“My wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in Letter to my Son. We often say, show up with authenticity. Live with pride of who you are. And we’ve seen the research that shows that being able to come to work out and proud as an LGBTQ+ person, and feeling like your religion, your heritage, your race, your age, your disability are embraced and respected as part of who you are can improve productivity, and can impact a company’s innovation and ROI.
The question we explored through two panels, one at the 2019 Derby Diversity & Business Summit (DDBS) in Louisville, KY, and one at the NGLCC 2019 International Business & Leadership Conference in Tampa, FL, asked whether we as individuals are having an identity crisis, or if society, and many of the communities and groups – including the corporate cultures - we operate within, are having an awareness crisis when it comes to identity. This topic, and work to understand the ramifications of non-inclusive workplaces has become increasingly prevalent over the past few years, as the landscape in America continues to evolve.
The report “Uncovering Talent A New Model of Inclusion” by Deloitte, delves into what sociologist Erving Goffman described as “covering,” which is “how even individuals with known stigmatized identities made a ‘great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.’” The report noted that “In 2006, Kenji Yoshino further developed the concept of ‘covering.’ He elaborated the four axes along which individuals can cover: Appearance, Affiliation, Advocacy, and Association.”
So what does that look like in reality? As reported by Deloitte, “Sixty-one percent of respondents [3,129 people] reported covering along at least one axis at work. Eighty-three percent of LGB individuals, 79 percent of Blacks, 67 percent of women of color, 66 percent of women, and 63 percent of Hispanics cover. Covering occurred with greater frequency within groups that have been historically underrepresented. At the same time, 45 percent of straight White men—who have not been the focus of most inclusion efforts—reported covering. This finding seems particularly promising, given that a model of ‘inclusion’ should, almost by definition, be one in which all individuals can see themselves.”
If, as the report says, covering in one form or another is being done by SO many people from women of color to LGBTQ+ and even straight White men - then we all benefit from a shift in culture. An evolution to where we can bring our full selves to work - where we can show up 100. This starts by acknowledging that we all have unconscious bias and mental models formed by our upbringing and surroundings. We will all f*ck it up and get it wrong. And, we must seek to continuously expand our understanding of others in an increasingly global world. Even, when it makes us uncomfortable.
During the two panel discussions, we delved into everything from tokenism to what lessons we’ve learned when our identity was questioned.
“Many of us are too self-conscious when it comes to how we identify for fear of not being accepted. Making others aware of how their bias’ impacts our inability to show up is the first step to helping us check not just their blind spots but even our own. Bias doesn’t exist with one race, one gender, one sexual orientation nor one class of people, we must learn to challenge our comfort zones and have these conversations together and not in silo’s to effectively have change“ - Tawana Bain, founder of Derby Diversity & Business Summit.
As I shared during the panel, I’m a gay man who uses he/him/his pronouns and presents as androgynous (a combination of masculine and feminine characteristics). My journey started on Lookout Mountain [Chattanooga, TN area], in a small conservative religious community. After being outed as gay before my Junior year of high-school, and moving in with family in southern Indiana to finish my Senior year, I started to explore what showing up 100 meant for me. An understanding and expression that continues to evolve to this day, and will for the rest of my life.
One aspect that has significantly changed is how often I’m misgendered, which is when someone uses a word, especially a pronoun (he / she / they) or form of address (Sir / M’am) that does not correctly reflect the gender with which someone identifies. This is happening throughout the world, to people from across the gender identity spectrum. It’s happening regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic background. And, it’s not just about the bathroom. It’s about being made to feel unsafe, isolated, and othered.
I started wearing makeup my senior year of high-school, and have ever sense. I found, as Lady Gaga recently said, that makeup brought out her inner superhero. But it wasn’t until the past few years, when I grew my hair out, became leaner from running, and consistently wore more androgynous clothing that the misgendering went from a few times per year, to multiple times per day depending on where I was.
Imagine someone doing something that really annoys or frustrates you. They don’t do it often, so you can brush it off. Now, think about if they did (or maybe they do) it multiple times per day. Every day. Think about what that would do mentally, emotionally. How it might impact your ability to be productive, impact your happiness, your sense of belonging?
Because of the uptick in being misgendered, I wrote a piece in early 2018 called “A Culture Shift - Where Misgendering Isn’t the Norm - But the Exception.”
Admittedly, as I was misgendered more and more, I felt insulted. I look in the mirror and see a beautiful man, obviously, that’s not what others were seeing - they saw a woman. What I realized is that the people who were misgendering me weren’t doing so out of hate, or to intentionally hurt me. They were doing so because their mental model about the world included neat little boxes of what men and women are supposed to look like. And, did not include a spectrum for gender expression.
It was great to see the questions and conversations that followed our panel discussion at DDBS. One attendee said she hadn’t been sure if she could tell me I was beautiful because she didn’t want to insult me. Another, a straight White man and Senior VP of a corporation, asked about how to respectfully inquire about someone’s preferred pronouns, and how to respond if they seemed uncomfortable with the question.
During the panel in Tampa, I quoted my IDEAS xLab team member, poet Hannah Drake, who says in her poem Power, “Someone is waiting for you to be all you can be, so that they can be all they are destined to be.” For me – that's why I continue to show up like I do. Because each generation has to help model what the future of opportunity looks like. And, it’s only becoming for expansive.
Let’s be clear. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. We’re all trying to find our way. And, as Gen Z continues to become a larger part of the population, the pace of change will exponentially increase as they further buck gender stereotypes (J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group Report featured in Vice).
While discussing how to proactively find out someone’s preferred pronouns, and evolve our thinking about gender and identity so we’re inclusive, additional questions arose. I sought out recommendations from friends, and pulled from what I’ve seen personally.
Some things to consider for individuals:
“Try using the pronouns they | them | their when engaging with a person who you interpret to have an ambiguous gender,” shared Dr. Kaila Story, Audre Lorde Endowed Chair in Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality Studies and Pan-African Studies at University of Louisville and Co-Host of the Strange Fruit podcast. “Instead of saying ‘Excuse me Sir/Ma’am,’ trying saying ‘Hey y’all,’ ‘Hello beautiful people,’ and/or ‘How are folks/you lovely people doing?’”
If someone is going into the bathroom, assume they are doing so intentionally. I’m pretty confident that if it’s the incorrect one, they’ll figure it out.
If someone is discriminated against, stand up for them. It could be correcting someone who misgenders a friend or family member, or speaking up against an even more threatening form of discrimination.
It’s exhausting to always educate people about misgendering/pronouns, racism, homophobia, etc. Sometimes, you have to decide – for self-protective reasons – to either walk away, or just keep your thoughts to yourself.
Consider the spectrum of extremes, and finding the people who need the least convincing to understand the message you want to get across. Engage them to help carry that message to their networks, and to others who may not be able to hear it from you.
When introducing yourself, include your pronouns. This is something that takes practice for all of us. If someone looks at your offended, have a response ready. “I introduce myself with pronouns to everyone because I am trying my best not to assume anyone’s preferred pronoun based on appearance.” It is going to get harder and harder to get it right most of the time based on assumptions... so let’s start practicing now.
Corporate, Governmental and Non-Profit leaders:
Think about everything from nametags, your email signature and your Twitter bio, and where there are opportunities for proactively having people list their pronouns.
Start meetings, and introducing yourself by including your pronoun as part of the introduction. Model the behavior you want to see, so that you’re making the space safe for someone who needs and/or wants to say their preferred pronouns.
Create “Gender Inclusive” Bathrooms. You can still have additional gendered options if needed to get people used to the idea – but the more you demonstrate your inclusive planning and support, the better.
Think about your corporate culture, and if it supports making work places, events, and your community feel safe, welcome and respected. Consider how training and an intentional culture shift can demonstrate your values — both for employees and customers.
Think about the individuals who are on the frontlines of care or service and the language used with customers, clients, co-workers. You can still be hospitable and respectful without making an assumption about someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
About Josh Miller
From transforming lives through art, to challenging traditional notions of beauty and making spaces inclusive for individuals who don’t drink alcohol, Josh Miller takes an insightful and ambitious approach to creating a world where everyone can show up 100.
Originally from Chattanooga, TN, Josh is the co-founder + CEO of IDEAS xLab - an artist-led nonprofit based in Louisville, KY that leverages the power of community creativity and culture to support a more healthy, just, and hope-filled society.
He is an artist with a background in entrepreneurship, art and business administration, and editorial production - and explores the world through photography (and a lot of running), documenting his journey through joshmiller.ventures. In addition to his outdoor explorations, Josh celebrates the brilliance and strength of LGBTQ+ and Black communities through photography and collaborative storytelling.
Josh was selected for Louisville Business First's Forty under 40, and is a distance runner, a TEDx speaker, an advisor for the Derby Diversity & Business Summit, and founding Board Member of Civitas: Regional LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce headquartered in Louisville, KY.