Ferguson & the Gay Rights Movement

This Black gays for justiceweek Ruth Bader Ginsberg drew an important distinction between the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement – and she’s not been alone in her assessment.  The gay rights movement, which gained dramatic momentum following the protest at The Stonewall Inn in 1969, has had notable success.  It is less than 40 years later and people who couldn’t even say the word ‘gay’ back then now support legal gay marriage.  Everyone says it’s just a matter of time  before everyone will be able to legally marry.  National organizations and LGBT organizations across the country are scrambling to figure out what the next major gay rights cause will be – a new mission and purpose.  I use “gay rights” here on purpose because transgender rights are still woefully hard to find and certainly have not enjoyed the success that gay rights have enjoyed.

They say slavery ended nearly 150 years ago, yet this country still imprisons 30% of young black men.  Black and brown people are several times more likely to live in communities riddled by poverty with no access to opportunity.  They are more likely to drop out of their under-performing school, and be arrested or stopped by police – often landing them in jail.  As we have seen in Ferguson (and in many other cases), young men like Michael Brown are more likely to be killed.

The reason the gay rights movement has moved ahead so quickly is because gay and lesbian people live in families all across the country.  In every city, in every town, in every suburb.  Every time someone comes out, it forces the entire extension of people in that person’s family and friend network to question their assumptions about gay people.

People who have been at odds with “the gays”, found them sick, wrong, unqualified parents and undeserving spouses now have children that fall into that category.  And their personal knowledge of their son, their daughter, brother, sister, aunt, best friend, their relationship with that person, conflicts with the societally-driven stereotype they have always known.  It forces them to confront their biases in a very personal way.  And love is winning out.  People are renouncing their bias.  As people know someone who is gay, they become supportive of gay rights.  This is backed by ample research.

Research also shows that lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of color are at greatest risk for poverty, unemployment, incarceration, HIV/AIDS infection, and premature death – whether due to health access issues, suicide, violence or racial profiling.   LGBT people of color are not benefiting from the gay rights movement the way that white gay and lesbian people have.

People in the LGBT movement have an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure that all of our brothers and sisters are protected – especially those who are most abused by our system – our brothers and sisters of color.   If you’re white – you can take a hint from the gay rights movement.  Make some new friends.  Expand your family.  Get to know your existing friends and family who are people of color – ask them about their experiences.  This call extends to the transgender community. If you’re gay or lesbian, make some friends in the transgender community.  The killing of the Michael Brown is personal and it should be personal for all of us.  Including those of us who have white skin and are cisgender.

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Kathleen LaTosch at NCRC Annual Conference 2012Kathleen LaTosch is a diversity and inclusion consultant specializing strategic planning for organizational change at nonprofit organizations. She works in Michigan and nationally, assisting organizations in making systemic and lasting change.  For more information, visit www.LaToschConsulting.com.
 

Employers, What’s your Water Cooler Conversation on Michigan’s Gay Marriage News?

gay marriageI get called on a lot to help businesses create a more welcoming environment for their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.  As part of the presentation, I help HR professionals and supervisors understand what lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people want in order to feel like valued employees.

I cite surprising statistics about the high percentage of LGBT people that feel unsafe to come out for fear of reprisal or professional consequences – hitting the lavender-tinted glass ceiling of advancement.  One question that comes up over and over again from well-meaning supervisors and HR directors is “How can we let LGBT people know that it’s a safe environment?”  “How can I, as a co-worker, encourage my fellow colleagues to come out and feel safe?”

The perfect opportunity just dropped in your lap.

This past weekend, Michigan became the 18th state to rule that a prohibition on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.  Hundreds of couples rushed to the three courthouses in the state which opened their doors on a Saturday, following the late Friday afternoon ruling from Judge Bernard Friedman.  Although the Appeals Court issued a stay on Saturday afternoon which temporarily ended the issuing of same sex marriage licenses until an appeal is heard, hundreds of couples were married over the weekend and Facebook exploded with traffic on the issue.

In my own town of Ferndale, Michigan, hundreds of straight well-wishers commented on the wedding announcements.  After being engaged for 22 years, I finally married my fiancée and was astounded by the local support of our straight friends and allies.  I was overwhelmed to learn that school board members waited for hours at our LGBT community center for us to return from the courthouse and applaud our nuptials;  I was awe-inspired to see high school friends from out-of-state and college friends from out-of-country praising the decision and congratulating us to all of their friends on Facebook.

The sheer feeling of community support was indescribable, especially since I once lived a part of my life in the shadow of the closet – worrying how others would treat me if they found out.

And your employees are not much different.   The vast majority of LGBT people have lived a portion of their lives in the shadow of the closet.   People living in that shadow carefully watch for signs that they can come out or that they should stay in – they listen to the informal conversations, they pay attention to how those who are “out” get treated.  They watch how other minorities fare professionally.

Michigan’s recent court decision provides all organizations with an opportunity to do a quick culture check.  What’s the conversation around *your* water cooler on this issue?   Do you hear people excitedly talking about friends, family and colleagues who got married over the weekend?   Did someone at your company get married?  Do you know?  Did you ask?   How do you feel about it and how are you conveying that feeling to others?

Listen in.  Is the conversation instead comments like, “Geez, what’s this world coming to?” or maybe there’s no conversation at all.  Perhaps when the subject is brought up, there is silence.

These are great opportunities for you to take the temperature of your organizational culture.

It’s also a good opportunity to check on your organization’s non-discrimination policies.  Do you specifically state that you won’t discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression?   If not, now is the perfect opportunity to make some headway there.

If you already have such a policy, the recent news is an excellent reason to recommit your organization’s values by sending a congratulatory message to all those in your employ who may have benefited.   Talk to them about what this may mean regarding their employment benefits, now that they are married.   Check with your legal counsel about what this may mean and share the information with your staff members.

And don’t forget the little touches, something as simple as receiving a beautiful and heartfelt Congratulations! card can make a world of difference.

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Kathleen LaTosch works as an independent consultant and focuses her work on building diverse and inclusive organizations.  For more information, visit www.LaToschConsulting.com.

Want to Create a More Gay-Friendly Work Environment?

by Kathleen LaTosch

It’s often surprising to people when they find out that people in most states, including Michigan, can still be fired simply because they are (or are perceived to be) gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.[i]  It should be no surprise then that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are fearful of losing their job or not even getting hired from the get-go.  Outing yourself in an interview can be a sure-fire way to NOT get offered that position.

Of course, this means many LGBT people are still in the closet when they take the job.  They then are faced with the challenge of determining when it’s safe to talk about their personal life, all the while fearing co-worker ostracism, client complaints, and promotion loss.  It’s not easy to navigate these challenges and new LGBT employees who stay in the closet quickly become viewed as secretive and impersonal, further alienating him/her from office camaraderie and limiting promotion opportunities.  If the worker views the environment as unsafe to LGBT people, s/he may never come out at all and will eventually leave your team.

So how do you combat this in the work environment?  How do you provide a welcoming place for your LGBT employees?

  • Let your potential employees know it’s a safe environment for them by putting it in writing.  Add sexual orientation and gender identity to your company or organization’s non-discrimination policy and print it plainly on all job postings.
  • Make sure employment benefits are equitable for both straight and gay employees.  Since LGBT people in most states still cannot legally marry (including in Michigan), healthcare and other benefits are not always readily available – make sure you offer domestic partner benefits, and other employment perks to both same sex partners and opposite sex partners of employees.  Provide education for LGBT employees on the tax consequences of the added benefits.
  • Provide comprehensive diversity and inclusion training to all your staff.  Make sure the work environment is safe – make sure all staff know you have a zero tolerance for offensive behavior of any kind, against any minority, and tell them what that is.  Provide cultural education and learning opportunities so your staff can become more familiar with customs, language and traditions.
  • Support causes important to your employees.  For LGBT employees, this includes sponsoring pride festivals or fundraising events of their favorite LGBT charities.  It makes a difference to that employee to see their company name on a community event and it increases your standing in the LGBT community – making your recruitment efforts all the better in the future.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a great start.  For more information about how to implement these ideas, or for training on these issues, your local LGBT community center can help.  CenterLink, the national association of LGBT community centers, has a directory of organizations across the country.


[i] In May of 2012, the EEOC interpreted discrimination based on sex to include those who are transgender, although the new rule has yet to be tested (as of May 2012).