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Hey, Can I Ask You A Question?

Yes, there is such a thing as a silly question – and no, you don’t need to always answer them…but you might want to…
 
By Colin Druhan
 
My first legitimate job was at a fast food restaurant, where people could see the swish in my step and hear the way I spoke. I was hired to work in the kitchen, but having always been a bit of a talker, I didn’t find that very interesting. When I asked one of the managers if I could train to work with customers, he told me that my voice was “too gay” for the drive-thru microphone and that having someone like me up front would “send the wrong message.”
 
Because I now work for an organization that promotes workplace inclusion on the grounds of gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation, I use this story to open a lot of my public speeches. I point out that in my current position, that same “gay voice” is amplified by microphones to corporate audiences across Canada. The story and punchline usually get a few laughs. (Not from my partner, of course. He’s heard that same anecdote hundreds of times, and never thought it was that funny to begin with.)
 
However repetitive the story may be, it’s a good tool. It heads people off at the pass, since one of the most common questions I get from people is what workplace discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation even looks like. Posed with various levels of sensitivity, other questions I get include “What acronym am I supposed to use now?” and “What do I do if I know someone is gay, but they haven’t told me yet?” My personal favourite is “What does ‘queer’ mean, anyway?” (When that one gets asked, my partner goes to the bar for another drink, because he knows I’m going to be a while.)
 
What I mean to say is, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, people have the same questions over and over…and over.
 
I could spend hours rattling off arresting statistics about the high unemployment rate for trans people, about how queer and trans people graduate with heaps more student debt than their peers, or about the staggering number of employers who ignore their duty to accommodate marginalized workers. The truth is, most people don’t want more heavy topics to think about. They usually just want quick answers to their relatively simple questions about how not to come off like a biphobic, homophobic or transphobic mess.
 
Make no mistake, I’m not complaining. I signed up for this. When your business card has rainbows on it, you have to expect that people are going to ask you questions about queer and trans stuff. However, the crucial issue I see is that most people with very simple questions tend to have them because they incorrectly put themselves at the centre in the dialogue about queer and trans rights. How do I come across to people? How can I be seen better by this community? How is everyone different from me?
 
I’m of the mindset that we can effect change in the world around us only if we acknowledge that the world is larger and more complicated than our individual experiences of it. It’s such a cliché, but to really learn about others we need to get out of our comfort zone.
 
When it comes to creating an environment in which people can truly push the boundaries of their knowledge, Laura McGee has it locked down. She’s the founder and CEO of Diversio, a technology company that uses machine learning to help organizations become more inclusive. When she’s having a conversation with a group of executives who are learning about inclusion for the first time, she might begin with: “Let’s start from a place where we all agree diversity and inclusion are important, and we’re here to close the gaps.” She might add: “Let’s not limit the conversation out of fear we might use the wrong terminology,” to make sure everyone feels comfortable making mistakes.
 
“Assume everyone’s heart is in the right place until shown otherwise,” explains McGee, who I know has answered some of the same diversity questions I constantly get. She admits that it can be frustrating, especially when people have clearly created their opinion based on bad information – like when people embrace the myth that there are high rates of women falsely reporting sexual misconduct or assault. “That just doesn’t happen,” she says, adding that “they hear one story and extrapolate it.” McGee doesn’t let her frustration show, though. “At the end of the day, I’m a problem solver. The quickest way of achieving our collective objective is an open dialogue, a positive environment.”
 
She says a lot of those repetitive questions, especially the ones that seem to challenge the guidance she’s offering, come from fear: fear of being “replaced” by women and minorities, fear of falling victim to “PC culture,” or just fear of the unknown. Gently, McGee offers the reminder that “being afraid doesn’t make someone a bad person.”
 
Advocacy is 24/7
As a member of the queer community who works with the queer community, I feel like I’m always on duty. To be honest, I’m totally cool with that. It helps to have colleagues who see that attitude as a huge positive. “You know, this has to be a way of life. Whether at work, at home or on holiday, this is how you need to behave all the time,” says Inspector Cathy Bawden of the Durham Regional Police Service, where for two years she led the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Unit.
 
She explains that a lot of the questions she got in that role (and continues to get, as people know she’s an expert) are about the “right thing to say.” Upon hearing some of the questions she gets asked, some people would brush them off as too silly to answer. She disagrees with that strategy, pointing out that “silly questions are an opportunity to ask where the question comes from and why they’re asking it.” She gives people the simple answers they’re looking for, but leverages that conversation to help reveal how their behaviour can change to make communication easier.
 
“It takes a little while for people to absorb and put into action for themselves,” she explains, “but with some help they’ll get there.”
 
I like Inspector Bawden’s style because she employs an incredible amount of patience in her work. She says it helps her to remember how far she’s come in her learning and how far she has to go. As she puts it: “The more I learn, the more I realize what I don’t know.”
 
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve worked directly with queer and trans communities for the majority of my career, but I’m still learning about them every day. There are too many things I will never experience first-hand. I need to rely on my listening skills and allow the stories of others to guide my actions so that, as much as possible, they’re not driven by stereotypes, assumptions or what I think is “best” for other people. That patience and understanding must also extend to people who have a genuine curiosity for the lived experiences of my community but don’t yet have the language to ask the right questions.
 
The best advice I ever got about public speaking was that no matter how many times you get up in front of a crowd, you will always experience the same level of nervousness. It never gets better over time. What improves is how you manage those nerves: you learn to harness that anxiety and use it as a reminder that you really care about what you’re saying. If you don’t give a shit, why should anyone else?
 
The same applies when you hear the same questions a thousand times. What’s inane to you is revelatory to someone who just doesn’t know where else to go. You’ll likely always feel frustration when you get certain questions, but there’s an art to not letting that show. It’s one thing if the questions are too personal, are brought at an inappropriate time (once, a complete stranger on the subway asked me when I realized I was queer…I just turned up the volume on my headphones), or are framed in ways that are intentionally hurtful. Shut that down right away. Enlist help if you need it, in order to feel safe. Nobody has the right to make you feel uncomfortable or ashamed. However, if you’ve made a conscious decision to be a formal or informal advocate for your community, a visible ally, someone who wants to help people get past those simple queries (or “queeries,” if you’re feeling punny) to a place of genuine understanding, you’d better be prepared to answer those benign questions over and over. And over.
 

 
COLIN DRUHAN is the executive director of Pride at Work Canada, a not-for-profit organization that empowers employees to foster workplace cultures that recognize LGBT employees. For more information, visit prideatwork.ca.
 

 

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