Today marks 10 years of Wear it Purple Day – a day designed to show LGBTQ+ young people they have the right to be proud of who they are.

We’re a proud supporter of the day and the Telstra team has been getting on board by wearing purple and featuring a purple background in their virtual meetings – and sharing photos of all their purpleness with their colleagues.

Our commitment to inclusion is championed by our Spectrum network, which creates opportunities for our LGBTQ+ team members and allies to connect and support each other, both inside and outside of work.

This year Telstra Spectrum sponsor Tom Roets spoke to engineer Maddie Sumner about what Wear It Purple Day means to them and why being supported in the workplace is so important.

Tom Roets: Maddie can you tell me a bit about your story and why Wear it Purple Day matters to you?

Maddie Sumner: My story started not too long ago and fortunately it has been pretty smooth sailing. I initially came out as transgender to my close friends and then to my family a few months later. This was a very intimidating time of my life despite facing very few challenges. No one can escape the reach of the media though.

Many of my family members and friends have ‘come out’ over the years, and I’m pretty desensitised to it now! I can barely recall some of the nervousness and difficulty they had just bringing up the courage to tell others, since it’s so common and even celebrated now.

But it was still one of the hardest things I’d done and I cannot imagine what it must be like for any young person who fears for their safety when being themselves, let alone any individual – and I want to help change this.

TR: What was it like experiencing your transition while in the workplace? 

MS: In my previous company, I came out while in the workplace and it was terrifying. But when I joined Telstra, I applied under my last name and then changed my name after joining.

It was a very weird thing to apply as one person, and then join six months later as me. But everyone was very supportive of me.

TR: How did Telstra deal with that?

MS: When I came to Telstra, it wasn’t mentioned once by peers unless I brought it up.

That was amazing for me. I still have anxiety that people will treat me differently when they hear, and I worry that someone will put me in a box. But starting at Telstra, I went for weeks on end not even thinking about the fact that I am transgender which is amazing. It just didn’t matter and everyone was so nice. People just accept me for who I am – Maddie.

TR: Why do days like Wear It Purple Day matter to young LGBTQ+ Australians today?

MS: Rainbow young people still receive abuse and can often feel worthless thanks to the immaturity of others and miseducation of LGBTQ+ issues in general. From others showing support in schools, workplaces and at public events, we can help so many people feel at least a little more comfortable with who they are.

Wear It Purple will always be here to do our part, at least until LGBTQ+ people no longer face so many challenges compared to the rest of the population.

TR: Why is it important to you that your employer gets involved in activities like this?

MS: Corporates have more influence in this area than many realise. Of course we can help spread the message and encourage support far wider than some, but by celebrating Wear it Purple Day in the workplace means we can also boost morale and celebrate diversity and inclusion internally too.

It’s estimated that more than 1 in 10 people identify as not exclusively heterosexual – meaning if any of us celebrate Wear it Purple at work and this news is spread to 10 people in our lives, we may be helping someone. Usually you won’t know if someone is struggling, and this could be someone in your family, friend circles or at work.

TR: How does it feel when you see your colleagues getting involved and supporting your community?

I feel proud working for Telstra when I see so many of my colleagues support various inclusion initiatives throughout the year. Especially thanks to the fact that they are supported to do so.

MS: Tom, what does WIPD mean to you?

TR: As a cis gay man, I am part of a majority within a minority, and feel tremendous privilege and responsibility as a result. Being part of the LGBTQ+ community I know what it feels like to be misunderstood and fear discrimination from the larger majority, but have also learnt I have a big blind spot for those members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially transgender, intersex and queer people, who struggle to be understood even by their LGB brethren.

So Wear It Purple is this great opportunity to just talk about all the aspects and facets of it so we can help everyone grow and gain more understanding, across all aspects of the spectrum of society.

We need to do so much more to help LGBTQ+ people feel comfortable to be their best selves and bring their whole selves to work.

MS: Tom, can you tell me about your experience of being gay in the workplace?

TR: I’m originally from South Africa and l liked the idea of living all over the world as a management consultant. I realised this was because it was easier to be me while living outside of South Africa.

But even after I came out to my friends and family, I still struggled with coming out in the office. Before I was out at work, I really struggled with simple questions like “Hey what did you do this weekend?” when I was too afraid to say my boyfriend and I went to the movies, out of fear that being gay would result in discrimination or worse.

I used to get mortified by really innocent questions like “Hey Tom, so do you have a girlfriend?” Nowadays I simply reply: “I don’t think my boyfriend would really like that!” But it used to be much, much harder to cope with being gay in the workplace.

The Australian Workplace Equality Index 2020 findings show that less than 45% of LGBTQ+ people are ‘out to everybody’ and youngest respondents were least likely to be open about their diverse sexual orientation or identity. The data also showed that the number one reason for people not being out in the workplace is that it “would not be accepted by some on my team”. These aren’t statistics from 1980, that’s TODAY.

We still have so many of us who struggle, and we need Wear It Purple Day to show us it’s okay. We need straight allies to show and say “Hey we don’t care, in fact we love you for being you, so just be you, okay?” And wearing purple says that without you having to say it.