This February MI5 is proud to be marking LGBT+ History Month. In keeping with this year’s 'art' theme, throughout February MI5’s LGBT+ network will be hosting a series of events for our staff to explore and celebrate the expression of the LGBT+ community in art. We’ll be hosting talks, putting on book clubs, exploring the evolution of LGBT+ art and even creating an LGBT+ community art project.
LGBT+ History Month is also an opportunity for us to reflect on MI5’s own LGBT+ history. This month, we’re shining a spotlight on Hilda Matheson, a lesbian role model who worked at MI5 during WW1 and subsequently went on to revolutionise radio at the BBC.
Born in 1888, Hilda’s family travelled to Europe where she became fluent in Italian. After being recruited to MI5, she spent her career in both London and Rome, setting up a MI5 Bureau in the Italian capital.
After leaving MI5 in 1919, Hilda was recruited by Lady Nancy Astor – the first woman to sit in Parliament – as her political secretary. Being influential behind the scenes (while maintaining confidentiality) was a good match for Hilda’s MI5 experience.
In 1926, Hilda was headhunted by the BBC to become the first Director of Talks, pioneering talk radio as we now know it. She brought together the voices of famous writers at the time, including the woman who would later become her partner, novelist Vita Sackville-West. Hilda famously wrote Vita over 800 pages in love letters, declaring, “Love… and all you’ve given to me, seems to me to be life in its very highest expression.”
In her role, Hilda became one of the BBC’s most highly paid women. As Director of Talks her salary was £900 a year, more than most men holding senior posts in the Civil Service. Unsurprisingly, Hilda was regarded by many as a role model, opening opportunities for women in professional jobs and competing with men on equal terms. A trailblazer of her time, Hilda’s achievements are still fondly remembered by MI5 officers today.
However, Hilda’s story also reminds us that MI5 has not always been the welcoming and inclusive employer for LGBT+ individuals that we are today. Sadly, it’s very unlikely that Hilda would have been able to openly express her sexuality during her time working for MI5. Two years ago we publicly apologised for the way the organisation had previously treated gay men and women.
MI5 has come a long way and we’re now proud to be one of the best places in the country to be LGBT+, having previously been named Employer of the Year by the British LGBT+ awards. We’ve made huge strides in our recruitment, our workplace polices, and in our culture, and have a thriving staff LGBT+ network. We’re proud to be marking LGBT+ History Month this February.
If you’d like to find out more about MI5’s LGBT+ network click here.
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