Championing LGBTQ+ Voices: What Does It Mean and Where Do We Start?

By Karen Hewitt, M. Ed.
Pronouns: Ze/Hir/Hirs and She/Her/Hers
Associate Director, Leadership Columbus

I happened to have a few moments to spend on Twitter, and I saw the question going around, “when did you have your first Black male teacher?”  I fondly thought of my 3rd-grade music teacher and then started posing this question to myself around all my unique intersections.  I was trying to see something. The list of names and representatives was not long. I started to think of the first Black Women I saw in the classroom, the media, creatively, and business. The names became fewer and fewer as I moved through categories based on the type of category, profession, and genre.

I was socialized into the narrative that available careers for me were: administration, teaching, care-taking, nursing, and if I was lucky enough and talented enough, maybe I could sing or be in the arts.  The household names of Black people ‘making it’ were common in all Black households. We all had similar favorite shows and movies, where Black and Brown actors were hopefully playing parts.  Even if only for a few moments in one scene.  The idea of having a ‘good job’ or ‘making it’ was related to specific jobs. Those jobs were as a postal worker, working for the city or government, or a job where you could be eligible for retirement and pension. You know, the jobs that made it possible to buy a home prevented living check to check and allowed you to purchase brand name clothes. 

Admittedly, I was born in the early 1980s, and I have done so much work on unpacking the narratives and socialized messages I received around everything. Nevertheless, I will always bring race into the conversation as the foundation. That is not because I prefer to go first; it is because disparity began in this country.  The othering, the oppression, the slavery all started around the construct of race.  As we continued to grow older as a country, oppression changed forms and also expanded.  Oppression breeds oppression.  So, of course, we can easily add gender identity and expression and sexuality to what I call ‘the big three’ in terms of power politics (race, gender, sexuality) and intersectional hierarchy.

Some of you may be wondering why I would start a blog about championing LGBTQ+ voices in this way. First, I want to clarify that we, at minimum, need to be prepared to discuss how the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality play a part in LGBTQ+ representation.  At different points in history, other proximity to various intersections has kept only certain LGBTQ+ voices at the forefront of visibility.  Suppose we are moving towards representation, inclusion, and diversity in our organizations. In that case, we must be aware of and address the disparity that has plagued our nation since its beginning. 

The most marginalized of any marginalized group will be the Black and Brown members, the disabled, the elderly, the neurodiverse, the most othered. The people furthest from power.  For example, two Black women are running Fortune 500 businesses…this is record-breaking and is just happening in June 2021. I long for the day a Black, Trans Woman will run one. A Black, Non-Binary, or Non-Gender Conforming Womyn will lead one.  I also know that it takes some time. Some companies are headed in that direction. However, in most organizations, we are still working on people believing that pronouns in email signatures validate and create safe(r) spaces.

What does it mean to champion LGBTQ+ voices?

1. Awareness of the diversity dimensions of those in C-Suite leadership, supervisory roles, and the most visible in your organization.  When you have opportunities to have someone speak about LGBTQ+ issues and forward movement, who are you constantly asking?  Is it someone who is straight passing or otherwise operates as a heteronormative person?  Is there lived experience, one of cumulative impact and intersectionality?  Will they provide a different experience than the ones already present at the table?  Are we tokenizing someone just to have a POC, Queer, Gender Diverse speaker instead of truly inviting multiple voices and lived experience into this conversation?

2. Unpack your own bias and build a relationship with people with various diversity dimensions; in this case, LGBTQ+ folx. Get in proximity with those you say you serve.  Work on your own socialized messages so people with diverse dimensions are safe(r) in your presence and not subjected to harmful acts of bias.

3. Find opportunities to expand the table. Get Black and Brown, Queer, Non-Binary, Non-Gender Conforming, Trans people to the table for the conversation and listen to them. Believe them.  Center their complex and nuanced experiences. Amplify their experience, do not dismiss or discredit them. We will all be able to see some portion of ourselves in these dynamic perspectives.

4. Be committed to repair.  When you amplify the voices of those not commonly in places of power, harm will occur.  This is a forever commitment.  It is inevitable that as we keep learning and growing, we will produce harm. Are you committed to accountability and healing? If you are, then regardless of what happens when LGBTQ+ (POC, disabled, neurodiverse, various religions, etc.) have representation, you can constantly adapt and adjust to create an environment of healing.

5. Awareness that this is a lifestyle, not a one-time, executive decision. This is not something we are focusing on only on LGBTQ+ History Month. This awareness is something we carry with us. We can build capacity to make this a part of the conversation around leadership, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, nuance, and complexity every month. (Yes, at the same time as  Black History Month, Asian Heritage Month, Latine Heritage Month, Autism Awareness week, etc.).  We are beginning to move in the right direction when we can start to talk about all of the diversity dimensions in collaboration, how they impact our work, and what we need to do accordingly, with representation wherever possible.

I would honestly say this is a challenging list.  I read Michael Eric Dyson’s book ‘What Truth Sounds Like,” and I really had to sit with some of the discussion and themes present.  He breaks down the complexity of civil rights in terms of people present in conversations with former US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.  The focal point of his breakdown is James Baldwin. Sitting at the forefront of Blackness and Gayness.  Challenging White folx with his Blackness and brilliance and challenging Black folx with his Gayness.  What becomes essential when leading for change? Looking back historically, how do we rectify so many folx being ambiguous racially, sexually in terms of their gender expression and creativity to stay safe?  So many lived their truth in private. In shame.  In judgment.  From people who held power.  If you asked Bobby Kennedy, he thought he would receive praise for his initiatives and what he got was the opposite. My takeaway is that you can do for people and provide what you think they need, but you won’t know what they are feeling or need until you ask them.

As a person who identifies as Black, Queer, Genderfluid, Non-Gender Conforming, and Pansexual (to name the most pertinent to this specific conversation), there are many things to consider when addressing all my diversity dimensions.  I am a creative and am trained in performance; however, I don’t always enjoy the spotlight.  I choose to oblige requests because I realize that for some young folx and newer professionals, I may be the first person they see that looks like them.  That is why it is important to me to stay present. To keep putting my art out there. To continue to be in conversations and speak up for who I am and those I represent. Even when I get pinned as challenging, difficult, and aggressive.  I have committed personally to interrogating everything, so everyone can have access to opportunities, resources, and experiences. At some point, I had to decide that this commitment and charge could leave me jobless, and even more severely, harmed and/or the target of violence. I had to choose to still commit anyway. 

I don’t have a lot of people that I can easily recall that I am close to that made me feel like I could be successful, that I could be myself and thrive. I was 28 years old in Columbus, Ohio, when I met Luster Singleton and saw Anisa Love (Corey Williams).  Luster has a long history of working in LGBTQ+ spaces and advocating. Luster introduced me to a church that didn’t damn me or condemn me. Instead, he connected me to other activist groups. Showed me how to bring my fluidity into my creative space and celebrated me.  Anisa Love is a brilliant creator, drag queen, and performer.  I watched Anisa navigate the predominantly White and AMAB (assigned male at birth) drag scene with patience and poise and is finally being championed and elevated, rightfully so.  I am so grateful for their visibility and representation, and risk-taking. It is risky to put yourself out there, with all of your differences, and basically leave it there for the court of public opinion. 

All of this reflects that I do not believe the solution is as simple as bringing more Black, Indigenous, and POC LGBTQ+ people to your organizations and leadership.  The field must be prepared to receive what they have to say and not center the familiar people closest to power (White, Cis, Heternormative men). The truth is that when diverse people are in power, commonly, their goal is to make it better for everyone there, existing powers that be included.  Diverse teams perform better.

It is time to really take a look at our leadership at all levels and see where there is room to expand the table.  I think this requires honesty with ourselves about who exactly we want to lead. Get clear on this before you invite inclusion, or your actions will subconsciously harm those who come into the space that doesn’t look like you.  We have an opportunity to change the narrative and amplify voices that are commonly quieted, dismissed, or not invited. So this LGBTQ+ month, 2021, and moving forward: what will you do to start thinking about and doing things differently in amplifying and centering (Black, Brown, Indigenous) LGBTQ+ voices and hearing their stories/suggestions, and making sustainable change for the better?

Karen Hewitt, M. Ed.
Pronouns: Ze/Hir/Hirs and She/Her/Hers