By Trinity Hunter | June 30, 2022
As we come to the end of the month, we would be remiss without acknowledging the existence and subsequent importance of Pride Month. An annual recognition during the month of June, Pride Month recognizes and uplifts members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
With the emergence of social media, Pride celebrations across the nation and globe can be shared with one another, and it appears that love and acceptance for this community is growing as well. However, while colors are bright and spirits are high, the work remains. LGBTQIA+ people deserve the opportunity to be focused on and catered to outside of June, and the world of public relations and communications has an integral role in achieving this goal.
At the beginning of the month, The Museum of Public Relations hosted a webinar titled “LGBTQ Rights on the Line: The Role of Communicators in Advocating for Equality.” Leaders within our profession had the opportunity to speak honestly about their identities and how it has affected their careers, as well as what communicators can do to continue advocating for this group. Throughout the event, panelists shared similar sentiments about the importance of acknowledging the impact of LGBTQIA+ leaders within the communications field. This article will discuss three themes that were explored during the session: the courage of authenticity, the strength behind intersecting identities, and the crucial connection between representation and visibility.
Courage of Authenticity
With the role of public relations based in communication, it is no secret that immense power rests in the ability to tell stories. Trust may stem from effective communication with the public, but it also comes from a place of truthfulness. Across the board, panelists lamented how imperative it was for young LGBTQIA+ professionals to be authentic with their identities in the workplace.
As Rich Ferraro (he/him), Chief Communications Officer of GLAAD, pointed out, the public places more trust in corporations and organizations than in the government. This gives an outlet for public relations professionals to engage in truthful conversations with the communities they serve, as well as “move the needle” to uplift those who have been historically marginalized.
So, how can you be more authentic at work?
For many young LGBTQIA+ professionals, there is understandable fear that comes from being open about their identities within the workplace. Potential discrimination can range from being ostracized by coworkers to being denied promotions, and the risk of either could definitively impact both the career trajectory and mental health of the employee.
In a showing of encouragement, respondents shared their stories of coming out during their careers and how doing so influenced their place in their professions. For Eboné Bell (she/her), Founder & Editor-in-Chief of TAGG Magazine, she decided early in her career that authenticity would be at the forefront of her approach to the workplace. After being fired from her first job due to being gay, she vowed she would never work for another company that did not value her in totality. Mentioning her partner at work, along with other community activism, became common practice for her among her colleagues, and she hopes that she encouraged others to live in their truth as well.
“The key word here is authenticity,” Bell said. “You never know who is watching, who needs to hear you and who needs to see you.”
Ivette LópezFreeman (she/her), Director of PR & Corporate Communications at Warner Bros. Discovery, echoed Bell’s statement, saying that if a company or agency does not make an LGBTQIA+ individual comfortable, they should feel comfortable with moving on. While understanding the apprehension that comes from the unknown of switching to a new company, LópezFreeman encouraged LGBTQIA+ individuals to put themselves first in their decision. As she put it, “life is too short” to be in a hostile environment where a person cannot be honest about who they are.
To all the panelists, it was clear there is immense courage in authenticity, and a full commitment to this quality will lead to true happiness and relief.
Strength Behind Intersecting Identities
With the growing impact of social media and other virtual communication methods, more marginalized communities have been able to have their voice amplified. Among the array of topics concerning different groups and their needs, intersectionality has risen as a focal point in conversation. The concept of intersectionality is simple—it references the ability of one person to have more than one marginalized identity, and it also points out how the combination of these identities can lead to vastly different experiences among people sharing a community.
Jared DeWese (he/him), Deputy Director of Communications for Climate & Energy at ThirdWay, pointed out that his experience as a gay man has been unique because he is Black. This additional identity has and will continue to dictate a completely different path for him, especially with his Blackness being more visible than his sexuality. He spoke about the pressure of consistently being the minority in certain spaces, and how his lifelong distinction as an “ambassador” for Black people was expanded to LGBTQIA+ concerns after coming out.
Shin Inouye (he/him), Executive Vice President of Communications for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also added the importance of recognizing intersectionality in every issue.
“The fight for equality is intersectional,” Inouye said.
As a gay and Asian man, who is also the child of immigrants, Inouye referenced his experience in political communications when discussing how intersectionality sits at the center of more than meets the eye. Topics such as voting rights and criminal justice reform may be viewed as only affecting certain groups, such as members of the BIPOC community. However, when bringing in intersectionality, it becomes clearer that everyone is affected by these policy issues, and thus everyone could stand to benefit from the pursuit of a more equal world.
Crucial Connection Between Representation and Visibility
One of the most impactful themes from the webinar stemmed from calls for increased representation and its subsequent step towards visibility. Between the two ideals, representation has become the more commonly accepted. The promise of representation can be diluted; for instance, many would think that representation is nothing more than having a minority take a certain position in a company or earn a well-deserved promotion. While both can be beneficial, this does not make them synonymous with visibility.
True visibility means that these communities are being seen for the totality of who they are. It means that people are not used as tokens, or “ambassadors.” Visibility means that LGBTQIA+ people are allowed the same agency as their counterparts to openly discuss aspects of their lives, voice their concerns/opinions, and express themselves openly.
Upholding representation and visibility also means pulling in the commitment to authenticity and recognition of intersectionality. As is the case for other minority groups, the LGBTQIA+ community has experienced internal pushback from within. Intersectionality means understanding that Black and brown individuals may face harsher suppression than their white counterparts, as is the case for transgender people compared to those who are cisgender.
Cathy Renna (she/her), Communications Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, called out the transphobia, sexism and misogyny that has become increasingly apparent within her community. She encouraged her counterparts to have “courageous conversations” by recognizing where their own discriminatory projections could be negatively harming the collective push for equal rights.
Beyond doing the work internally, panelists shared personal experiences about how their ability to provide representation led to increased visibility for other people within their organization. Travis Parman (he/him), Chief Communications Officer of AppHarvest, acknowledged that while members of the panels may have been “out” for quite a while, there are still people within their companies who are in the beginning stages of their careers. He encouraged everyone to continue to be bold in their pursuit of a better environment for themselves, as one might not realize who else they are helping.
Lastly, when representation meets visibility, LGBTQIA+ people are granted the ability to see themselves outside of their marginalization. Isis King (she/her), a transgender activist, model, fashion designer, and ambassador for GLAAD, came on at the tail end of the webinar to discuss her journey and how communications has changed surrounding the LGBTQIA+ community. She pointed out the role of media in influencing perceptions and how it can be utilized to expose people to new points of view.
When speaking about her character on “With Love,” a romantic comedy series surrounding two siblings, King discussed the importance of being able to see transgender people operate in a space where their marginalization and trauma is not at the forefront.
“Trans people also deserve to be seen in a light of being loved,” King said. “Not only by friends and family, but by a partner as well.”
So, what can we, as communicators, take from this?
- Stories must be properly relayed, uplifted, and pushed in order to be heard. Tracy Baim (she/her), publisher of Chicago Reader and founder of Windy City Times, reminded everyone of the importance of telling stories “during the movement,” alluding to how these stories will be what people look back on when researching history.
- As LópezFreeman urged, respect the “power and effect of controlling the narrative.” With the LGBTQIA+ community being marginalized, it does not have the same outreach as other groups when it comes to representation and visibility. This presents a common susceptibility to stereotypes and other tactics of suppression. For LGBTQIA+ individuals and allies alike, utilizing the skills of effective communication are integral to forming a narrative that pushes against stereotypes.
- Find your community, and if you cannot find it, form one. Numerous panelists mentioned how encouraging it was to find a group or cultivate one that was inclusive of their community in the workplace. In addition, they also pointed out how finding ways to volunteer with local organizations can be fulfilling as well.
- Speak up. In a message to both LGBTQIA+ professionals and allies, all panelists encouraged people to not shy away from addressing issues within the workplace. No change can be made without people being bold enough to point it out.
At the beginning of the webinar, Ben Finzel (he/him), President of RENEWPR and emcee of the event, said it best when he quoted Audre Lorde:
“Your silence will not protect you.”
If we are to create a truly inclusive workplace for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, then the work begins with each of us, and it must extend beyond June. It’s time to put in the work.