Imagine growing up in a world where you can’t look up to anyone like you because they do not exist. Well, that’s pretty much the story of my life. Don’t get me wrong. In the age of Tiffany Haddish, Issa Rae and Ava DuVernay we have no shortage of talented black women creating iconic things. However, those of the Lena Waithe variety are very few and in between.
From that sentence, if you didn’t know already, you probably figured out that I am a lesbian. I am also a black woman, geek, coach, entrepreneur, executive, do-gooder and builder amongst many other things. I am more than a lesbian but people tend to focus on that identity when they learn of it. Many times, I have been asked how I do it. There’s no easy answer which is why I am writing this post. I am going to tell you what it’s like, how you can support black LGBTQ folks and I will even reveal the unique talents we possess.
A couple of weeks ago I read an article about the “emotional tax” that black women face on the job. Organizations pay for this tax in the form of lost revenue and talent. Black women pay with plaguing fear, leading us to exit organizations or preventing us to perform at our highest level. Constantly being fearful and “on guard” drains the life out of us. Surprisingly, the study didn’t mention LGBTQ individuals in particular but based on anecdotal evidence, if there were sampling, our taxes would be significantly steeper. We are constantly on guard, not only with race and gender bias, but also by that third strike, homophobia.
I have paid a lifetime’s worth of emotional tax throughout the years. When I obtained my MBA and entered the corporate world, I didn’t want anyone to know who I truly was. I was ashamed and frightened of the consequences I would face for being me. I had my mind made up that if I came out, my career would be quickly derailed. I picked and chose jobs in which I felt comfortable disclosing my sexuality based on my immediate manager’s comfort. Looking back, the one job in which I was entirely true to myself ended up going down as my favorite job in that particular decade. Not fearing bias allowed me to focus on bringing my unique perspective to work to the point that clients often specially requested me.
Over the next five years, I learned that if I didn’t come out early on at any given job, it was likely that I would remain perpetually in the closet. That was career suicide for me. The emotional tax would bankrupt me. So, I started coming out in interviews and, while I was being hired for my skill set, not who I loved, navigating organizations was still a challenge. Often times, I worked in companies in which there were black women that I could look up to but there was always that chance that they were homophobic. I often was the first lesbian they had ever worked with. Business lunch conversations focused on their careers and families but, when I began to speak about my private life, they quickly diverted the conversation.
Fast forward to today and, while I can say that I have learned to be a black lesbian in the workplace, it’s definitely not flawless. I still don’t truly mesh into any one group but I manage to find my way. I can attribute some of my success to progressively being more secure and less flustered by judgement. I also have as unique as a perspective as anyone and, since I am no longer on guard, I bring my whole self to work. Monumental mentors and champions help me untangle organizations when things get messy. I am so lucky to have these individuals in my life. They are always just a phone call away.
I hope reading my story is inspiring enough to make you want to reach out and empower black LGBTQ employees in your workplace. A few insights to get you started:
1) Black LGBTQ employees need support. Most companies have an LGBTQ employee resource group (ERG) but, often, we are not truly included. To evaluate the effectiveness of your ERG, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your organization account for intersectionalities in the LGBTQ community (i.e. do you consider your intersectional LGBTQ folks during Women’s History Month, Black History Month and other historic times?)
- Is your resource group leadership representative of the LGBTQ community or is it homogenous?
If you do not have an ERG, promote an inclusive environment that encourages people to come out and be acknowledged.
2) Hire black LGBTQ folks for diversity and expect original ideas, resiliency and unconventional approaches. Be careful not to stifle these unique talents, as, without inclusion, they will never come to fruition. We have been through the ringer so don’t underestimate our resilience and GRIT.
3) Always question your bias and potential disparate impact in your workplace. Do you have black LGBTQ leaders in your organization? Are they in respectable roles? Do you recognize them as a full person (i.e. their partners, families and other interests)?
We still have a long way to go but there’s no better time to be more inclusive. It starts with you.