As we celebrate Pride Month this June, we’re running a number of feature interviews with some of the Excello Law team about inclusivity in the workplace and what Pride means to them:
Excello operations manager Deon Van Schalkwyk came to the UK over 20 years ago, having been born and brought up in Zimbabwe. He’s universally adored within the firm for his helpfulness and gentle manner – combined with a wicked sense of humour – and his unfailing support for our consultant lawyers and their teams. And, at 6’10”, is easy to spot in a crowd! But it has been a long journey to first publicly acknowledge and then celebrate being gay.
He describes Zimbabwean culture during his youth as very traditional in a country where it is still illegal to be gay, with the LGBT community regularly subjected to discrimination and violence. “I always knew I was gay but there was no education or support. I felt horrible and very different as society dictated that a man should be with a woman. Being gay was never spoken about – I felt like an imposter.
“There was an underground gay culture in Harare where I lived after I left school, but you had to be so careful. It was not unheard of for the Police to operate a honeytrap sting operation to catch and prosecute gay men. The country is so beautiful, but I felt I had no future in Zimbabwe to be myself.”
Moving to the UK to live with his aunt on a working holiday visa at the age of 21, Deon was overwhelmed with the sheer freedom of his new lifestyle. “I was the proverbial kid in a sweet shop, but for many different reasons! It was my first time on tubes and trains. I couldn’t believe the amount of people and the number of shops. For the first time ever, I felt able to be me.”
He came out to his aunt, who confirmed that she had always known, and agonised over telling his much-loved immediate family, eventually doing so via email: “The sheer relief when they replied instantly. They also knew I was gay but it was so sad that we’d never been able to talk about it until then. But they have been so supportive since.”
Deon first visited Gay Pride in 2000 – a spectacular event in London’s Hyde Park headlined by Kylie Minogue. “I had never seen anything like it but it gave me the confidence to be more comfortable about who I am. Although even now, I am never 100% open about being gay up front.
“I was a straight-acting gay man for a long time. My background, and having missed the natural teenage development in a country where there was no gay scene, causes me to assess a situation first. I hint at things to test the reaction and for many years only trusted close colleagues and friends.”
‘I would be living a total lie..’
Deon eventually claimed, and was granted, asylum in the UK when it was clear there was no opportunity to return to Zimbabwe and be accepted for who he is: “I would be living a total lie.” While waiting for his application, he studied counselling and volunteered at the renowned Terence Higgins Trust, the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity. During that time, he discovered he was HIV positive.
“Having counselled a lot of people through their own HIV diagnosis – and been really up to speed on the treatments and any lifestyle impact – I was very calm when I heard the news. It didn’t throw me. I knew this was not life changing or life ending. I was able to reassure my family.
“I feel really healthy and get regular and comprehensive check-ups from my consultant. I want everyone to know that you can live a healthy life with HIV.”
His route into the legal profession started with a job handling motor insurance claims and then he joined his first law firm in an admin role. He applied to join Excello as a PA over nine years ago, when the firm was looking to move its base from Reading to Chancery Lane in London. “Initially I was doing the post, managing diaries and a host of administrative tasks. The firm was a lot smaller then and I remember our first conference when all the lawyers fitted round a large board-room table!
“But I was always encouraged to make the job my own and gradually took over more operations, IT and facilities management. One of the nicest things working with George and Jo (Excello founder George Bisnought and director Joanne Losty) is the versatility of the job.
“We’ve never kept within my original job description. I’ve been allowed to concentrate on the operational side covering a multitude of projects, and am responsible for running our national office network, now in 10 locations. I’m really happy and it’s great to see the firm growing and our leadership team bringing more specialists on board.
“I’ve never felt judged or uncomfortable within Excello. It’s very inclusive and George and Jo have always been so supportive. I feel they stand up for me.”
‘It’s helpful that Pride is mainstream.’
And what of Pride this year? What does it mean to celebrate an event that is becoming more mainstream? Has it been hijacked? “No! It’s really good and helpful that Pride is mainstream. We still need to make a big deal – there’s a long way to go but I love it when families come to see the parade as it’s so important to be seen and understood. It means acceptance and openness.”
Deon is a great interviewee. He’s unflinchingly honest and very funny. He loves reading – mainly fantasy novels – and adores ‘rubbish’ TV although I am pleased to say that it was me who introduced him to ‘Bling Empire’!
He proudly exclaims over his new National Trust membership: “I never knew all these amazing places existed on my doorstep” and is looking forward to getting back to his favourite holiday destination Greece, a reminder of the sunshine and heat of Zimbabwe. Although sadly he says he will never be allowed to return to the country of his birth.
It was Deon who challenged Excello to do more this year for Pride month than a token symbolism of a logo tweak. And for next year he has BIG plans: “I would love to have an Excello Law bus in the pageant. It would be awesome to walk in the parade with your firm, your colleagues and your partner. Being gay was hard when I was younger, but now it’s fun. It’s OK to be gay!”
Interviewed by Excello CMO, Lesley Potter