The Unicorn Files – Part 1

The Rainbow Banker

As far as first impressions go, Jan de Geus certainly makes his striking. Insanely handsome (think tall, blond and rugged), incredibly intelligent (his linkedin profile lists several degrees) and at the same time approachable and quick to make people feel at ease. It may come across that I have a crush on this man and to a certain extent, I do; however, it is strictly (mostly) professional. You see, Jan works for ABN AMRO as an Ethics and Awareness Officer and is the chairman of the bank’s LGBTQ+ organization – the Gay Bankers Network.

Background

Jan, who recently gave a lecture on LGBTQ+ and employment for Leiden University Pride (for our ‘Day in a Queer Life Series’), came out as gay when he was 19 and a student in Amsterdam. He then worked as a high school teacher before taking up a position with the ING bank; a few years later he started working in a similar position for ABN AMRO. He graciously agreed to meet with me and sit down to discuss being out in a professional environment.

We met at Circl, an ABN AMRO funded initiative, which reports to be the first energy neutral, carbon-minimal building in the Netherlands – and it certainly is impressive; using rainwater, recycling old clothes and constructed from renewable resources, the building pertains to the aspirations of a sustainable and eco-friendly future. But enough about that, what had Jan himself to say?

Interview

As all LGBTQ+ people know, the decision to come out is not a one-time event; it is a continuous decision, constantly reassessed based on your audience, your experience, the environment you find yourself in. So naturally, to begin the interview, I asked Jan about his coming out at work. When did it happen? How did it go? Why did you do it? To whom did you come out?

Jan: I generally come out in my CV. I include my experiences with the COC where volunteers usually go in pairs to schools to talk about sexuality. By using that on my resume, usually it comes up by itself or they ask and if it doesn’t, then I will usually raise it. I tend to go for jobs that involve trainings and groups or teaching and of course it is relevant experience so I will throw that in – quite explicitly to see the reaction.

Tiaan: What about with your colleagues? Does it come up, is it relevant?

Jan: It doesn’t always come up. Currently I am in a big company, 18,000 people. I don’t come out to all of them. Sometimes you have a meeting with someone you’ve never seen or worked with before and then there isn’t the time, need or desire to come out to them and it won’t change your professional relationship. With my close colleagues however, I am out and actually, in my department there are quite a few queer people – we seem to like these kind of jobs, like Human Resources and things like that (laugh). But I believe in being honest and being yourself, so I would never hide a part of myself from my colleagues.

In the Education Sector

Tiaan: So you’ve worked in two different sectors, Education and Finance. Was there a difference in being gay and out in these two sectors?

Jan: Well, when I started teaching, I wasn’t out to my students; I was to my colleagues. But I was trying to establish myself as a teacher during that first year.

Tiaan: Was this, at least partly, because you were subconsciously afraid that if anything when wrong or didn’t work out, that your sexuality would be blamed? ‘Oh of course he is a bad teacher, he is gay’?

Jan: (thinks) I think that was maybe a part of it. I was still young and not secure in myself.

Tiaan: And teenagers can be awful. I remember when I was one.

Jan: (laughs) Yeah they can. But incidentally, I was accidentally outed by one of my gay colleagues. He was part of a documentary on being gay and I was included in some of the footage. So the students saw that and they knew and he actually pulled me out of one of my classes because the students had all these questions. So it went alright and after that I didn’t have to hide it so much.

In the Finance Sector

Tiaan: And what about here at the bank?

Jan: (laughs) Well, like I said, we do have quite a few queer people working here. And a recent survey by the bank itself found that 75% of queer employees feel comfortable enough to be out. This is good, but I also feel like this could be higher.

Tiaan: Could this be because of corporate culture or the ‘masculine’ environment of working in a bank? Like, for example, you said queer people seem to like working in HR or similar administration positions, but surely there are queer people in the more traditional banking positions where I guess it can be a little different. Maybe those are the 25% of people still in the closet?

Jan: That is certainly a possibility. But we are trying to change things so that even in those positions people feel comfortable enough to be themselves. Like I said, I value honesty and being yourself, and if you can’t be yourself then that’s not good.

Tiaan: Is there a difference in the corporate culture between ING and ABN AMRO that affects being queer?

Jan: I’d say both companies’ cultures are accepting of LGBTQ+ people. The biggest difference is that ING formally participates in Amsterdam Pride with a boat. ABN AMRO does have a pride campaign around the same time though; we also focus on social initiatives such as sponsoring the ‘Roze Filmdagen’ (Pink Filmdays). But both banks have active LGBT+ networks and numerous activities for their employees.

Tiaan: One last question, if you don’t mind. What advice would you give LGBTQ+ students who are about to embark on their professional careers?

Jan: Oh that is a good one. Let’s see (thinks), be honest, be fierce but also be vulnerable. If you have any LGBTQ+ experience put it on your CV, if it’s appropriate or fits, then put it in your motivation letter.

Conclusion

Well there you have it folks. Straight from Jan’s mouth: Be Honest, Be Fierce and Be Vulnerable. What I hope he means with this is do not hide yourself if you can help it, be proud of who you are and take the chance to open up, make connections and interact with people.

Of course, this interview was conducted with a view of working in The Netherlands or a similarly LGBTQ+ tolerant society. Considering the events unfolding in Russia, Brazil and other places, being out may lead to safety and security concerns. Please do not put yourself at unnecessary risk and know that we are all fighting for your right to exist. Never forget that being ‘out’ is a very western-centric and not everyone needs to be out in order to be a member of our community.

But it is nice to know that for now, here in The Netherlands, even traditionally conservative sectors of employment, not just tolerate, but value their LGBTQ+ employees!

Tune in next time for the next episode of….the Unicorn Files.