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Raising Hell and Raising Awareness by Jean-Marie Navetta

January 9, 2012

Growing up—politically and professionally—I lived by the Rita Mae Brown adage, “If you can’t raise consciousness, at least raise hell.” My era of social change, which, in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community was heralded in by groups like ACT-UP, was passionately inspired to create change in the face of tremendous injustice. In addition to lacking even the most basic civil rights (even consenting gay adults were technically breaking laws when in relationships until 2003), the AIDS crisis demanded loud and extreme campaigns for change. And, at the time, it worked.

Of course the “growing up” part often means understanding that transforming perceptions and beliefs is an ever-evolving effort. As my work started to focus on the D&I space, I have learned that some of the most effective change we can create comes with passionate engagement, not imposition.

In the LGBT arena, my proof of this reality came in 2007, when the organization that I work for, PFLAG National, launched its Straight for Equality project. The effort was a departure from anything the organization had done before. Instead of focusing on families of LGBT people, they chose to focus on friends and strangers, many of whom saw no connection to the topic of LGBT equality. Without talking politics or religion, making demands, or raising hell, the goal was to start connecting the dots for people—the 8 in 10 Americans who personally know someone who is LGBT (and even the three who don’t realize it yet)—and help them understand that equality is their issue too.

The approach was not without controversy. It meant actually allowing some people to not be where we wanted them to be, sometimes even accepting that we’d have to respect differences. But we knew what the best members of the D&I community see, too: real inclusion, and the culture change that it augurs, only happens when we commit to the dialogue of change, not the demand.

At work, this dialogue about culture change for LGBT people is more necessary than ever before. On the one hand, corporate America has made outstanding progress on implementing policies to create LGBT-inclusive workplaces. According to the Human Rights Campaign, this year, 196 organizations achieved a perfect score on its Corporate Equality Index, the report card for good corporate citizenship on LGBT issues. And overall, 86% of Fortune 500 companies include “sexual orientation” in their nondiscrimination policies, and 50 % include “gender identity.”

But these policies have not translated into real inclusion for LGBT employees. Roughly 50% of workers remain in the closet at their jobs. Some of the highest rates of fear about being out at work come from the youngest generation in the workforce, defying the idea that change will happen as generations shift. In the end, the impact of this fear is reduced productivity and low talent retention.

At the heart of the effort to create real culture change are straight allies. But engaging straight allies means reframing the discussion about LGBT at work to be one that obliterates the line between “their issue” and “my issue”, making it “our issue.” To do that, we have to communicate what is at stake, both in productivity and human capital. We need to redefine the expectations of these new allies in a way that is respectful of the diversity of their beliefs. And we’ve got to provide new allies with ways to become engaged by defining what support looks like in the workplace in accessible ways that lead to inclusion.

There are barriers, and there are challenges. But with each day in workplaces across the country—and around the globe—we’re finding out how to take that ally inclusion journey. With Straight for Equality in the Workplace, we’ve seen it happening in the more than 50 organizations we’ve worked with. And the demand for our resources—like the guide to being a straight ally, now in its second edition – and more training remains strong.

I can’t lie—the thought of raising hell once in a while is still fun and sometimes necessary. But the truth is that the “raising consciousness” part works even better.

About the Author:

Jean-Marie Navetta is the Director of Equality & Diversity Partnerships for PFLAG National/Straight for Equality.

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