equality

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Well, I’ve been back in Winnipeg for about three weeks now since heading to Baltimore last month. I was pretty scared to go to begin with, and the hurricane didn’t do much for alleviating that fear, but the fact that I’m here writing to you should be a good indication of my not dying or getting whisked away to Oz.

The Out and Equal Workplace Summit was pretty incredible. I joined 34 other colleagues from offices across the globe along with close to 3,000 individuals all committed to workplace equality. I don’t even know where to begin – it was such an energizing week full of shared education, experiences, strategies, struggles and hope, and being part of such a large group of like-minded people was nothing short of inspirational.

I attended numerous workshops put on by big companies and learned about things like The Trevor Project, designed with the hope for a future “where the possibilities, opportunities and dreams are the same for all youth, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” They are determined to end suicide among LGBT youth. Acceptance and inclusiveness are part of their mantra, and they are rooted in the belief that everyone should be treated like a human being. It Gets Better is another fantastic project started in 2010 in response to the suicides of teenagers who were bullied because they were gay.

I also had the chance to attend a session delivered by Google on LGBT issues in a global workplace. Part of their mission includes many diversity and inclusion efforts: “in addition to hiring the best talent, the diversity of perspectives, ideas and cultures leads to the creation of better products and services.” I couldn’t agree more. Throughout the workshop, I found myself simultaneously inspired and saddened. It was encouraging to see such a large company have strong Employee Resource Groups, strong local leadership and support from the executive level to ensure their colleagues are treated with the same respect as their clients – but it was also incredibly eye-opening to see just how much work there still is to be done. I sat behind a representative from a company in Singapore, and had to jot down his awesome comment: “It’s a very restrictive culture there. And I’m all about tearing that shit up.” Yes, we may work in restrictive, conservative cultures, but that doesn’t mean conformity is the answer. Nobody should feel pressured to hide who they really are, and personally, I believe it’s ultimately to the detriment of the offices that foster that sort of environment. When people feel afraid, judged, or reprimanded for bringing their true selves to the workplace, motivation goes out the window.

I also had the chance to attend an interesting workshop put on by Straight for Equality and PFLAG on navigating religion and LGBT issues in the workplace. As a straight atheist, I was highly intrigued to hear how these seemingly mutually exclusive topics could coexist, and actually left quite inspired. I’m not going to go into my feelings toward religion right now, but it was nice to hear of some churches actually taking steps away from judgment and exclusion and initiating things that promote equality for all.

As one of my colleagues stated, “as with every civil rights and equality issue, it’s only when the many come together that we achieve the power of one. There are no women’s rights, gay rights, ethnic minority rights or religious rights… there are only human rights.”

People at work are often afraid to speak up about LGBT issues, despite the fact that 8 out of 10 people in the US know someone who is LGBT. Reasons can range from being afraid of controversy, being opposed based on religious grounds, and being afraid of being thought to be gay – as was my experience when I hung the Pride flag in my office! Again, it was saddening to see these issues so horribly rampant, but somehow comforting realizing you’re not alone.

There are many anti-LGBT arguments out there that simply don’t make sense. Workplace benefits, the right to marry, and adoption legislation should be equal across the board. When they’re not, you’re effectively stating that some people do not deserve the same rights as other human beings. And the fact that this is considered an argument worthy of debate is beyond ridiculous. These are real people who live, breathe, work just as hard and love just as much as everybody else, and to deny them the same basic rights based on who they are is a form of discrimination no different than sexism, ageism or racism.

Before I left, I had an unsettling talk with one of my superiors about the discrepancy between some of the company’s values and the lack thereof existing at the ground level. I am proud to work for a company that promotes diversity, respect, innovation and inclusion, and I am even prouder of all the work that the LGBTA group has done for health and welfare benefits and US tax legislation. But there’s a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. When I pointed out the incongruity, the response was a disheartening “you can’t change people”. Is that what people struggled against back in the day when fighting for race equality? Maybe deep down, it is difficult to change people, and maybe it’s not my place to do it. But you can change behaviour, you can promote strong values, and you can lead by example. That’s why we need to keep fighting the fight and standing up for what’s right. (I swear I didn’t mean for that to rhyme. I’d be a terrible rapper.)

The summit concluded with a glittering gala celebration, hosted by comedian Kate Clinton who reminded us of the safety and acceptance we all deserve in our workplaces. Guest speaker Brigadier General Tammy Smith, the first openly LGBT officer of flag rank in the US Army, shared her experience of successfully rising through the ranks while struggling to remain true to herself. Her resounding remarks illuminated the importance of each individual’s presence at Summit and future equality efforts.  Addressing all attendees, sponsors, volunteers and staff, Tammy said: “If I am able to stand here as a soldier and as my authentic self, it’s thanks to you. Don’t stop, don’t even slow down in creating equal workplaces. I am in your debt.” I sat next to someone who recognised my name as “the one who’s done so much for the gays.” 🙂  And Sister actual Sledge performed!!

I spent much of the remainder of that evening crying instead of packing. If you know me personally, you’ll already know that crying is about as normal to me as breathing (I just feel really hard!), but that closing night, I couldn’t help but sob. It was a mixed bag of feelings – gratitude for having been given such an incredible opportunity, sadness after hearing so many stories of injustice and discrimination, fear of being too small to make the amount of change so desperately needed, inspired by the inclusion and diversity efforts of so many organizations out there, and the blessing of having met such an amazing group of brilliant world-changers.

In the words of a colleague and friend: “the conference sneaks it way into your heart and slaps you awake with its true relevance. Empowered by the passion and energy for human rights, educated and armed by workshops, panels and discussions, I am reminded of the privilege and duty I have to keep evolving as a man… as a gay man. I was touched spiritually and prayed with strangers in an exhibit hall. I was brought to tears more than once hearing others’ stories, witnessed true strength and courage of those that have formed friendships that fill a void left by families, and recognized the enormous sense of family and community. Thankful for the opportunity and the blessing. My love to all those who touched my heart this week and entered into my life. May we continue to empower each other.”

Hear, hear.

Advertisements

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

As of next week, I’ll be flying to Baltimore, MD (home of the grave of a certain Mr. Poe!) for a work trip to attend the largest LGBT corporate conference in North America. Close to 3,000 LGBTAs will be in attendance, and I, a little Winnipeg Administrative Assistant, was somehow chosen as one of fifteen colleagues from across the world to go. This wasn’t without its challenges – Administrative Assistants don’t usually get to travel, aren’t really supposed to take on extra-curriculars, and definitely don’t have corporate credit cards. When I was asked, the immediate response locally was a hesitant yes, on the condition that I did all prep work for it on my own time, and earned the hours in advance to cover the travel days. Nobody else had to do that. But because of the unusual circumstance of somebody at my level being offered this opportunity, I did. Which I reluctantly decided I was okay with – I wasn’t going to miss out on something this awesome just for the sake of having to work through lunch hours! 

Something I’ve struggled with throughout my career are the limitations determined by job title. Possibly appearance, too, but I’ve talked about that before. I have a pattern of entering organizations at the administrative level – reception, admin assistant, etc. and quickly expanding the role as much as I can to reflect my actual capacity. I wasn’t given a brain to answer phones and file papers, and I’ve proven myself more than capable in writing/marketing/graphic design, social media, group facilitation, and all sorts of communications functions. At my last job, I initiated, designed and delivered entire curriculum for a series of workshops, gave corporate presentations to promote services, wrote radio/print ads, and managed two corporate videos from the ground up. Yet my title was not permitted to reflect how much more I brought to the role.  I always suspected it was due to looking young, but now I’m experiencing it again, I’m certain it’s the case. 

I’m 27 years old. I still get asked if I’m 18 and told how young I look. People joke that it’s a good thing – and I’m sure one day when I hit forty, it will be – but in the meantime, it’s a curse. People judge you based on what’s on the surface. They don’t take the time to read over your accomplishments or look at your work ethic. They don’t spend time investing in hearing your ideas or asking your opinion. They see someone who looks new to the workforce with an entry-level title. Someone inexperienced and therefore unworthy of being heard. I’ve come up with countless proposals, ideas and process improvements, I’ve expanded my network, I’ve initiated communications and social media strategies that have gone national. I’ve been asked to be part of a global steering committee for a corporate diversity network. Outside my office walls, I’m recognized and valued. But locally, I get the sense I need to stop thinking outside the box, get back in it, and stay there. Consequently, the flame on my desire to do more is waning. And how is that good for a company as a whole?

In addition to titles and physical appearance, I’m sure some of this is generational. I always have been one of the youngest members of the office, and it is hard to “teach old dogs new tricks”. But how do you get those tricks to be acknowledged when the very position you’re in is the obstacle? I’m struggling a little with this trip. I’m going as a corporate ambassador, to promote the company and how it encourages diversity, respect, and innovation. I am proud to work somewhere that supports these values – I just wish there was something I could do to help them become more of a priority.  Still, I am incredibly excited (and nervous!) for this trip. I’m going to be meeting colleagues from across the world I’ve been getting to know and befriend over the last few months. I’m going to be surrounded by people who have the same values I do, who share the same passion for equality in the workplace. It’s going to be incredibly inspiring. But I’m nervous about how to get my learning heard when I return home. I have felt disheartened – but one of my US colleagues encouraged me recently to keep doing what I’m doing. Keep standing up for what’s right, doing everything I can to promote inclusion, diversity and equality. He reminded me that I may only reach one person – but that that in itself is one more person touched than had I given up. I’ve tried to take that message to heart and keep it there for when things get tough. 

At the end of the day, I don’t want to look back and say I was defeated. I want to stand strong, though perhaps having taken a fair share of knocks, perhaps a little scarred, and perhaps slightly saddened by the discrepancy between how the world is and how it could be. But I want to be able to say I never gave up. I know my capabilities, and I refuse to be caged by others’ resistance to change and innovation. And I know my intentions are always to better things around me. It’s hard, sometimes, when your efforts are stifled and quelled, but I think that’s where personal accountability comes into play: it’s easy to become the product of other people’s expectations, and it’s alarmingly more so to believe something just because it’s continually reiterated – but you have to find your own truth, stand your ground, and remember the wise words of Albert Einstein: 

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly. 

I’ll update again soon – this summer/autumn have been incredibly eventful, and I have stories of tattoos, space parties, new kittens, love, ridiculous Halloween costumes, music, bookwriting and flesh-eating diseases to share, along with a post-conference update on how brilliant Out & Equal was. Oh, and why am I going to a giant LGBT conference anyway? No, to answer the colleague who asked my boss if I was “coming out”. I’m going because I’m proud to be an ally, and I want to do everything I can to change the corporate culture to one of equality, where people can feel comfortable, unafraid, and free to be their true selves.

Stay strong, stay real, and see you on the other side!

Edit: In a case of fantastic timing, I saw this article posted by a friend of mine today: When did Gen Y become Gen Y-Can’t-We-Take-You-Seriously? “I hate that adage that youth is wasted on the young. It’s so defeatist, and it comes with a whiff of patronizing bitterness and jealousy. Usually, it’s uttered by people who are older, who somehow resent the young – the beauty and possibility they possess, and the fresh intelligence that threatens those in positions of authority.” It seems I’m not alone after all.

A Heavy Post on my Spiritual Belief System

There have been a number of occasions where I’ve felt a little hesitant to post things on my blog, but I usually go ahead and do it anyway. Most of you know that sometimes have a tendency to become the definition of all sorts of cliché: heart on sleeve, to thine own self be true… but I think that despite overuse, there’s a reason those words stick in our collective memories. They stick because they’re words to live by.  I know that by speaking out on certain topics, I may risk alienation, attack or judgment. But I also know that the moment I choose to keep quiet, I cease to be real, and allow fear to control my actions. As an amazing man once said, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  We all have opinions, voices, and feelings, and if our intent is simply to leave our mark on the world by saying “this is who I am,” or put something out there in hopes of bettering it, then I don’t think we have anything to be afraid of. In the blogosphere, so many shy away and play it safe. We forget sometimes that we’re all behind computer screens and unlike in day to day living, we are in total control of the image we project to the world. It can reflect the best fifty percent of a person’s real life, yet if it’s all that’s written about, an audience will believe it to be a hundred. But my words are my footprint, and it’s important to me that they don’t just reflect a toe. 

With that caveat, I feel the time has come for me to write about one of the most personal things to each and every one of us. It’s impossible I think for anyone to agree absolutely entirely with another person’s belief system, but I don’t think anyone should be judged for what they accept to be true. Religion, faith, and spirituality are such a taboo topic that it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start, but over the last few years, I’ve been searching for my own spirituality, and trying to find what makes the most sense to me. I must admit how difficult it is to make this public, because it’s not something I’ve really talked about with anyone at all. I suppose I should start with a little bit of a back story.

Growing up, religion wasn’t something that was ever really a big part of my life. My parents were on their own spiritual journeys and hadn’t really arrived at anything concrete, and though they visited temples and read books and filled the house with bronze statues of Hindu goddesses, spirituality seemed more of an ongoing quest than an established belief system. We never went to church, even at Christmas – we’d usually escape to a cottage up in the mountains, where the holiday season would be spent watching BBC specials, visiting country towns with cobblestone streets, and throwing ourselves down hills on two-man toboggans in utter glee at the sight of real snow. Christmas, as a child, wasn’t about going to church or visiting ten different family functions – it was about escaping with mum and dad, and celebrating our togetherness on our own.  The funny thing is that growing up in our house, it seems Christianity was almost condemned.

Soon after we arrived in Canada, one parent’s religious life took a sharp turn from spiritually curious to full on born again Christian. It came suddenly, and along with it, sadly, a noticeable divide in our family – but that’s another story for another time. Suffice to say, the course of events at the time furthered my initial belief that organised religion only drove people apart, and it was something I wanted nothing to do with.  Fast-forward through my early twenties, and after a series of pretty damaging relationships, I hit rock bottom. It’s not something I’m proud of nor something I’m ready to fully share with the world. But it was a wake-up call that I needed something else in my life because my own coping mechanisms were inoperational. I needed to know why these things happened, why people came into my life to leave such destruction in their wake, why I kept getting in too deep with the wrong people. I needed to know the purpose of it all, and for the first time I found myself praying. To whom or what, I had no idea. I just sat alone in my apartment, looking out of the window in the middle of the night, and praying for change and understanding.

In walked my then ex-boyfriend of about five years. Someone I hadn’t seen for years, and someone who also seemed to be the most religious person I knew. Something about him was different – he brought a calmness and a spirit of composure I hadn’t seen before. It seemed that no matter what life could throw at him, he would be okay, and the biggest reason for his comfort, steadfastness and assurance seemed to be his faith. I didn’t understand what it could be like to think of everything in life happening according to the reasons and schedule of some higher power, but I was curious. So I started asking questions, somehow landed myself at a job that happened to be a faith-based organisation, and started going to church with my new boyfriend.

Now, it did happen to be a Catholic church, and though I went on many occasions, I never felt truly connected. But I wanted to. I kept trying, kept going through the motions, but that’s all it ever felt like. So I stopped. As the months turned into years and my relationship with this man grew more serious, I started to worry. How would we possibly fully unite as a couple when our core belief systems were different? If we ever got married, how would we raise children – would we give them his religious upbringing, knowing I was pretty set against parts of it and couldn’t believe them, let alone teach them, or would we raise them more like my own experience, giving them the freedom to grow into the faith of their choosing based on an openness to everything? I think this freedom is a good thing, but I also wonder how different some of my more challenging years may have been if faith was something that had been introduced to me at an earlier age. It was a big worry, and probably the catalyst that launched me into focusing on finding a belief system I could get behind.  When I look at other inter-faith marriages, I can’t help but wonder how they do it. People convert to foreign religions for the sake of their partners, but how do they suddenly fully support this new set of beliefs that are sometimes the polar opposite of their entire upbringing? People also get married and keep their own individual belief systems, knowing they differ from their spouse, and manage to make it work too. I wonder if they also struggle with the thought of how to integrate this divide into the raising of a child someday.  But that’s a bridge to cross further down the line.

Over the last few years, I definitely think I’ve made a lot of progress. I’ve visited different churches, read different books, and found things I can believe in, as well as things I simply can’t. And that’s okay. The biggest thing I’ve learned personally is that labels don’t work. There are so many denominations under the umbrella of Christianity that I can’t help but feel are self-defeating; to me, what’s important in the religion you choose to follow is that you live your life in accordance with who you believe your God would want you to be. By sticking a label of “Catholic”, “Anglican”, “Seventh Day Adventist” or whatever onto yourself, you acknowledge that you are different from everyone who believes anything other than you, and subsequently participate in the continuation of human division. Instead of uniting and focusing on the main principles of Christianity (such as faith, belief in a higher power, forgiveness, service toward others, etc.), people get caught up in the politics of what makes “my” denomination different from “yours”. And that simply doesn’t work for me. The album cover of one of my favourite bands seems to capture it perfectly:


It’s okay to be different and to believe different things; our differences are what make us such a diverse and interesting race! But when those differences are seen more as factually right than a personal belief system, we breed intolerance, division and judgment. I acknowledge that there are lots of different belief systems out there. I fully support ideas and teachings and ways of living from many spiritual and religious sectors – most of the fundamendal principles of Christianity make sense to me, as does a lot of Taoism and Buddhism. I believe in God; a creator. I believe that the figure of Jesus probably was historically here and brought an amazing message to the human race, and aimed for those teachings to carry on in the hopes of people of this world living by that example. By living with love and compassion to all, by refusing to living according to the opinions of others, and by loving everyone unconditionally. Even the haters. But I also believe that people today have allowed secular distortions and personal opinions intertangle with history for their own personal agendas. I believe that the ego has a lot to do with a lot of people’s “religious actions” and that truly, the God I believe in is separate from that. I believe in souls. I believe in the power of prayer, and I believe the universe is big enough, vast enough, amazing enough and delivers enough to be called God. But it doesn’t matter; ultimately I believe in a higher power who sometimes has a hand in orchestrating our life’s events in the hopes of messages being heard and lessons being learned, with the aim always being to somehow better the human race and make this a planet of love, not hate. I also believe in science. As the same brilliant man I mentioned earlier once said, “science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.” Popular scientist Carl Sagan had a further reflection, which sums up my feelings perfectly: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”


I think it’s a shame that sometimes people get so caught up with the secular politics that they forget what’s really important. When asked if I “practice my faith”, I’ve been met with scorn when I say “define ‘practice’”. To me, practising my faith isn’t going to a building and listening to someone else speak for an hour if it doesn’t evoke some sort of intrinsic meaning. The God I believe in doesn’t judge if you practice and believe in your own way. To me, I practice my faith by educating myself, by praying on my own terms, and by living the life I believe I was meant to. I practice by pushing myself beyond what’s comfortable and seeing just how far I can go with what was bestowed upon me, because if everyone boxed themselves into what’s comfortable and never challenged themselves to reach their potential, the rest of the world could be deprived of some wonderful gifts.  I practice by spending my Christmas Eves driving around the scariest area of the city trying to help those without warm homes or families. I practice by never actively causing pain or suffering or hurt to another. I practice by working in a position that pays peanuts but ultimately allows me to help society’s less fortunate become something more. I don’t believe in a judging God who sends people to Hell if they don’t go to church, or sends them to heaven if they dress up in nice clothes every Sunday, drive by the homeless shelters, spend an hour in a flashy church with its own TV channel yet perpetuate intolerance of others. I believe in open-mindedness and respect of all, regardless of sex, religion, orientation or race. It positively broke my heart once  reading a post by a friend of mine:

Overwhelmed, I broke down into tears as the Father stood up to speak. I swear the lady beside me with the Gucci Purse and Dolce glasses must have thought I was either crazy or just really touched by the homily. What struck me as fascinating however, not to mention psychologically revealing, was the fact that I was crying not because I was sad, happy or finally at peace; but because I was furious. Feeling the anger rise inside of me, I became enraged at the fact a person could ever think to say “Peace be with you, but not with you.” Inflamed, I felt like standing up and screaming as loud as I could into the heavens, “SCREW YOU GOD FOR TURNING YOUR BACK ON ME WHEN I NEEDED YOU THE MOST.” But instead, I knelt down like everyone else and prayed until I got distracted by the fact that I needed to cut my nails.

I remember the day in grade twelve when I went to see my counselor for the first time to tell her I thought I was bisexual. (Missing story detail: my high school was all-boys and Catholic). The second I took the seat across from her, my eyes zeroed in on a pamphlet pinned up against her wall that read “So you think you might be gay?” Relieved by the sight, I felt hope that all my life’s questions might be answered within the three folds of that photocopied paper. A week later when I arrived for my next appointment the pamphlet was gone. Not able to help myself, I asked her where it went. “Father Director came in the other day and once he flipped through it, decided it did not accord with Catholic principles and took it down.”

Reconciling one’s Catholic identity with their gay identity is more often than not, a losing battle. I mean, you try getting off with another man while thinking about eternal damnation and tell me that you don’t throw in the towel. But it is in my belief that faith is a dark mystery that one should not be born into, but rather fight their entire lives to shed light upon. Because ultimately, the one thing I had in common with everyone else standing beside me (other than a nice outfit and knack for repression) was that I believed I could be a better person, and hopefully make the world a better place in the process. 

On the subject of homosexuality and religion, over the weekend I came across an excellent short video. Representative Steve Simon (DFL Hopkins/St. Louis Park) says a proposed Minnesota constitutional amendment is largely about religion. He says if sexual orientation is innate as science is showing us, and not a lifestyle choice, then God created gay people. He asks how many gay people must God create before we accept that he wants them around.  A commenter on the YouTube channel said it brilliantly: “Believing in something and actively degrading an entire subset of a population are two entirely different things. Go ahead and believe homosexuality is wrong, I could care less. But when you try and take away rights, and make homosexuals inferior by law, that is when we fight back.”   Earlier, I mentioned Ghandi, and he doesn’t simply inspire the words on my e-mail signature, but said it perfectly when he uttered the words “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” There are a lot of absolutely wonderful and inspiring Christians who do incredible things, who truly embody and live out the values that will make this world a better place. But I think there are also a lot who have it all wrong.  To me, labels don’t work. I can’t stick one on myself if I am not 100% certain that I can be behind absolutely everything in a denomination’s mandate. There’s a lot from lots of belief systems that makes sense to me, and there’s a bit that doesn’t. So, when Facebook asks me what my religious beliefs are?  The box is a little too small. I’ll say spirituality. Equality. Kindness. Non-judgment. Servanthood. Faith in a higher power. Faith in fact. But above everything, respect, interconnectedness, unconditional love, harmony and open-mindedness. Because without that, I don’t think the world can ever move forward.

I lay out my beliefs today not to convert or to challenge, simply to state that this is who I am. If you’re comfortable, I’m interested to hear about your beliefs and how you arrived at where you are today. If not, then all I can say is thank you, for your time and understanding. I promise never to write such a long post again. 🙂