Tom De Maeyer is Senior Coordinator Digitalization Benelux in Antwerp, Belgium. In this interview, he tells us about his experiences as a gay man, why diversity at the workplace is so important and how companies like Hapag-Lloyd can create a welcoming environment for the LGBTQI+ community.
Tom, you are very outspoken about being gay. Has this always been the case?
No, my coming out was really late when you compare it to how things are now. I was already 21 and had just graduated from college. Before that, I was living a double life and pretended to be someone else. I promised myself to never lie about it again. I’m lucky to live in a country that is very open and accepting, and I realize not everyone is in the same fortunate situation.
How did you develop the courage to accept yourself for who you are and to come out to your family, friends and colleagues?
I came out in the late 90s, I was in my mid twenties then. The internet was in its infancy and there was no social media. So, I had very limited resources to get information. I heard about a youth group that offered open sessions in the evening where you could talk about your struggle or just listen. Being with people who were going through the same things as I did and to find out how they dealt with it helped me a lot. After college, I went to New York for a home stay. The time in the ‘Big Apple’ was a big part of my coming out, where I already spent a lot of time in the gay community. You must know, Icome from a small Belgian town named Schelle, and being in a big city like New York gave me the opportunity to be myself – also because no one knew me there. After I returned to Belgium, pretending to be someone else just became too much. I decided to break with everything and to finally come out. This changed everything completely! It was like a new beginning for me. I told my best friends first – but most of them already knew.
My parents were the last to know. I’m from a very traditional family. I’m an only child and they were always telling me how much they were looking forward to be grandparents. That’s why I waited so long to tell them; I didn’t want to disappoint them. They were pretty clueless, I could have waved the rainbow flag in their faces, and they still wouldn’t have known. It was a big shock for them, and they had lots of questions – after all, I had years to prepare myself for my coming out, and they had to come to terms with it in only a few minutes. But they said they didn’t care that I was gay, all they cared about was that I was loved and happy. When my parents died a few years ago, I was clearing out their house and found several brochures for talking groups of parents of gay kids. They never told me, but they also needed to be with people who were going through the same things. It’s a similar process I went through. When it comes to the workplace, I always worked for big, open-minded companies. My direct colleagues usually knew early on, and word usually goes around fast.
Have you ever been confronted with homophobia?
I was bullied at school because I was different, but I didn’t understand why. I wanted to blend in and be accepted. But I always had a good sense of humor – this is my strong point. I won people over by making them laugh. Those people shielded me from the bullies. However, I still pretended to be someone else and hid behind my humor. Inside, I was sad and confused.
In terms of homophobia, the worst that happened to me was when I was already out. I was walking outside with my then boyfriend. Somebody started calling us offensive names. I never understood why somebody could hate you for being yourself and being with the one you love.
You are a member of Pride, Hapag-Lloyd’s LGBTQI+ community, that was established at the end of last year. Tell us a bit more about it!
I read the interesting article on HIP last year, in which co-founder Bradley Swihart mentioned the group. I reached out to him, and he introduced me to Rogerio Carvalho, also a co-founder of the group – and it all started from there. The HIP article received amazing feedback and a lot of people reached out. We are currently 20 members, and we want to grow. I hope that this interview will raise more awareness and inspire new members to join the group. It is very important for people to know that such a community exists at Hapag-Lloyd and that it’s okay to talk about being part of the LGBTQI+ community. Hapag-Lloyd is very supporting – not every place is as open and accepting.
What activities do you have planned for Pride @Hapag-Lloyd this year, and how can anyone interested join your community?
Hapag-Lloyd will design a rainbow-colored container, which will be introduced at HAMBURG pride this summer. It will be joined by a float with Hapag-Lloyd employees. Afterwards, the container will be part of our fleet and travel the world. This is a big statement Hapag-Lloyd is making regarding diversity, and it makes me very proud to be part of the company. We’re also working on a special section on the global website for LGBTQI+, equality and diversity. Pride will be part of the Hapag-Lloyd diversity day in October 2022 as well.
What further efforts does Hapag-Lloyd need to take to not only attract LGBTQI+, talents but also to create a welcoming and safe work experience for the ones already working for us?
It is very important for a company to ask itself if it wants to be a visionary and leader in this field. Apple Inc. is a good example. They have always been visionaries. Recently, they became the world’s first trillion-dollar-company, and Tim Cook, their CEO, is an openly gay man. This would have been seen as impossible not so many years ago. Apple always invested heavily in diversity. It made them big, they thrive on each other’s creativity and differences.
Recently, I read an interesting article about people looking for their first job. In the past, salary and benefits were always most important. It still is for the new generation, but no longer a top priority. Young people are looking for a good work-life balance and how a company stands when it comes to ecology and sustainability, but also diversity and inclusion. I think Hapag-Lloyd is a leader in this regard. You need to feel accepted and valued in order to perform and thrive. There are many countries where homosexuality is considered a crime which carries harsh punishments. Even if you’re living in a free and open-minded country, politicians can still take your rights away – we have seen that time and time again. It’s good to know you work for a company that takes such a strong stand and that you can be yourself there.
You are from Belgium, but truly connected internationally – at work and in your private life. You mentioned that you met your Chilean husband in Las Vegas and you now both live in Antwerp...
In 2012, I went on a road trip through California. The last stop was Las Vegas, where I went to see Céline Dion. This is where I met my husband. He didn’t speak a word of English, so my Spanish came in handy. We stayed in touch afterwards, and when he invited me to Chile, I fell in love with him and the country. We kept travelling back and forth every six months. During that time, both my parents were terminally ill, and I was taking care of them. I couldn’t leave Belgium. So, my husband quit his fantastic job as a credit analyst in Santiago and left sunny Chile to come to rainy Belgium to be with me. Unfortunately, my dad passed away just before my husband arrived. We got married in May 2014, two months after that my mom died. I am grateful they got to meet and that she was very happy. My husband went to university in Antwerp to learn English and Dutch and got an amazing job in Brussels. He now has Belgian and Chilean nationality. However, there still are cultural differences between my husband and me. Belgians tend to be quieter and more reserved, while Chileans in general are a little louder. I often tell people that my life changed into a telenovela.
As the second country in the world, Belgium legalized gay marriage in June 2003. Gay marriage was legalized in Chile only this month on 10 March 2022. The 19-year gap shows how much work still needs to be done. Last year, a family member of my husband died unexpectedly during the COVID-19 lockdown, and only Chilean nationals were allowed into the country. So, I could not join him as our marriage wasn’t recognized by Chilean law. This was very difficult for us, but next year we will get married in Chile. And everyone is invited!
If you'd like to join the Pride@Hapag-Lloyd community, feel free to reach out to Rogerio Carvalho.
The Hapag-Lloyd family includes over 13,000 employees in almost 130 countries across the world. This size and internationality translates into a wide range of cultures, habits, customs and norms. Our diversity is a strength. Though we are a single company, we value our differences. We believe that understanding people and their backgrounds is crucial to our growth as individuals and a community. And we view our diverse workforce as a gift that offers everybody a better sense of cohesion, which in turn fosters a more positive and open corporate culture.