Published: 10/02/2005, Volume II5, No. 5942 Page 38

Measures to banish racism and sexism in the workplace are now commonplace, but equal rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual workers cannot always be taken for granted.

Many reach what gay equality organisation Stonewall dubs the 'pink plateau', feeling that they cannot come out at work or are not treated equally to straight colleagues. Now Stonewall has published its first corporate equality index, which ranks employers according to criteria including the implementation of equality policies and having openly gay board members. It classes the 100 organisations as demonstrating 'a clear commitment to meeting the needs of gay staff and customers'.

There are 11 NHS organisations (the Department of Health is also ranked) listed among the top 100 firms on the index. Of those, Nottingham City primary care trust is the only one in the top 10, ranked at number seven.

John Lippitt, an openly gay project worker at the PCT-funded sexual health and drugs service Health Shop, says he is pleasantly surprised at the high ranking.

'A lot of companies failed to respond or were omitted from the survey, so you have to bear that in mind. The questionnaire covered issues such as equal rights for gay workers, and whether or not there is a support network in place for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff, and we have that. It is a nice surprise that we are so high up but we just answered the questions openly.' John founded a lesbian, gay and bisexual forum for workers in Nottingham's four PCTs last year, after he realised that although he works somewhere where sexuality can easily be discussed, not all colleagues were so fortunate.

'The incentive to start the forum came when a friend of mine moved from working in health promotion, where it had been very easy for her to be out, to a more corporate, office-based role. She felt a difference in the environment, and was unsure about how open she could be. It got us thinking about how many other people were in the same situation.' The four Nottingham PCTs' shared services had recently employed an equality and diversity manager, Giles Matsell, who helped John set up the forum.

'We felt that it had to come from the staff and not be a box-ticking exercise, ' says John.

'Those who have got in touch have emphasised the feelings of isolation that can be felt. It is less likely for someone to come across overt homophobia, but there may be a sense that they are not as OK as anyone else. If comments are made as a joke and people complain then you are likely to be accused of not having a sense of humour.

'It is also about the fear of coming out to colleagues, which can be greater than the actual consequences. The forum lets people know they are not the only one, not the only gay in the village, if you like.' He adds that the forum, which has been going for almost a year, has so far had a limited response. 'It may be that some people still feel they are not able to come, because attending the forum would mean outing yourself, for some. But people know it is there, and the message that sends out is important. The idea is to get it across to people that it is not OK to be homophobic. The trust is saying that homophobia in the workplace will not be tolerated.'

www. stonewall. org. uk