“Ruler of the House”, “Conqueror”, and “Princess” are just a few of the meanings of my names. I am blessed and I say that with gratitude and humility. With hard work and the support of the people in my life, I have had many rewarding opportunities. My professional life at Protiviti cannot be overstated for what it has brought me. I found a firm that accepted me as part of their family.
From the outside looking in, I resemble success. But contrary to all of that, for many years I was not comfortable with who I was. I have experienced feelings of insecurity and felt rejected by those around me. These feelings have been with me since my childhood and I still struggle with them.
Am I really what my names stand for? Do they represent me or the person that I want be?
Finding a Family
I was born with a medical condition, known as Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS). The lack of cheekbones, unique slanting eyes shape, and deformed ears are typical for someone with my condition. TCS is also the root cause of my conductive hearing loss. My lack of confidence is undeniably linked to my facial appearance, as I’m very much aware that this is the first thing people see when talking to me.
My biological parents divorced before I was born. My mother was unable to look after herself, let alone the needs of a baby with a medical condition. Social Welfare Services stepped in and I spent the first seven years of my life in an orphanage. The orphanage was supposed to be a place of safety for children for up to two years — I stayed there for seven. There are no pictures of the childhood I experienced there, and I really have no idea what I looked like during that time.
At the age of seven, I was placed in foster care and stayed with the same family for ten years. I lived with five other “fosterlings” who were all mentally disabled. I grew up poor, and even though there was domestic violence and alcohol abuse in that home, I felt content. Reading books was my escape from reality. Through the books I read and the extended family of people who raised me, I learned that values and character matters.
I went to a boarding school for the hard of hearing. There I realized that I was attracted to boys but tried my best to keep that hidden from those around me. I focused on my schooling and worked hard. I was funny and was told that I would be successful. I had a special bond with a teacher, who nurtured and looked after my emotional needs. She became a mother to me and is my guardian angel. The school was my “family” and it was the best time of my life.
At age 18, my name was put forward to be the next Head Boy at school. I was excited about the prospect and all the possibilities. However, the nomination was withdrawn right before the final decision was made. Unbeknownst to me, I had been “outed” by someone for being gay. It was a massive shock and an utter disappointment. I felt ashamed in that I failed my family and my mom. The pain of that incident remains with me to this day.
The Head Boy incident felt like a punishment and made me try to bury my sexual orientation even further. That feeling was exacerbated when I left school to face the world without the support of my family. The culture, religion, and political climate in South Africa was such that I felt that I could not come out to anyone in my personal life or at work. That time of my life was very difficult.
In 1990 at the age of 21, I was struggling with mental health issues. I had a failed suicide attempt stemming from difficulties with accepting my sexual orientation. It was hard and the loneliest time in my life.
A New Path
During 1996 I underwent plastic surgery to correct and reshape my ears, which enabled me to wear hearing aids. My life changed again in 1999 when I tested positive for HIV. I am undetectable today with the help of anti-retroviral medicines.
During 2009 and 2010, I underwent another plastic surgery to correct my facial features. It was not the easiest experience as I had to deal with a post-surgery infection, had to repeat the procedure on my right side, and had Bell’s palsy syndrome. Ultimately, the transformation and impact after the surgery was immense. I felt like a veil had been removed. I felt like I could face the world head-on. At this point, I gradually decided to come out to the people in my life.
In 2013 I returned to the UK because of a better career prospect. While interviewing with Robert Half, I came out to the interviewer. Integrity is a core value at Protiviti and a virtue that had become very personal to me. I had come to believe that I needed to be truthful with who I am. However, the Head Boy nomination incident still weighed heavily on me. I let fear and threat of rejection win. I went back into the closet out of fear and the thought that that who I was would impact my career.
Shortly thereafter, in 2014, I embarked on a new romantic journey. I start dating my high school sweetheart. She was deaf and I felt comfortable with her as we grew up together in the same classroom. She knew my background and was willing to develop a relationship regardless. I proposed to her in 2015 inside Bath Cathedral in England and she said yes! I had introduced her to some of my colleagues at the London office at the time. I returned to South Africa and joined one of Protiviti’s member firms in 2016. Sadly, our marriage lasted just 16 weeks. What I learned is that I tried to create the family that I never had – the dream we are taught to have. Naively, I genuinely believed I could change who I was.
Returning to London and Protiviti
When I returned to London in 2017, the culture at Protiviti seemed different. While I was away, the Protiviti UK office had launched the proPRIDE Employee Networking Group (ENG) and the iMatter ENG, a support group to address mental health issues. I was surprised by how accepting and supportive people were of the LGBTQ+ community and those struggling with mental illness. The firm was creating a safe working environment. It felt like they were removing the barriers that often prevent employees from being successful.
Given the sense of belonging that I felt and everything that I had been through, I decided to come out to my colleagues as gay. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. I finally felt relieved to be myself and valued, regardless of my sexual orientation.
Thank you Protiviti for creating a workplace that visibly supports its employees. Please never take for granted the impact you have on people, and realise that everyone comes from different backgrounds. It is crucial that we as a firm place people first to create an environment that allows us to be ourselves and to be authentic.
Thank you to the Protiviti Managing Director who shared a personal story and helped to get our iMatter network launched.
Thank you to those who helped to launch the proPRIDE network in London, you have helped me to feel comfortable in my own shoes.
Thank you to the leadership who continue to invest in our people culture and actively support these networks. It is not HR alone that creates our culture, it is all the people who dedicate their time, alongside other commitments, who help to make this happen.
Lastly, thank you for reading this. It is never easy sharing such personal details about yourself, however Protiviti has created something special and has changed my life, and helped me find the strength to share my story.
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