Listening to public radio one afternoon, a story mentioned that a speaker had been harassed on stage at a progressive college. She was called a “cisgender” ______________ (expletive). “Cisgender,” I thought to myself, what is that? Thank you Google, I learned that the term refers to a person whose sense of personal identity corresponds with their gender. Truthfully, this took me a moment to digest. Since when did we label that?
One could easily argue that I represent a perhaps stereotypical, middle-aged, white woman lacking worldly knowledge in current terms—you could say I embody being blissfully ignorant and cisgender. While I am keenly aware of the reality of my white privilege, I am a gay woman who came out in the late-80’s. In that day, common were “coming out stories,” constant fear of termination at work, decades-long battles to have friends and family accept my “decision,” and losing numerous friends to AIDS. Quite frankly some of the relationships in my life did not survive. Thankfully today it is more commonly accepted that my sexual orientation is and was not a decision.
So why am I sharing a story that is still uncomfortable to broadcast? Not long after moving towards personal acceptance, and fighting for societal acceptance, I started my journey into Diversity & Inclusion. Truthfully, I have never been a flag-waving, parade marching kinda’ gal. To me, it is more who I am rather than what I am. Yes, I watched Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out episode, and laughed at Laura Dern’s lost opportunity in the episode to win a toaster oven. (My “line” was “pass the salt, by the way, I’m gay.”) For me, it was not a defining moment in our evolution of acceptance. Rather it was moving along a gradually opening social level of consciousness and awareness. I basically went about building my corporate career in my gay silence.
My time to be “me” was after work and on the weekends. Like many of my generation, the few options were girl and/or boy bars. Just like straight bars/dance clubs, they were dark, loud, and full of young people with raging hormones. The common denominator was being with “our” kind. Free to be ourselves in the dark, black-lit rooms, pulsating with dance music. Then on Monday, it was back to the “real” world.
Honestly, I do not remember when we became LGTBQ. Most certainly I can Google it for the purposes of accuracy, but that is not the point of this piece. Rather, the point is that the “T” did not represent me, and being very honest, I did not know why I should be included with a community for which I did not identify? Gender identification was not my “issue.”
While embarrassing to admit my bias, showing the capital “J” in my INTJ profile, and quite frankly my lack of compassion and understanding, I think it is important to do so. If for no other reason, to share that those feelings are in the past and that as we look at today’s Diversity & Inclusion work, the many layers to the LGBTQ community command an evolving state of understanding and awareness.
My story is of a Gen X woman coming out in the late 20th Century. It speaks only of my journey, in my time. It does not speak to those much braver than I who came before me, or those screamingly comfortable-with-themselves millennials I encounter today.
It has really been within the last decade that I have done a 180 on my understanding and appreciation for the Transgender community. Through a combination of lessons, which includes a friend-attorney who represented a Transgender Client at the beginning of the bathroom debate, watching Bruce Jenner’s anguishing and then triumphant journey play out on TV, and the brilliant work of Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent. While these are notable, there were many mini-learning opportunities as this curious cat watched, listened, and learned.
I would say my enlightenment was in one specific episode of Transparent, where Jeffrey’s character (Maura) attends the fictitious Idyllwild Wimmin’s music festival. Coming to a place of more fully embracing and accepting herself, she excitedly heads to the event with her daughters. Let’s just say, it did not go well, causing her abrupt, sad, triumphant, and thought-provoking departure from the event.
To me, it was a wake-up call. How could I, and my “sisters” dismiss the transgender journey as somehow less than, or not related to our own? I would be dishonest if I were to say that I can identify with the feeling of being a woman in a man’s body. Regardless, I completely understand having the feelings that make me, me—being straight would have been a much easier road to adulthood at that time.
So why share this story? Many of my young gay friends may not even know the significance of the toaster oven. They may not have a coming out story because their personal awareness of their sexual orientation was embraced by their parents at 10 years old—little or no drama involved. They might find my enlightenment towards the transgender community as something their Mother or Grandmother might share along with their “uphill both ways to school” stories.
I share it for my colleagues and friends who want to attract, retain and engage talent by creating inclusive cultures. Today’s social constructs and norms are transforming at the speed of technology and information. Using me as an example, just because I am gay, I clearly do not know all things LGBTQ. People/talent leaders must now navigate an increasingly complex world. The LGBTQ conversation, as well as many conversations related to Diversity & Inclusion are now nuanced by age, race, gender, socioeconomics, to name a few.
I propose that there are no “right” answers when it comes to many aspects of this conversation, and I recognize this conversation can be a lightning rod. I conclude with my need to share that I believe you can take issue with my previous, and continuing ignorance, as my learning journey continues. However, you, I and we cannot take issue with curious and engaged friends and colleagues willing to learn, understand and embrace the differences in all of us—such a cliché, but we, and our organizations are better together.