At the start of Pride month, our executive director of technologies, Tim Kidd, talks about the difficulties of coming out, what it is like working at Jisc, and his passion for helping young people through his role as the Scouts' UK chief commissioner
People have the capacity to build boxes around things they don’t want to admit to themselves, and I buried something very important very deeply for 33 years. I knew I was gay from the age of 13, but I didn’t admit it to myself until I was 46 and it took another year before I could pluck up the courage to actually tell people.
A horrible year
The year between admitting it to myself and telling others was really horrible and very stressful. The more I stewed, the bigger it became. My experience, and certainly everyone else I’ve spoken to about this agrees, is that, when thinking about coming out, I thought of all the worse possible outcomes. I didn’t spend time thinking ‘there will be rainbows and glitter and everything will be wonderful’; I thought about how it would feel if I wasn’t accepted by all the people I care about.
Although I’ve done a lot of things in my life, some quite difficult things, and there isn’t that much I’m scared of, coming out was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. People who’ve never gone through the experience of coming out might not really know what that means. But the moment that you are about to say something that might cause you to lose friends or change a relationship is very significant. Once it is done, it really does feel like a weight is lifted. Having to lie and pretend is hard and very wearing.
The first person I told was a scout friend, who I chose because I thought he would be very ‘factual’ about it – I didn’t want lots of hugs and sympathy and for someone to say “there, there”. But it still took me three attempts to say the words “I’m gay” because my throat closed up. This friend’s reaction was really good, so that was fine, but then I had to tell the family.
I have a twin brother, three sisters and my parents and I told all of them in a week, one night after the other. That was an interesting week! They were all fine about it, so none of my dire predictions came true. I have 13 nephews and nieces, and I left it to their parents to decide if they were old enough to know, but it turns out that having a gay uncle is quite cool. Who would have guessed!
The response at Jisc
The reaction at Jisc when I came out was very good. I had told friends and family first, which was useful because I was pretty rubbish at telling people at the start.
Edging around it at the beginning of a conversation must have sounded like I was about to tell people something really awful, like I was going to die, so when I said “I’m gay” they were quite relieved! By the time I got to telling people at Jisc I was a bit better at it, but still scared. The reaction was generally understated – I kind of hoped there’d be a bucket of glitter, but it was a damp squib in a good way, which was important. I have experienced only acceptance and support at work which, believe me, is great.
There are many LGBT+ people who work for Jisc and such is the culture here that they can have pictures of their partners on their desks and nobody cares a jot, any more than if a staff member were part of a straight couple. I think Jisc is a very accepting place.
Society needs to change
However, my sense is that across society there is still prejudice and ignorance – people thinking for example that you can choose to be gay. I haven’t experienced much of that myself, but I know people who have.
Unlike many LGBT+ folk, I managed to navigate growing up without prejudice or bullying. At school I was stereotypically gay in one sense because I loved singing, while sport was horrendous for me, but I was also good at maths and technical stuff. Socially, I was careful never to speak with anyone about relationships, or women, and I didn’t grow up with a bunch of lads who wanted to discuss relationships, so I was either lucky, or charted my way through all that stuff very well.
As an adult, I notice that people make assumptions and use language that can make things awkward. No-one expects people to say “by the way, I’m straight” because the assumption is that they are straight because most people in the world are straight.
People might ask “have you got a wife then?”, when it would be better to ask “have you got a partner?”. It feels difficult because I don’t have a partner – if I did then I could say, “no, I’ve got a boyfriend, or a husband”. Correcting people becomes awkward and I hate making people feel uncomfortable, so changing the way people think, and the sort of language they use is important. It’s one reason why a lot of LGBT+ people talk about constantly having to come out to new people they meet.
For me the key message is that we shouldn’t assume that simply because being gay is not illegal and we have equal marriage rights in the UK that being gay is always simple. It isn’t.
Inspiring young people
I’m particularly concerned how young people cope with confusion or difficulties around their sexuality and I’m proud to say that scouts, as an inclusive organisation, can be a safe place for them to talk.
The scouts’ equal opportunity policy came in in the late 80s and it was quite controversial at the time. Over the past five or six years we’ve been involved at Pride marches and the family-friendly parades are good recruitment grounds for adult volunteers.
We now have over 800 scout sections running in the most deprived areas of the UK, and young people who thought they could never do anything are now achieving all sorts of things. We are continually giving young people opportunities. Scouting did that for me since I joined at the age of eight, and I’m proud that I am now passing on that ethos.
Why I love working at Jisc
October marks my 20th anniversary working at Jisc and what keeps me here is very simple – I know that what we do makes a real difference to students, to universities, colleges and research centres, and to the UK economy. Without Jisc’s work to maintain and advance the national research and education network, a lot of research at universities would either be impossible, or it would cost the state more, and without the research we wouldn’t have UK universities up there in the world rankings.
It’s also important to me that Jisc is a not-for-profit; I couldn’t work for a purely commercial organisation that was all about making money and it’s the same for many staff. The bit that really gives me a glow is that we run a very large set of services for the sector, we work really hard behind the scenes and we continually look for the next thing we can develop to help our members and the young people they educate. That’s really neat.
How did I get here?
I never had any ambitions. Things happen to me and it’s always a constant surprise, so I’ve never thought about, expected or envisaged doing the job I am doing. At the start of my career I was writing software, which I loved, I always thought I’d have a technical job, but I don’t now.
Instead, I‘m a manager, but I never had a plan to be responsible for a large number of people and for making sure we deliver a large number of services; it happened by accident. My Myers Briggs profile says: “Find yourself in charge and have no idea how you got there”. That’s me to a T. I am now responsible for scouting across the whole of the UK and I have no idea how I got there either.
I don’t think I’m any better because I happen to be executive director of technologies for Jisc or UK chief commissioner for scouts, than anything or anyone else, but I can point to things I’ve done as part of those roles and say, “I’m proud of that”. The titles are just a thing.
Getting my OBE in 2016 for services to young people was a surprise. It’s lovely that people who nominated me thought about it, but I am embarrassed by it. I don’t use it because it feels like boasting, but I was happy to accept it on the basis it’s recognition for all the good things scouts does for young people.
As a final thought, I’m really grateful to my colleagues at Jisc for accepting me for who I am – and I guess, at times, I can be quite complex! We achieve more at Jisc by combining the ideas and skills of people with different views and different backgrounds and together creating services of which we are truly proud.