Early in my career I had an experience that changed my views on diversity, opening my eyes to the value of being inclusive and open. As a young engineer in the early 90s (as my daughters constantly remind me that would be last century), the plant in which I worked in my first job out of the university was required to have off-site diversity training. This training was a response to challenges that the plant had experienced in the 80s with regard to valuing differences. Historically our plant was a pretty tough place for those “not from around here.” This three-day training brought together a cross-section of our multi-unit plant employees, and it was good to get to know a lot of my colleagues on a more personal level as we learned about our different perspectives.
The first day focused on gender and racial diversity. On the second day the topic of sexual orientation was introduced. Given the backgrounds of many folks in the room, this was clearly a more difficult topic for many to get their minds around. There were a lot of crossed arms and eyes staring at shoes as we got started.
The exercise we went through asked everyone to draw their impressions of what life was like being gay. As everyone started to complete the task, the tone in the room softened and most participants worked earnestly to think about what it was like to live as a gay man or woman at that time and in that place. As we went around the room to explain the results of our efforts, it was clear that everyone took the time to really think about their view and depict it on their flip chart.
When we were halfway around the circle of 25 participants, my friend Bob, who started as an engineer on the same day I did, began to explain his drawing. He shared in detail what his view was of what it was like to grow up gay and have to conceal who you truly are, and the conflicts that brought internally. What it was like to be a participant in a friend’s wedding and know that it was unlikely that you would ever be able to have a similar event. As he ended his explanation, he was asked the same question we had all received, “Where are you in the picture?” It was at that time that he took a decision that changed my views on the topic ever since. His answer: “I am the gay person in the drawing.”
While societal views on inclusion of LGBT perspectives have begun to change dramatically in recent years, true inclusion requires individuals to be open to talk about their personal experiences and open to listening to other’s perspectives even when vastly different from our own. In having the opportunity to talk with my good friend (who, by the way, I had no idea was gay) about his experience growing up and listening to his story, many of my misperceptions were challenged. While we did not call it being an LGBT ally 22 years ago, I am glad that I was open to learn more and change my view as a result. I ask that others who might be inclined to shy away from being an ally be open to having an initial conversation. It might just change your perspective for the rest of your life.