When Nicole Davison joined the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1988, she knew that she had to keep her sexual orientation a secret.
That’s because back then, being a lesbian was a firing offence. But she was only 19 years old, single, wanted to experience life overseas, and liked the idea of representing her country.
“I took a bit of a gamble, knowing that if it was found out that I could easily lose my job, ” Davison, now Britain’s consul general in Vancouver, told the Straight in a recent phone interview. “As it happened, about four years after I joined, the ban was lifted. But it still took an awful long time for things to normalize.”
In fact, she said, gay and lesbian employees in Britain’s foreign services had large yellow tags attached to their paper personnel files until the late 1990s. This indicated that they were still deemed to be a security risk.
“I used to work in personnel,” Davison recalled. “What used to happen is when you would get a file on your desk and it had a yellow tag on, you would just automatically look through to see why.”
This occurred even though Britain had legalized homosexuality in 1967.
According to Davison, the trepidation about gay and lesbian foreign-service employees was a holdover from the Cambridge Spy Ring. Its five members passed intelligence to the Soviet Union before and during the Second World War and during the Cold War, inspiring John Le Carré spy novels. The government feared that LGBT+ employees could be susceptible to blackmail.
Over the course of her career, Davison rose through the ranks, serving in South Africa, Bangladesh, Ukraine, and China before being appointed as Britain’s consul general in Vancouver in 2016.
Earlier this month, two decades after she cofounded the Foreign Office Lesbian and Gay Group (FLAGG), Davison and other LGBT+ employees of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office [“Development” was added in 2020] finally received a formal public apology from their employer.
Davison said that hearing the apology “felt massive…because it just finally addressed the wrongs that colleagues had experienced”.
She was particularly pleased that the government didn’t try to justify its discriminatory policy.
“It felt almost like the end of that particular chapter because we had the ban; the ban was lifted. We had the tags; the tags were removed. We’ve had increasingly supportive policies for officers who are working overseas with same-sex partners,” Davison said. “But no one had ever said this was wrong.”
She acknowledged that those notorious tags on personnel files probably had an impact on her career.
"There were postings that I wouldn't have been considered for," Davison said. "I think there were certain assumptions that were made about places I may or may not have wanted to go without ever having a conversation with me. They might have assumed that I wouldn't want to serve in parts of Africa or I wouldn't want to serve in parts of the Middle East.
"Then, I think those assumptions were made for you because you have this physical evidence of being LGBTQ," she continued. "Basically, your file outed you if it came onto someone's desk."
Davison also said that she knew people who faced far more serious consequences than anything that happened to her.
"I knew people who were sacked," she revealed. "There was one guy who committed suicide when he lost his job. So it had very, very serious implications for people."
Davison emphasized that Britain’s foreign office has worked exceptionally hard to become an inclusive employer in recent years. Her biography on the consulate's website notes in the first paragraph that she's accompanied in Vancouver by her partner Karen.
“The organization that I work for now is a very, very different place,” Davison said. “In our international work, for example, we advocate for LGBTQ equality across the world.”