The UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)’s mission is to help keep the UK safe. It is one of the UK’s intelligence and security agencies, along with MI5 and SIS. GCHQ works to protect the UK and its citizens from a range of threats to national security, including from terrorism, serious and organised crime and cyber-attack. It also works to protect UK forces wherever they are deployed and, through its Information Security arm CESG, provides policy and assistance on the security of Government communications and electronic data. We sent along our Rob to have a chat with Carol and Aaron, two members of GCHQ’s LGBT Network to find out what it’s like to be openly gay and work for the British Intelligence in this day and age.
1. What is your role at GCHQ?
C. I am a commercial officer involved in Information Assurance. We help secure other government departments IT systems so that the UK’s government network is safe from cyber-attacks.
A. I work in the internal communications team managing GCHQs internal websites. Due to the nature of our organisation and the speed that things change, it’s a really busy role and puts me in contact with most of the department at one point or another.
2. How long have you been part of the LGBT Network at GCHQ and what part do you play in it?
C. I joined the LGBT network not long after I started at GCHQ back in 2001. GCHQ also have an official Pride committee, which I was elected on to in 2014. As a committee member, I help promote LGBT issues in the department and also liaise with other government departments to promote local events and causes such as Transgender Remembrance Day.
A. I have been a member of the LGBT network for the past 5 years or so. Like Carol, within the last year I decided I would like to take a more active role and was also elected to be a member of the Pride@GCHQ committee.
3. What is GCHQ’s LGBT Network like, are there many members and is it a social group?
C. The network was formed in the 1990s following the lifting of the ban on employing homosexuals at GCHQ. The purpose of the network is to support its membership and help the Department achieve its diversity and inclusion objectives.
A. At last count, there were approximately 80 members, though that’s probably increased now. The group has been fairly quiet with regard to social events in the past, but it is something we are trying to actively work on.
4. What kind of events and activities does the Network promote – internally and/or externally?
A. There are a number of events that we mark internally for example, IDAHO (International Day against Homophobia), World AIDS Day and of course LGBT History Month. For IDAHO last year, among other activities, we raised the Rainbow Pride flag outside the building for the day. We plan to repeat this again for 2015 and our director is really supportive of our activities.
C. Externally there are articles listed on the GCHQ External website including an interview with an employee on Shout Out; an online radio station based in Bristol. Employees also attend Stonewall Annual Conference and several members participate in the Stonewall Leadership Programme.
A. During LGBT History month, we usually pick a subject to look in to and write a series of internal articles about. This year we’re focusing on what it’s like to be LGBT around the globe.
5. Do you think it’s important companies in general have an LGBT Network and why?
C. Yes it is important companies in general have an LGBT network because staff perform better when they are able to be themselves and a network scheme encourages this. Companies showing serious commitment towards diversity issues have better skilled workforce and are more responsive, creative and flexible.
A. I think it is really important too. Even if you aren’t an active member, just having an LGBT network in your organisation gives a strong, positive message about your company’s attitude towards LGBT issues and diversity in general C. Of course, it was only in 1993 that you were allowed to be openly gay and work at GCHQ, so for us when the group was established in 1996, it was a really positive step.
6. Have you seen “The Imitation Game”? Did you enjoy it?
C. No, but I have heard a lot about it. I have already pre-ordered it on blu-ray waiting for its release date 9th March. I have noticed that there is an online petition started by Benedict Cumberbatch to get a pardon for all 49,000 gay men who were prosecuted before 1967. It is a shame that many of them may no longer be with us.
A. My partner and myself have unlimited cinema cards, so there aren’t many films that we haven’t seen! In all honesty, he didn’t think much of it, but it’s not his kind of film. I really enjoyed it though. Seeing a person whose life and work affected so much of what we do today (both at GCHQ and generally), portrayed on film was really interesting. Plus, who doesn’t like Benedict Cumberbatch.
7. In order to be offered the job as code-breaker at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing had to complete a Daily Telegraph crossword in less than 12 minutes. Would it be safe to assume it’s a little different these days at GCHQ?
C. Yes very different today although I’m sure we have some that could rival that time!
A. The recruitment process can be fairly intense, although it depends on which campaign you apply for. When I joined the department in 2008, we had series of texts to test our analytical skills as well as things like Mathematics and Literacy etc (no crosswords though)
8. How do you think Alan Turing would be treated in today’s society and at GCHQ?
C. Hopefully he would have been treated like a hero and would also have received a knighthood.
A. His homosexuality certainly wouldn’t have adversely affected him nowadays, nor would it bar his availability to hold a security clearance. I like to think that he would have stayed at the organisation for a long and fulfilling career and would have retired from a high ranking position as a happy man.
9. What similarities are there between the code-breakers of the Second World War and those who work for GCHQ?
A. There are still a lot of similarities between the code-breakers of the Second World War and those that we employ today. Both groups are highly intelligent people who work selflessly towards catching unpleasant people and preventing terrible things from happening.
C. Although the challenges and threats we face are very different, the organisation is still full of computer whizz-kids and we’re still at the forefront of technology.
10. What qualities are looked for in order to work for GCHQ?
A. We actively look to employ a really diverse workforce, so it’s really hard to list exactly what we look for in our staff. I guess some of the main qualities are an inquisitive mind, the ability to work in a team towards a common goal and an appetite for puzzle solving.
C. We look for people with a range of technical and non-technical skills. We employ everything from brilliant Mathematicians and Computer Programmers; to highly skilled Project Managers and Finance Specialists.
11. Finally, how would you fare if you were pitted against Alan Turing today in a code-breaking competition and why?
C. Badly, my skills are not in code-breaking! I would have to find a colleague to help or some sophisticated device equivalent to Alan Turing’s Bombe, the machine he was instrumental in developing during World War II, to crack the Enigma code.
A. Unaided, I’d do terribly! I’m a communicator, not an analyst or a code-breaker! However if we had use of the computers which he was so instrumental in creating, I might stand more of a chance.