In the second and final installment of Dewaine Beard’s interview series, the End User Operations Executive Director details ways that allies can make progress in the fight for equality, explores generational and geographical differences in understanding, and offers advice for creating an inclusive workplace.
Where are we in the fight for equality for those in the LGBTQ+ community? What can allies and others do to bring awareness to this struggle?
My career has been a very safe place. I know it hasn’t necessarily felt that way for some of my brothers and sisters. I’ve been very fortunate. I never was particularly closeted, nor was I particularly out. I’m of a generation where one doesn’t talk about it either way, and you let people make the assumptions that they make about you.
We’ve got plenty of role models out in media, Lil Nas X on Saturday Night Live and Elliot Page, championing visibility — we’ve got lots and lots of space now because people have been out and visible and not hiding this very important part of their lives. But the job’s not done because I can still get bounced from a restaurant or a hotel. The Supreme Court’s been very interesting on these cases. Back when I was a young person, the Supreme Court had ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that the state could regulate what happened in the bedroom and the privacy of one’s own home. There is always a risk that the Supreme Court could roll back LGBTQ+ civil rights or that public opinion in America could swing back in the other direction. So I’ve found that being visible and being boring is really the most powerful, liberating thing I can do for gay and lesbian folks in VA.
What allies can do is avoid the heterosexual assumption. Remember that we can pass. You have no idea that we’re in the room. And we are listening very carefully. Heterosexual people do not often realize how openly they talk about their sexual orientation. They talk about their wives and husbands and children all the time. I cannot tell you how many times people have asked me if I’m married and if I have kids. Now, before the Supreme Court ruling in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, that was a pretty clear question about your sexual orientation — are you straight or not? I’m sure my colleagues never gave it a thought just how tight a position that put me in. I had to think, “Do I want to have a disruptive conversation about homosexuality right now, with this person when we are just meeting?” How many of our allies would jump at that conversational chance? Now I can say, “Yes, I’m married.” And then choose to say “And his name is Randy.” Or not. Depending on how comfortable I am with the individual situation.
Allies can be very thoughtful about the gender. I always perked up when I heard someone say, “Do you have a partner?” rather than “husband” or “wife.” That assumption of heterosexuality falls out of people’s mouths very easily. Try to avoid gendered assumptions until somebody tells you the gender of their significant other. Don’t assume the gender of the partner in their life and be very aware if someone is not talking about their partner if everyone else around the table talks about what they’re doing this weekend with their family and their kids. Be warm and welcoming. Be aware that they may resist engagement because they’re scared if they let slip this little thing about them, that they could lose their job or be subject to ridicule or harassment. Up to this point, they’ve been able to pass and avoid the oppression. When someone knows that information about you, it invites LGBTQ+ oppression into the room.
If someone shares with you their sexual orientation or their gender identity, they’ve given you a tremendous level of trust because they’ve given you the power to direct oppression at them. That’s a tremendous amount of power they’ve given you. That’s a tremendous amount of trust they’ve placed in you. Allies should remember that it’s not your information to give to other people. Respect the person and let them tell their story when they want and how they want.
I don’t want to make talking with us a heavy thing though. Always be curious. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes — I love to educate and talk to people about LGBTQ+ history, liberation, and my life. An awkward conversation is so much better than weird silence. It’s almost back to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — you don’t ask me about my private life, I will choose not to tell you and we’ll have a great professional relationship. But it won’t be genuine. It won’t be personal. And then it’s harder to trust and our organizations work best when we have full trust.
What would you tell others who may be struggling with the decision to step forward and be recognized as being part of the LGBTQ+ community?
I think about my workforce. My workforce is everywhere in America, so what I would say to somebody who’s serving in Manhattan is different than I’m going to say to someone that’s serving in Fargo. If you’re serving in a highly rural place where people carry assault rifles regularly and there’s not a particularly warm environment for gay and lesbian folks, your safety is my number one concern. Do what is smart for you in your life, for you and your family. If you can share who you are, know that your job at least will be protected, and that the more of us who are open and genuine and fully human in our workplace, the more diversity of thought there is, the smarter we get as an organization, and the more fun it is to come to work. It’s so much more fun for me to talk to my team as everyone’s going around talking about what they’re doing this weekend and I get to talk about what I’m doing with my partner. It makes things much more comfortable and you don’t need to be afraid.
It’s also important for folks to understand it’s generational. I’m an early Gen Xer. Baby Boomers have a much harder time talking about or even considering coming out. The younger generations don’t think about it so much at all. There should be no judgment over the decisions and choices people make around disclosure. It’s what you can tolerate that really is important, right?
What are some lingering issues that impact LGBTQ+ Veterans that VA can bring awareness to or resolve?
Those folks who were dishonorably discharged due to their sexual orientation are denied benefits, and that injustice needs to be corrected. Folks that served and were honorably discharged may have a challenging time coming forward to talk about their health status. I learned as a public health educator and an AIDS educator that it’s important to talk to people honestly and frankly about their sexual health, which means asking very specific and uncomfortable questions. Folks who are health care providers should be encouraged and trained on how to ask those questions. VA has been a leader in this area and has been pretty supportive, but much like we heard from women during Women’s History Month, making VA a safe place is really a challenge because this is a very male-dominated place.
It can be hard to convey that the environment is safe for gay and lesbian folks. Subtle things like pride flags, pink triangles, and other visible symbols that we at least are thinking about gay and lesbian folks and not erasing gay and lesbian folks and their service helps. It tends to spark other conversations that can be uncomfortable for some leaders. We need to be brave enough as leaders to have these conversations and try to make this as safe a place as we can for everyone and talk about it and ask our staff, “What’s it like for you if someone you work with was gay or lesbian?” Or if a gay or lesbian Veteran came in and talked about their partner or their sex life or the sexual trauma that they encountered in the military because of their sexual orientation. These questions all need to be asked. It’s just part of human experience and we shouldn’t shy away from it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
I’ve been around for a very long time, so it’s hard for me to know where any individual is in their path today until we have a conversation. The questions that I was asked in 1986 as an undergraduate student by uninformed college freshmen are different from the questions I got in the 90s when I would go to bars and schools and give presentations and are different from the conversations I have now with my staff. So rather than share anything else, I’d like to invite the readers to strike up a conversation with an LGBTQ+ person. Get to know us and let’s build an amazingly diverse, welcoming VA for everyone.
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