How do you show up for others with your multiple identities? What more can you learn to do for others? I did a deep reflection and share what I discovered I could do.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with student government leaders at a regional public school in New Jersey. It was wonderful to get back in front of students, helping them become better versions of themselves. It was also amazing to spend time with a wonderful former supervisor, Donna.
As we chatted, we talked about how we have both grown and learned from each other. I first started working with her back in 2004, when the higher education landscape was very different. I remember telling Donna how I could exemplify how much I had changed.
In many ways, this story is likewise influenced by the journey of friends and former students who have begun their own journey as members of the transgender/non-binary communities. Their active reflections has made me think about my own journey. So let’s begin where the story should begin: The Beginning.
Where the Story Begins
Back when I started my career in student affairs, I was never one to shy away from calling people Sweetie. Absolutely Fabulous remains one of my favorite TV shows. I loved how the two main characters Edina and Patsy called everyone sweetie. Men, women, children, everyone. As a gay man, it felt a great way to tell people that my references reflected a camp sensibility.
Patsy and Edina influenced my language for years. Cheers, sweetie!
I also called everyone, whatever gender they expressed, dude. Growing up in California, dude was a neutral word. The person who served coffee was dude, the plant I just watered: dude, the dog: dude. So by the time I got to working for Donna, sweetie and dude became part of my every day language and I used these words liberally. Especially in a then-conservative environment, it was important for people I worked with and the students I advised to know that I was completely comfortable being myself, authentically.
Controlling the Context
I had just left an environment where my identities were scrutinized, So at this school, I was going to establish which identities were salient to me and how I was going to interact with others through these identities. At this new school, I wanted it clear that I was proud of who I was, especially since my Mexican American identity was not common in New Jersey. I wanted others to know it was possible to be out and proud in a conservative environment. And I was going to control how these identities were referenced in the office.
Thinking back, now, I can see that these were coping mechanisms of avoidance. After the trauma of my previous work environment, it was important to control the context of how people got to know me. That I would out myself in my own words and people would see me how I wanted to be seen. I could be both/and rather than either/or in my identities.
Really, I wanted to control how people saw my identities show up at work, rather than only see me as one or another individually. I could be all things at once, right?
This was something I felt very strongly about. As a first generation professional, I had only lateral role models to look up to. Many of them were peers I had met through professional networking. I was trying to figure out who I was as I was being that role. All I knew up to that point was that discrimination against LGBT and Latinos was a reality. That our voices could be dulled or silenced in the majority. That often I would be the only person with my unique identities in the room. So to show up, proud of my marginalized identities was incredibly important for me.
Misogyny and #MeToo
It wasn’t until the #MeToo movement began to make headlines that I started to shift how I saw myself in professional environments. Certainly, it was easy to get behind stories of sexual harassment and abuse happening in industries I had little connection to. It was tougher to begin the self-exploration of what I might contribute to harassment and misogyny in higher education. As a proud gay man, I always thought of myself as a feminist and ally to women and trans folks. But my cisgender identity could bely this fact by doing typically misogynistic things. You know, man-splaining, speaking over women, taking ownership of their ideas, etc.
Especially if I was still calling everyone ‘Sweetie?’
It was tough for me to take some ownership of these behaviors, because I saw them as being counter to my identities and taking up space in professional environments. Within my own experience, it felt similar to when asked to sit on my hands and not be assertive. As a person with the most experience, or experience that mattered within the context, or simply as the hierarchal leader, I found it hard to assert what I knew to be true without feeling like I was the one who needed to step back and give in.
I will say that nearly all of the times I had been asked to give space to women to assert themselves was around white, straight women. And that was tough to manage emotionally. Because the lack of language to describe how these similar experiences happened to me as a Latino and Gay man in higher education, it could be reduced to ‘well, this is just how it is’ explanation.
But Everything Changed for the Better
And then life happened. New words emerged to talk about emerging and established identities. The word ‘cisgender’ that began as an academic term found itself adopted to describe majority gender identities. Intersectionality, another academic term, called attention to layered identities. The #MeToo movement called attention to the systemic treatment of women in all industries, including higher education.
And I began to look closer at my entire set of identities.
I had spent the better part of two decades worried about how my marginalized identities were setting me apart. I didn’t put nearly as much time into thinking about how my majority identities reinforced the treatment of people I had spent time advocating for! Once I turned 40, with a doctorate in one hand and a wedding ring on the other, I had to come to terms with the fact that I represented a big part of the establishment. And unless I changed how I saw myself, I would always be at odds with any other marginalized group believing I was targeting them.
I began to listen to my former students, now professionals in their own right, talk about the struggles they felt and saw, trying to work towards simply loving with authenticity. Not thriving, just surviving. At least for me, it put into perspective that their issues needed someone like me, with majority identities that could call out and speak up in their stead.
After decades of self-advocacy, it was a shift in perspective to realize my own power. And in that power came the realization that sometimes my identities speak up for me even when I don’t. And I should expect my allies – White, Straight people – to own when their identities need to speak up for me. Using their power to create change that positively impacts me, too.
Being Ok With Being the Majority…
Intersectionality is nuanced. It took me years to wrap my head around understanding in what ways I take up space in any given professional or personal environment. But I did take an important lesson that has begun to serve me well both personally and professionally.
Upon deep reflection, I recognized I had big issues acknowledging and sitting in the power of my dominant or majority identities. It was easier to advocate for my targeted identities and work to achieve a voice for them. It wasn’t as easy to do that with my other identities.
Intersectionality is nuanced. And because it remains nuanced, I had to think it with some intentionally. Like the times I showed up in the conference room and think about what people saw first. Did they see the proud, openly gay Latino about to lead a meeting?
Or a middle-age, cisgender man with a terminal degree wearing a wedding ring talking about his commute from Brookline?
In my years doing diversity training, I have acknowledged that seeing and understanding one’s majority identity is like seeing The Matrix. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it. And once you realize you have the power to see it, there are responsibilities that come with it. Especially if you want to be known a someone who advocates for others.
I am uncertain I am ‘okay’ with being a part of the majority. But I am steadfast in owning my identity within it and doing what I can within that identity. Of that, I remain certain.
…and Using My Majority Identity for Good
I do think that there is much more I could go into or disclose. But it’s very nerve-wracking being transparent about having this much power. To be called out. Or relying on unconscious bias when speaking up. It can be dizzying. And yet, I remain committed to doing my best to show up. If I have learned anything from my friends and former students is that those of us in the majority are responsible for educating others in the majority.
Speaking with Donna about my two decade journey in higher education was a good reminder. That I am who I am, and that hasn’t changed. But who I am is more than what I am comfortable talking about or advocating for. Growing into these intersectional identities gives me power and privilege I didn’t know I had. And I plan to do something with that power and privilege.
Continue the Conversation
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For Medium.com members: https://medium.com/@leadersvalues/within-my-intersectionality-who-shows-up-first-359d75fe7128