Erin Uritus, O&E CEO, Pride 2020
Thank you all for being here. Before we talk about Pride, I want to talk about the moment we are in here in the U.S.
Let me first say unequivocally, Black Lives Matter! Black lives matter to me and to Out & Equal. Racism and its siblings: white supremacy, white privilege, and white complacency must end. They will not end if we – and I am speaking to white people like myself – keep looking to the Black community for answers to our own behaviors.
That doesn’t mean we eschew dialogue and learnings. But it does mean we name whiteness, we talk about race as something white people embody and for which white people gain unearned privileges.
Like so many of you, I am actively watching the news and absorbing the images of Black Americans being targeted, killed, and justice unresolved – on a constant reel. And xenophobia and racism coming from lawmakers and passersby on the street alike, targeting communities of color in light of COVID are horrific elements of this pandemic as well.
The trauma cannot be overstated.
But these acts of violence did not begin or end with what was captured on a phone. For those who think racism is solely the domain of bad people, I urge you to reconsider. Racism is embedded in our country’s history, economic and political structures, and is found in daily moments of individual bias.
In my own moments of reflection, I ask myself how our work can better fortify and speed up the arc of justice everyone deserves. Together, we will keep using our voice and platform to push publicly and behind the scenes. On Friday we joined our peer groups in signing on to a robust public statement of action items and calls for racial justice.
That’s not all we will do, but I wanted to let you all know where we stand.
And so as I transition to talking about Pride, I’m holding the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor and so many others in my head and heart.
And I am deeply in touch with the roots of Pride. Pride began with trans women of color at Compton’s cafeteria, it began with Frank Kameny picketing outside the White House, it began with fed up LGBTQ people at Stonewall sick and tired of being harassed by the police. Yes, they were described as “rioters,” “lawbreakers” and much, much worse. We know them as the brave souls who catalyzed our modern LGBTQ movement.
So as communities take to the streets today to demand justice for so many Black lives lost to inhumane violence, let’s honor them. I see the allies marching in London and Berlin. I see that so many people want to forge a different path!
And as I reflect on our global community beginning Pride month in the midst of a pandemic and uprising against racism, I see that the essence of Pride is that of all civil rights fights: resilience and a laying of claims to a just future we know all of us deserve.
This is not our community’s first Pride during a pandemic or during social upheavals. As many of us are painfully aware, the HIV and AIDS pandemic was devastating for our community. The difference is that it claimed thousands of our LGBTQ siblings before our then-elected officials would even speak of it. In this moment, during COVID-19, the world has responded swiftly and collectively.
The New York Times just featured a halting cover of the grim milestone that COVID had claimed 100,000 lives in the United States, and published 1,000 of those names. It stated, “A count reveals only so much… They were not simply names on a list. They were us.”
There was a stark contrast between that cover and the 1991 article the same paper published acknowledging the 100,000th AIDS death. I know that it was in part indicative of the longer trajectory of the death toll. But it’s crucial to note, there was no “us” in that article. At that time, it had less prominence than a piece on the new US postage stamp.
Pride was and is a bold claim to “us”, when mainstream society has tried to keep us on the margins and define our community as “other.” Born out of protests and nurtured through our resilience, Pride is also a point of reprieve, joy, community, expression, and belonging.
Some of you were at my first Summit as CEO of Out & Equal in 2018 in Seattle. I shared with an “intimate” room of 5,000 some of the identities I had not even told all of my friends: Pansexual and Queer, mother to two beautiful Arab-American girls, working mom by necessity, person of faith.
And I shared a guiding principle I learned in my work in Africa: the Zulu greeting, Sawubona, Sikhona. It means, “I see you” and is responded to with “Because you see me, I exist.”
At the 2018 Summit we had a powerful call and response. Over and over the words of thousands of people created a rhythm of human recognition and the relief that comes from knowing we are seen, we are valued, and we belong.
Those of us in that room at Summit were the lucky ones. For too many LGBTQ people our humanity and fullness are not recognized.
We recently lost a movement hero and a woman I got to know over the last year, Aimee Stephens. In her job as a funeral home director, Aimee devoted her life to taking care of families in grief. Many of us know her as the woman who was fired after telling her boss that she was transgender and going to transition on the job. Hers is one of the cases before the Supreme Court right now. You may not know that just before resolving to do that, she almost took her own life. In her own words she told us:
I stood in my yard with a gun in my hand pointed at myself, pondering my options. I then chose to recognize who I really was. I chose life. And for me, choosing life meant choosing my family, my friends, my work. Ultimately, it meant choosing to be a part of the fight for basic rights. I have come to believe that one of the biggest gifts we can give to ourselves and others is to live as our true selves.
Aimee’s fullness and gifts were not seen by her boss or all of her former friends. She chose to show her beauty, her strength and worth – to be seen for who she was.
One of the many lessons I take from Aimee is an evolution of Sawubona/ Sikhona, and that is, “If you cannot see my fullness, I will hang on until someone else does.” Or even, “I will persist as myself, and am worthy of dignity and life and joy whether or not you acknowledge me.”
As hard as it was, Aimee refused to be defined by others’ denials of her sense of her true self. And in this refusal, she ultimately found love and support from around the world. And I get up every day as the leader of Out & Equal determined to ensure no transgender woman, no gender queer teen, no gay dad has to suffer from a denial of their gifts and beauty.
As we await the Supreme Court’s decision, we see in Aimee’s life that history books are written because of these individual moments of pain, survival, connection, and belonging. One of Aimee’s last acts was a call to action with us at Out & Equal, Transgender Americans Belong: An Open Letter to America’s Employers. If you have a chance, please read it. She speaks of the quiet dignity of work and of all the things employers can do now – irrespective of the Court’s decision to ensure opportunity and inclusion for transgender workers.
Out & Equal exists to create a better world where Aimee’s story would turn out different. We bring together ERG leaders, D&I professionals, and company leaders to build workplaces that truly strive for inclusion and belonging. We help LGBTQ individuals thrive at work and at home. And you and I know that as we change the culture of large companies, we also create ripple effects that are felt in small workplaces like the funeral home where Aimee worked.
It feels especially heartbreaking that she has not lived to see the realization of her rights. And that today – as communities grieve and as funeral home directors, frontline workers and healthcare providers risk their lives – these very same heroes could be fired for who they are because in the United States today there are no federal workplace protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
From this inequality, to the AIDS crisis, to COVID, to the brutal attacks on Black and Brown Americans, to Asian Americans harassed on the streets – there are too many opportunities for us to be stopped in our tracks by fear, by visceral anger, and by pain. We are confronted by our own mortality, and the mortality of those we love so dearly.
And so with this backdrop, how do we celebrate Pride? Is “celebrate” even the right word? I say yes – if we honor the spirit of Pride with action!
In these moments of extreme stress, where do we go for connection and belonging? And how do we provide empathy and safety for each other? It’s very poignant that May is Mental Health Month. In many ways, the focus on mental health provides a bridge to Pride month. Both are about surfacing identities in the face of taboos, bias, and stigma.
We cannot keep pretending we are not suffering. Some of you have taken part in our mass participation exercise at Summit – the snowflake moment when we unburden ourselves of a secret we are covering in the workplace, and release it into the room of 6,000 people. Would it surprise you that two-thirds of the snowflakes we collected at the last 2 Summits speak to depression, addiction, heartache, anxiety, and other aspects of mental and emotional health?
COVID has elevated the global conversation about mental health to a level of prominence and urgency we have lacked for many years. You may have seen this news last week: The Census Bureau just reported that amid the coronavirus pandemic a third of Americans now show signs of clinical anxiety or depression.
One through-line between May’s Mental Health theme and June’s Pride is the strength and power in vulnerability. I know I am not the first or only person preaching the power of vulnerability and authenticity. When we are brave enough to be vulnerable, we open up pathways to connections with others in ways that cannot be undone. Have you ever looked at someone the same way after they’ve disclosed their lifelong battle with depression? Or they’ve come out to you? It’s impossible to not see each other as both more human, more alike, and more worthy of compassion after we share.
What I find liberating and indeed worthy of celebrating this June is that we have the opportunity to fortify ourselves now, in this moment of shared crisis. And we have a blueprint emerging for a more just, empathetic future of workplaces where everyone can thrive and belong.
Let me say a thing about belonging and why Out & Equal keeps talking about it.
Real equality is about more than checking off boxes. And inclusion requires more than a set of directions. It’s about creating spaces that foster growth for every kind of employee, and where leadership is made up of different people with diverse perspectives.
It’s about developing an environment where people are interdependent and everyone can thrive.
The stakes for organizations are real. When employees can bring their full, authentic selves to work, it makes a difference in terms of teamwork, in terms of efficiency and quality, in terms of recruiting and retention, in terms of employees’ day-to-day experience in our organizations. And belonging also matters for business continuity in uncertain economic times.
It is a smart, strategic, laser-focus on optimal organizational culture. The core principal of belonging is that our potential is fulfilled only when we are bound up in the interdependence of connection.
Now, Pride month is here. This is the time to reimagine individual and company action. And it starts with a greater sense of self-awareness and how all of us use ourselves as agents of change. This isn’t self-help “woo-woo;” this is the strategy our movement needs now.
We are in the 2nd and 3rd decade of corporate America embracing foundational policies and practices for the LGBTQ community. Those are necessary, but not sufficient, steps for the full realization of LGBTQ workplace inclusion and belonging.
Every watershed moment we have witnessed in corporate advocacy over the last two decades began with a single voice.
- From the 2nd and 3rd and 5thh companies that spoke out on marriage equality back in 2008,
- to the hundreds that joined friend of the court briefs in 2015 to support full marriage equality,
- to the hundreds that signed on to support Aimee Stephens and basic civil rights protections in the cases now before the Supreme Court,
- to the multinationals who stood up for these values in countries like Brazil and India where they had never before weighed in publicly
- to the companies breaking barriers in healthcare for transgender employees …
…none of this happened without the boldness of a single voice that said: “Now is the time. Let’s do this and get it right – for the sake of our people and our business.”
And so that’s why we are so fully focused on innovating and leveraging all that we have gained in workplace equality to focus on fortifying you – the real change agents.
True transformational leadership is not the domain of the anointed few. It is found in the brave and vulnerable moments when a transgender person tells their boss why the company’s position on so-called bathroom bills isn’t theoretical. It’s about their fundamental safety in their community. Brave leadership is the teary-eyed mom who attends the LGBTQ and allied ERG meeting for the first time because their child came out and they want to understand more. Transformational leadership is in the manager who apologizes and learns from their mistake in using the wrong pronouns with a colleague who struggles through awkwardness and embarrassment to maintain a human connection. Necessary leadership is the CEO who says, “Black Lives Matter” and leverages their influence to better safeguard the civil rights of communities of color, catalyze dialogue on race within their company, and move forward with humility and learning.
And so, my request of you is to embrace this moment. Step into your own potential as change agent. What is your sphere of influence? What do you need to fortify yourself for greater impact, including self-care and connection in these difficult times of isolation? How will you provide support and psychological safety for your colleagues as they build lasting cultures of inclusion?
Now, widen the circle to your ERG: What can you do to create a culture of belonging and ensure all LGBTQ voices are represented? What can you do to inspire others? How can you better work with other ERGs?
And lastly, thinking at the organizational level:What is your role in moving your company forward?What does this mean for your own leadership?
Pride is my favorite time of year. Having lived in the Middle East for nearly a decade and missing Pride every June, missing the physical presence of visible queer people all around, I don’t take any Pride for granted.
And now that Prides have gone virtual, let’s tap into our greatest strengths and grow them. Let’s turn towards those who could never march – either because of disability, health, fear, kids at home who can’t be alone for hours on end. Let’s allow ourselves to mourn parts of Pride that we miss and let’s celebrate all those for whom these new platforms allow for greater connection and creativity. Where my coming out story included going to clubs, telling my parents face-to-face – for so many younger workers, their coming of age and coming out stories are largely online!
Our community’s ever-expanding umbrella of terms, identities, and sub-communities is another core strength. We adjust in the face of the need to support each others’ realization of rich, full lives – from non-binary pronouns to our families of choice. In our rainbow, is the full palate of the human experience.
So let’s embrace this! Let’s redefine individual and collective action – and impact. Let’s thank our leaders that are forward-looking enough to recognize their number one asset for a stronger future – their people. And that means supporting ERGs like yours, intersectional programming, and encouraging a culture of openness, empathy, and learning. Innovation does not happen when we are all in our corners, posturing and afraid to make mistakes. Innovation happens when we support one another, recognize the worth and talent in one another, and commit to spaces of true belonging. You are how we will get through this and with you, we will bring the silver lining of what happens now, into the future.
Thank you all.