse or in some other way be marginalised in a less visible way? If they’re forgotten, that’s a terrible, terrible waste because there’s huge potential input there which should not be hidden.”