Roberto Sy from Accenture speaks to Ian Smith about his coming out journey, moving to Ireland and being part of a workplace LGBTQ+ network.
Every person’s life is multifaceted. Our friends, family, and professional life shape our identity and influence how we navigate through life.
When coming out, LGBTQ+ people must navigate these different parts of life through a different lens- with some experiences being easier than others. Roberto Sy is from the Philippines and has made Ireland his home over the last five years. He knows all about the challenges in juggling multiple identities, particularly when it comes to his sexuality.
The eldest of four, Roberto had a difficult childhood. His father passed away when he was young, and his family struggled to make ends meet. His mother remarried but tragedy struck for a second time in his adolescence when Roberto’s stepfather also died.
“I was given a lot of responsibility to look after my younger siblings because in the Philippines if you are the eldest that goes along with a lot of responsibilities and expectations,” Roberto explained. “Especially if you are a single parent – you then either act as the absent mother or the father.”
So much responsibility at such a young age is a difficult thing for anyone to handle, but for Roberto there was an added complication-he was gay.
The Philippines, at the time, was not an accepting place. Roberto faced intense bullying involving physical violence and verbal abuse from his classmates because of their homophobia towards gay people or people they perceived to be gay. “Even now if I’m in a group with a lot of males that triggers something and I don’t feel safe,” he confided.
Throughout his childhood the value of education was ingrained into him by his mother. It was viewed as the key to escaping poverty and having a better life. It also became the lifeline that Roberto clung to during his challenging youth.
“I was driven to prove to others that although society undermined me and my ability, I could still thrive and achieve anything.” So, when college came calling, it proved to be an open and liberal environment, Roberto could finally embrace who he truly was.
Coming to terms with his sexuality also meant the daunting prospect of having to tell someone else that he was gay for the first time. “So, I have this female best friend and we were always together,” Roberto recalled. “Then one time we were together, and I told her ‘I must tell you something, I think I’m gay’. She started laughing and said ‘Guess what? I’m not into guys, I’m into girls.’”
While breaking the suffocating silence on his sexuality bolstered his confidence, he was still not ready to show this side of himself to his family. However, his mother soon took that choice out of his hands. One day she was cleaning when she noticed a stack of papers in her son’s drawer. They were love letters from his boyfriend at the time. Roberto couldn’t deny it, so he told her he was gay and in a relationship with a man, she didn’t talk to him for a month.
“She would go to church every day praying that I might change. Not because she wasn’t accepting, but because she was fearful of society being less open-minded at the time.”
With this weight off his shoulders, he was able to focus on pursuing his dream job. He graduated from university in 2001 and began working with Accenture in the Philippines in 2006.
Fearful that his career could be potentially in jeopardy if his colleagues found out that he was gay, Roberto made the difficult decision to go back in the closet in his workplace. “I would fabricate stories about myself saying that I was going out with a girl,” he said somewhat sheepishly.
However, this changed when he was given the opportunity to lead Accenture’s LGBTQ+ network in the Philippines in 2008 and a year after he was given the opportunity to grow the community in South-East Asia. He succeeded in getting gender neutral toilets in the Filipino office and sought a change in the dress code for employees to scrap different rules for male and females to make it more welcoming to trans and gender non-conforming people. Accenture became one of the first corporations to be visible for Pride in the Philippines.
Witnessing his employer outwardly accept LGBTQ+ employees gave him the courage to tell his co-workers that he was gay.
“Getting to become an active member of the community was an inspirational moment for me, because I know how it feels to hide, I know how it feels to conceal yourself, and by doing this – you don’t get to realise your full potential.”
In 2016 he moved to Ireland and was given the opportunity to lead Accenture’s LGBTQ+ community for a part of the business in Ireland.
“All I knew about Ireland was that it was the birthplace of Boyzone, my favourite boyband,” he laughs. So, the move was a leap of faith. His relationship with his mother has since gone from strength to strength. “My mum has really embraced who I am.” In 2018 she visited Ireland during the summer and his coming out journey came full circle when she went along to Dublin Pride with him.
“I told her ‘Mum, Accenture is joining the Dublin Pride parade, do you want to join?’ and she did – that was a seriously special moment.’’
It’s a continuous journey, however having a network of support in the workplace, whether that be in person or virtually, gives Roberto and so many others the confidence and empowerment to bring their true authentic selves to work every day. It’s important that people feel a sense of belonging in the workplace – it helps you advance, drive growth, and feel empowered to innovate at the same time.
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