When Peter Gracey first realized he was gay, admitting it could have cost the engineer his job. At the time, he was an officer with the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, where until 2000, being homosexual was grounds for immediate dismissal.
Since coming out in 2009 at the age of 44, he has dedicated himself to setting up support networks to help LGBTQ+ engineers find their voice. He is a cofounder of InterEngineering, a London-based nonprofit dedicated to greater inclusion in engineering.
The Worshipful Company of Engineers
Bachelor’s degree in engineering, Royal Naval Engineering College, Plymouth, England
“One of the things that struck me after coming out was how much time I spent hiding who I was,” he says. “It took a lot of effort to be conscious of not giving the game away, and all that effort could have been expended on other things.”
Born and brought up in Chester, England, Gracey has had a diverse career. He was the chief weapon engineer on a naval nuclear submarine and helped upgrade London’s first fully autonomous metro system in preparation for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Last year Gracey also became head of the Worshipful Company of Engineers, a membership organization of prominent engineers devoted to promoting the profession. Based in London, it organizes networking events, funds prizes and grants, and arranges visits to interesting engineering projects around the country.
Most of his time is now spent looking after the needs of engineers rather than doing hands-on engineering, Gracey says. But one thing his varied career has taught him is that engineering is as much a mindset as a collection of skills.
“You can apply the basic principles of being an engineer to any form of engineering,” he says.
The duties of a weapon engineer officer
Gracey inherited a love for all things maritime from his grandfather, who was a chief engineer in the U.K.’s Merchant Navy. In 1983 after graduating from high school, he decided to combine his passion for seafaring with his interest in technology and science, and enlisted as a naval engineer. After completing officer training, he attended the Royal Naval Engineering College, HMS Thunderer, in Plymouth, England, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1987.
He worked his way through the ranks within the Navy. In 1999, shortly after being promoted to lieutenant commander, Gracey was appointed the weapon engineer officer of the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Superb.
The job was challenging and varied, Gracey recalls. His team was responsible for the operation and maintenance of many of the submarine’s key systems, including torpedo launchers, navigation systems, sonar, radio communications, and the command system that pulls all of those systems together.
“Find a way to demonstrate that you value diversity in your workforce.”
Each member of his team had in-depth knowledge of individual systems, but he had to keep abreast of all of them. This required a broad set of skills, from understanding how to update the command system software to maintaining the hydraulic torpedo loaders.
“I was responsible for making sure that the whole thing works,” he says. “You’ve got to understand how all the bits of the jigsaw fit together.”
But a naval engineer isn’t just an engineer, Gracey explains. As head of the engineering department he was also a watchkeeper, which meant working six-hour shifts in the control room alongside other senior officers. Those shifts included helping to navigate the submarine, manning the periscope, and monitoring the sonar.
A new career in railway engineering
After being moved to a desk job when his appointment on HMS Superb ended in 2000, Gracey decided he wanted a new challenge. In 2001 he submitted his 12-month notice to leave the Navy, although he continued to serve as a part-time reservist until 2017.
Shortly after leaving the Navy, Gracey spotted a help-wanted ad for experienced electrical engineers at Network Rail, the public company that operates the U.K.’s railways. He was hired in 2003 as a project engineer and was trained on the basic principles of how railways work and also the unique form of relay logic used to design railway signaling systems.
“They basically took my engineering expertise and gave me a new language and a new domain to apply it to,” he says.
After three years of upgrading signaling systems around the rail network, Gracey switched jobs to work for government contractor Serco as a signal engineer on the Docklands Light Railway, a fully autonomous metro service that serves the Docklands area of East London. This area was where many of the new sporting venues for the 2012 Summer Olympics were being built. He spent the next six years overseeing major upgrades to the control systems and the installation of a new control center, working in various roles for both Serco and the line’s operator, Transport for London.
Feeling confident in coming out
During this period, Gracey’s life experienced a major upheaval. At some point during his naval career, he had realized he was gay, but he kept this fact hidden for fear of losing his job. He was also married with three children, and so even after leaving the military, he maintained the secret to avoid hurting his family.
But in 2009 he realized he couldn’t keep things hidden any longer. He came out to friends and colleagues, and he made the heartbreaking decision to leave his wife.
“It all just came to a head,” he says. “I got to the point where I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I need to be me.’ ”
Part of the reason he felt confident enough to come out was a supportive work environment. His employer at the time, Transport for London, took great pride in being in the top 10 of the U.K. Workplace Equality Index, which assesses an organization’s progress on LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workforce. What’s more, he says, there were several openly gay men in his office.
“That did help me in feeling confident enough to turn around and say, ‘By the way, I’m gay,’ ” he says. “And things didn’t implode. My wife only hated me for about six months. My children got over it. And my friends and colleagues were also very supportive.”
A champion for diversity
Since coming out, Gracey has made a point of trying to boost support for engineers in the gay community. After rejoining Network Rail in 2012 to work on safety-compliance projects, he helped to set up a support network there for LGBTQ+ engineers. He did the same at Bechtel after joining the engineering firm in 2015 to work on the Crossrail railway construction project in London.
Gracey also teamed up with a handful of colleagues in 2014 to launch the advocacy organization InterEngineering. The goal is to support gay engineers at smaller companies who may be the only LGBTQ+ person on staff and may be struggling to find others to talk to about discrimination or harassment. The organization holds networking events and workshops and creates educational resources for employers looking to set up LGBTQ+ initiatives for their staff.
Advice for employers
Gracey has some tips for companies that want to become more welcoming and supportive of their LGBTQ+ employees. While instituting diversity policies is an important step, he says, it’s crucial to show those policies are actually being implemented. Having visible LGBTQ+ role models, particularly in senior positions, can go a long way to gaining trust.
“Find a way to demonstrate that you value diversity in your workforce, and that you will support those who work for you,” he says.
Diversity and inclusion is something all companies should take seriously, Gracey points out, but it isn’t just about doing the right thing. In 2015 a report about tackling homophobia in engineering from InterEngineering and the U.K.’s House of Commons showed that discrimination against LGBTQ+ engineers could cost businesses billions of pounds a year in lost productivity.
“How many millions of pounds of lost effort goes into people not being themselves and hiding who they really are?” Gracey says. “From an employer’s perspective, I want my employees to feel that they can be themselves. Because if they feel that they’ve got to hide something, the effort of hiding is not only stressing them, it’s also making them less productive.”
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Edd Gent is a freelance science and technology writer based in Bengaluru, India. His writing focuses on emerging technologies across computing, engineering, energy and bioscience. He's on Twitter at @EddytheGent and email at edd dot gent at outlook dot com. His PGP fingerprint is ABB8 6BB3 3E69 C4A7 EC91 611B 5C12 193D 5DFC C01B. His public key is here. DM for Signal info.