“I felt like my queer identity was me at weekends; it was my personal life, and it was not an identity I would show in my studies or at work”
myGwork sat down to talk to Kira van Niekerk, Global Director of Training & Enablement at Thomas International, about labels, the responsibilities placed on queer leaders, and the importance of inclusive workplaces.
By her own admission, Kira van Niekerk is a “third culture kid.” Her father was a diplomat, and she grew up juggling her own South African culture with the culture of wherever her father was posted, as well as a third “international” culture that underpinned the nature of the family’s work. “That really shaped me,” she says, “and having so many cultural influences in that way influenced me to be more open-minded.”
Coming out in 2007, Kira felt she was boxing herself with labels, unable to fully free herself of them. “I didn’t know that much about my sexuality – I identify now as queer or pansexual, but that wasn’t widely used as a term at the time. In 2007 I felt that I had to be bi; I wasn’t a lesbian, I wasn’t straight, I must be bi. It took me a long time to stop thinking of my identity in boxes. I felt like my queer identity was me at weekends; it was my personal life, and it was not an identity I would show in my studies or at work. That had to change.”
As Kira notes, things have changed since. When Kira came out, she felt she “had to have a label and a flag and be very proud of it,” when a younger family member came out, their attitude was different. “There were no labels; they would just do what they would do. I realised I don’t have to have a label as long as people know I’m not straight.”
There are benefits to naming identities, Kira says – it’s less lonely when you know other people feel and identify the way that you do. But this doesn’t mean we have to be so prescriptively specific in our language, either. “When I look at Gen Z, the attitude seems to be that we’re a community, and we aren’t going to be siloed much further beyond that.”
Finding a home in the terms pansexual and queer, Kira leaned into the fluidity and ambiguity these labels allowed. “It’s like I’d found that perfectly fitting blazer where before I’d been wearing these labels that were too short or boxy. Finally, a label made me feel comfortable – and quite a wide label. If we are going to have labels, we need visibility for how these labels can permutate. I think that’s when people feel most comfortable. If you don’t know your label right now, or you know your label can and may change, there’s less pressure on you to race to define yourself by specifics.”
Now, Kira is the Global Director of Training and Enablement at Thomas, a company that examines team optimisation to improve how colleagues engage with each other for better results. It goes hand in hand with LGBTQIA inclusion in the workplace: “You have to focus on the individual, the actual employee. If a business wants to maximise retention, it needs to build a workplace where people feel connected and they can succeed.”
At work, Kira speaks openly and frankly about her experiences as a queer woman and navigates the workplace trying to be a responsible role model for LGBTQIA staff. “I am privileged to appear straight passing, but this means I also have to navigate people potentially making assumptions about me, who my partner is and so on. I can bring an alternative view to a team which may not have been considered due to heteronormativity, but ultimately out queer people have to voice these things. As someone who is pansexual, these pressures also exist in queer spaces, having to say actually, “I am queer, even though I am straight passing, and I may just appear as an ally.’”
In collaboration with her colleagues, Kira was part of the spearheading effort of the Thomas Rainbow Alliance to celebrate Pride at the company, and it’s now a company-wide affair. “It was empowering for me, in terms of creating a safe space, where we could talk about LGBTQIA issues and understand each other better.”
People felt comfortable being able to be out and talk about their experiences, and this encouraged Kira and her colleagues further. At the same time, it also introduced a personal dilemma about the pressure to always be visible and active.
“There’s a pressure on queer leaders that if I want to create a safe space or be the role model that I didn’t have early on in my career, I need to be telling my story and being visible and vocal. I still want to do that, but it’s about finding a balance between telling my story and taking care of myself, making sure I am on top of my work while also advocating for my community and other marginalised communities.”
Allies are a vital part of remedying this, Kira thinks. With a strong network of allies who can help to alleviate that burden, or those pressures, the balance becomes manageable and she highlights what allyship is all about: uplifting those who have been marginalised through supporting them. “I’ve got quite a few allies who’ve been instrumental in supporting me, especially when I don’t feel like I’m being the perfect queer leadership role model.”
It’s part of the philosophy at Thomas: “To ensure that everyone can bring their whole selves to work, every day. Whether you’re LGBTQIA or part of another marginalised group, you should feel comfortable fully showing up. Rather than saying ‘here’s our queer leaders,’ it’s about allowing those leaders to be themselves and make the passive case for being able to be out and be fully their own person.” It’s the combination of a subtle approach to enabling people to feel comfortable, but also LGBTQIA leaders coming forward to share their thoughts and experiences to build a workplace that works for everyone.
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