“I didn’t know you were gay. I thought you were in the military!”
I’m actually not going to write about my complicated relationship with that comment from a former colleague but suffice it to say it stopped me in my tracks, made my blood run cold, and if I had a “panic meter” on my forehead it for sure would have pegged out at MAXIMUM DANGER DETECTED.
Back then I was working for a company deeply steeped in the “Good Ole Boys” approach to life, business, and everything else. Sexual innuendo was normal. Sexual harassment was, too. Gender roles were still seen as “natural”. I mean… who hires a female salesperson, anyway?! (Yes, I’m serious…) And I was dating somebody who presents as masculine but is legally the same gender as me, and I wanted to know if it was safe to bring them to the company Christmas party, so I approached the only openly LGBTQ+ person there, the owner’s son, to ask.
After he got over his shock, he was *delighted* to have a comrade-in-arms, so to speak, and he assured me it would be fine, super fine, oh yes, no worries… but when we walked into that banquet room a few weeks later, the immediate silence and in some cases outright hostile glares that greeted us was awkward, palpable, and made my partner tense up in a way I hadn’t seen since we stopped at a gas station in Alabama to use the restrooms a few months before, when I got the “we can’t act like we like each other” speech from them before we got out of the car. Whew.
This wasn’t 1987, either. We had entered the 21st Century by this point, but I live in Indiana, and at the time, the Governor was still trying desperately to deny same-sex couples any and all liberties, with widespread public support. And it's a "Right To Work", or rather "Right to fire somebody for no reason at all" state, so it was tense. I was new to this weird, horrible territory, and I have to say, if I didn’t REALLY like my partner, I would have run the other direction if I’d known what I was signing up for. I guess that’s why they were stingy with the intel. 😉 Kris has been navigating this world since getting kicked out of the house for being a lesbian in Texas in the 80’s, and has been an activist, a community resource, an educator and a spokesperson for various LGBTQ+ causes and organizations around the country. The landscape, as ugly as it was (and still is in many ways) was at least a familiar one for ONE of us!
Still, we made the best out of that party. We wound up sitting with the senior leadership (We were invited by my new Work BFF to sit at that table. I know he was trying to salvage the experience – and I think we offered him some comfort, too! It *sucks* being the only one of ~anything~… especially something so unpopular as being queer. We made sure the shrimp on the buffet didn’t get wasted. We’re excellent conversationalists (and experienced conflict resolution practitioners) and managed to pull everyone into neutral and lively topics to make it less weird. We danced into the wee hours of the night, and we drove home exhilarated to have survived the experience – and very apprehensive about my career from that point forward. After all, I didn’t have the benefit of a parent in a leadership position and based on the jokes and conversations I’d heard during my tenure there, I knew even HIS job security was tenuous at best.
I didn’t stay at that job much longer. It never got un-weird. Snide comments asking when I was going to cut my hair and buy a pickup or a Harley. No more invitations to lunch with the team. Microagressions abounded, and you know… “People just don’t really know how to approach the topic”. Mmhm. You don’t say.
About a year later, I got an opportunity at a company closer to home, with a larger company that at least nominally was more welcoming to “your kind” (as somebody told me when I gave my notice…). About that same time, we got engaged, and while same-sex marriage was legal across the US by that point, NONE of the documentation had caught up with the law, so I spent a lot of time having to explain things. (I will never understand why people think it’s ok to say things like “You don’t LOOK like a lesbian!”) And, while same sex-marriage was legal, so at least we were entitled to family benefits, many of my colleagues had never met somebody in a "nontraditional relationship", and I quickly became the go-to person for all kinds of questions. I got pretty good at setting seriously solid boundaries, though. Wanna talk about North Carolina’s bathroom bill? Indiana’s absurd politics on the topic? How pronouns work? Sure. Wanna talk about my sex life? Uhhh… no. Unequivocally not. (What IS the fascination there?! I don’t wonder about my colleagues’ sex lives! It’s so weird, y’all!)
I wouldn’t say it was easy, and my heart still breaks for the colleagues who came to me in private because they were terrified to be “outed” for fear of losing their jobs – and this in a company that promotes itself as deeply tolerant. Now, my willingness to embrace the weirdness (and a lifetime of experience in serving other marginalized populations) did lead to some amazing opportunities to help shape strategy and provide resources for the organization on a variety of DE&I fronts, including this one. We were able to better serve not only LGBTQ+ employees but also allowed us to leverage the company resources to support local school groups, civic organizations, and generally raise awareness in our industry. This is a good thing, even if there is still so much work to be done. And it reminded me that even when the situation is profoundly complicated, we can do incredible work – while still maintaining healthy personal limits.
I would never claim to be The Diversity Guru, All Knowing, All Experiencing, but I’m no stranger to diversity, both professionally and personally. Professionally I’ve helped organizations come to grips with the new legal landscape and the new realities for talent attraction and employee engagement, which boils down to, “You won’t get OR keep the best people if you don’t start figuring this out.” I’m passionate about creating spaces where people can thrive, and diversity, equity and inclusion are crucial for that to happen. And, I recognize that many of the facets that add to that amazing kaleidoscope are actually invisible. Nobody promised it would be easy!
Personally, well… you know some of it. Also, I am a female veteran, from the days when they REALLY didn’t like “girls” being there. I belong to a nontraditional faith community. I have tattoos and I’ve had them for my entire corporate career. I’ve dealt with a spouse being in prison, and brothers who died of drug overdoses. I grew up in poverty, mis hermanitas viven en Mexico, my niece and nephews are Tribal members, and I am the parent to young adults who identify as various parts of the LGBTQ+ community themselves. And my spouse still worries when I suggest we go together to events, because he knows that it’s a major risk to my success and, in some cases our very lives. I’ve lived in neighborhoods where nobody looked like me, and I’ve lived in neighborhoods where ~everyone~ looked like me. I’ve been guilty of being prejudiced, and being discriminated against. And I’ve learned some amazing things along the way.
At its core, the drive for more awareness and momentum on Diversity Equity & Inclusion serves two primary needs. Of course there are a million and one ways that diversity provides greater organizational success, from greater understanding of a wider variety of market segments to better talent to simply the diversity of thought that comes from lives lived in very different environments and as very different people. My experience is nothing like yours, and that’s actually beautiful and lends itself to better problem solving, innovation, etc. You’ve seen the list (and if not, let me know. I’ll help you find them).
More importantly, DE&I efforts create spaces where we normalize the very truth that we are all unique humans living complicated lives. We provide representation that says, “You Are Valued Here”. We provide opportunities for people who may not have had the luxury of growing up with people who don’t look like them, who’ve never worked with people who don’t think like them, who have simply never been introduced to differences that, while sometimes scary at first, once we put a human face on them become beauty, not a threat. We provide opportunities for people who are overcoming social obstacles on a wide variety of fronts, coming a little closer to that ideal of “Liberty and Justice for All.”
I wish my kids didn’t have to face some of these same situations, or the new ones I am sure will show up. Unfortunately, they already have, and no doubt will in the future. Perhaps our grandchildren, or theirs, will be judged for the merit of their thoughts, instead of the vessel in which those thoughts are born. Until then, my spouse and I will continue to do what we can, professionally and personally, to create that world. And truly, I’m grateful that many of the people in my life are themselves on journeys that, while profoundly different from mine, or Kris’, is based in the respect and even love for the interdependent web of life, of which we are all a part.