A couple of weeks ago, I decided to give a talk on the importance of being offensive (or at least risking being offensive). The occasion was a celebration of Love is Love 2013 Campaign, an annual event at Darden and the University of Virginia focused on promoting inclusion of the LGBT community in the workplace and in the Darden community. My remarks were part of a daily Darden ritual, “First Coffee,” where the community gathers to take a break between classes, connect over coffee or tea, and sometimes mark important events like Love is Love.
Talking about being offensive was strange in this context. Here I was, a heterosexual man, addressing an event with community members of diverse sexual orientations and embarking on a topic that is charged. LGBT members of society are routinely confronted with offensive words and behaviors and, at first glance, my message should have been about ways to diminish those affronts.
But I also think it’s useful to look more deeply at the challenges I see in my consulting, teaching, and research when it comes to the diversity of sexual orientations and identities in our communities. Often, we are so concerned about not risking offending one another that we walk on eggshells. Our goal is to be conscientious and committed advocates for equality and justice for people of all sexual orientations and identities. But my experience is that being overly careful is one of the things that undermines that goal.
I know that I often walk on eggshells with my colleagues and friends of different sexual orientations, especially my gay and lesbian friends. Upon deeper reflection, I‘m learning about why I do. To be honest, I’m often scared and anxious. My anxieties when it comes to sexual orientation include:
- My worry that I will say something offensive when it comes to sexual orientation—that people will label me as clueless or as a homophobe and that will make me look like bad person.
- My worry that if I am too strong an advocate people will utter under their breath “I’ll bet he’s really gay,” which freaks me out. Despite my ongoing work in diversity, I still internalize the fear of being seen as gay which somehow equates in my mind to being less of a man. It also feels threatening because I imagine the ways my life and relationships would change if people thought I was gay.
- I worry that sometimes if I am too strident and too sympathetic, maybe that means that deep down, I might really be gay (see bullet point 2, only bigger)!
The results of these anxieties make me frequently hold me back and keep me from doing what I believe is the right thing to say or do.
So I try three practices that help me overcome:
- Adopt a learning attitude—I work to remain as open as possible to new information and perspectives. It can help to adopt at attitude of curiosity and to ask questions. One of my most powerful experiences in learning about sexual orientation happened when a friend who lived in Provincetown, MA invited me to visit. “P-town” is a predominantly gay community and I got to feel what it was like to be in an environment where being heterosexual was not a given.
- Separate intent from impact—This means realizing that even though my words or actions may not be in intended to be harmful or offensive, they can nonetheless be experienced by my audience that way. Separating the two—intent and impact—is important because it helps prevent me from getting defensive when I make a mistake. And if I am not defensive, it is easier to understand why my action was hurtful and to discover other ways to express my sentiment.
- Practice everyday courage—Just keep being aware and practicing saying when you see or feel that a comment or interaction provides an opportunity to learn. If you see something that is wrong or harmful, try to bring it up in the moment. Usually that can be tough since problematic moments often take us by surprise. But that’s OK. It’s never too late to be courageous. I have often come back a few minutes or a few days later and said “I don’t know if you remember when you said… but after thinking about it, I realized that bothered me. Can we talk about it?…” By the way, I call this “everyday courage” because it helps to remember that this doesn’t have to be a big deal. And if you miss an opportunity today, work on trying it the next time. What is most important is that you keep trying.
I’m not advocating going out of your way to be offensive or obnoxious. Rather, I’m saying that we make progress in overcoming bias—overt and subtle—when we are able to engage, not avoid. That approach has really helped me on my journey to being a better ally for LGBT colleagues.