Jamie Christon joined Chester Zoo in 2013 as Chief Operating Officer and was named Chief Executive Officer in March 2021. The same year, Chester Zoo welcomed more than 1.5 million visitors and had turnover upwards of £45 million. They employ over 1,000 members of staff.
Jamie speaks honestly with Out News Global about his experiences as an openly-gay business leader and his hopes for change in the future.
How do you feel as a gay man working in a prominent leadership role in one of Europe’s most popular tourist attractions?
To be honest, I don’t really think about it like that. I am openly gay, but I am a professional. I have a demanding job which includes a lot of stakeholder engagement. I am interacting with people at all levels every day and my sexuality does not impact my job and the way I work.
Being prominent, though, does mean you are watched.
But that won’t stop me living my life and am I confident the people I work with and interact with on a regular basis – both professionally and personally – respect who I am.
How do you feel about the way LGBTQ+ people are treated in your industry? Can this be improved upon?
I am surprised that in 2022 there are still pockets of ignorance and homophobia in the UK. I have been a victim of this in my career as recently as a few years ago and also in my personal life with family and friends and there are some organisations and institutions that still maintain an outdated ethos which goes against the principles of today’s society.
But they are dying out, and within Chester Zoo, we have a very open and confident set of people who can speak up and are encouraged to be themselves. That way we get the best from our people and have a culture of acceptance and warmth.
Have you faced challenges, on both a personal or professional level, because of your sexuality? How have you dealt with these challenges, if any?
Yes I’ve faced challenges. Some of those come from people you wouldn’t expect and some still rock me when I recall them. I wouldn’t say being gay has slowed my career but I’ve had to navigate some difficult circumstances.
I remember on one occasion I was invited to a black-tie dinner and was approached by a member of the institution who invited me. He said: “I hope you don’t employ black or gaypeople.” At first I thought it was a very crude joke, but I quickly realised they were serious.
That was only a few years ago in the UK. I still kick myself for not calling them out, but I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. I remember escaping the dinner early and pacing around the block before I came home because I was so angry.
You are trustee of a HIV charity called Sahir House in Merseyside. Tell us more about your work with Sahir House.
Sahir House is a vital charity that provides support to people in Merseyside who have been affected by HIV. It is a charity and small team led by Ant Hopkinson that offers support and information on sexual health and wellbeing across the region.
Independent organisations like Sahir offer help which is missing in the public sector and I know many, many people who have benefitted from the charity. I am a trustee and help support the team at Sahir House and promote its mission.
What achievement in your career, on a personal level, are you most proud of?
Probably leading Chester Zoo through two very tough years during the pandemic. We were closed for 208 days and with 87% of our income coming from gate admissions we were really struggling. It costs the zoo £1.8 million a month to run, caring for over 20,000 animals and with a team of up to 1,000 staff.
It was a very difficult time and I had to stay strong and lead from the front. We have recovered well and are on course to tackle the biodiversity crisis full on.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
At Chester Zoo doing the same job. We have bold and ambitious plans that take us right up to 2031, the zoo’s 100th birthday. I plan to lead the team through that period, be it the physical development of the zoo to us achieving the goals set out in our masterplan.
The culture of the organisation is also important to me and we are changing for the better. I am massively supported by the directors, senior manager and all the team at Chester Zoo, including our incredible trustees. We are a tight team who want to make a difference and be a voice for change.
What are your hopes for the future of LGBTQ+ representation in the Zoology sector? Explain the outcomes you would like to achieve from your own work and prominence.
I want the zoo sector to lead for a better and more open society. This summer, 76 of the team from Chester Zoo marched through the city at Chester Pride. We were the biggest organisation there and I was very proud to be waving the flag at the front.
If the zoo sector can become a role model of success, openness and acceptance within the community then we can help change the outdated and old-fashioned organisations who still exist.
Many of these are household names, and some even publicly talk about helping the LGBTQ+ community, but underneath are less acceptant. We need to change this.
Finally, what piece of advice would you have for any LGBTQ+ people reading this article and wanting to follow in your footsteps in business?
Have strength and don’t let anyone get in your way. Challenge and tackle homophobia head on. Find a role model and buddy to help you navigate through the world.
Remember you are right and they are wrong.