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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion - It's More Than Just a Catchy Job Title

“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.