The Future of LGBT Leadership: Allyship

2015 has been a whirlwind of a year for LGBT people. An emotional rollercoaster whose high was surely the Supreme Court's June decision making marriage equality the law of the land (capping a decade of rapid mainstreaming and enhanced visibility for gay and lesbian people), and whose low was of course the defeat of Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance this past November (a cutting loss made more painful by the way it played out: a vicious, slanderous, ultimately successful campaign to scapegoat and demonize the transgender community).

As the year draws to a close -- as we celebrate our successes and learn the lessons of our setbacks -- where should the LGBT movement turn its attention next?

In my opinion, LGBT organizations should seize on the conditions of the moment to advance progress for those who remain most marginalized among us. We should acknowledge the historic comfort many of us now feel in our lives as out people; we should capitalize on that comfort -- on the privilege that now characterizes so many of our lives; and we should mobilize as a community to offer support and allyship where it remains needed -- starting with transgender and genderqueer people.

In my experience...

I sit on the Board of Out for Undergrad, a nonprofit whose mission is to help high-achieving LGBT undergraduates reach their full potential. In 2015 we brought over 600 young LGBT people to one of our weekend-long summits -- industry-themed conferences in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Palo Alto where we work to educate students about highly competitive career tracks; inspire them to want to live openly as their full and complete selves; introduce them to elite employers who we believe create strong environments for young LGBT professionals; and help them make friends, build a network, and meet mentors and role models.

At each of our events, students meet in small groups with older LGBT professionals for candid discussions, they hear stories and perspectives they can't find on their own campuses, and they sometimes form relationships that last years into the future. When we started these small group sessions six years ago, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was still official policy, DOMA was the law of the land, and nationwide marriage equality remained a distant dream. For many LGBT college students at that time, elite employers (like large investment banks, consulting firms, and technology companies) still felt like they might be forbiddingly straight environments. It was hard to know where you would feel comfortable.

To quell these concerns, we encouraged LGB students to "be out" and we pushed trans and genderqueer students to "be themselves" as they applied for jobs, interviewed, met new colleagues, and began their careers. We helped them connect with LGBT mentors inside their new companies. And we gave representatives from top employers a chance to talk about life as an out professional at their firms.

Six years later, for many of our students, programming of that nature is now stale.

Indeed, many students across the country are still nervous about coming out; and indeed, connections to older, more experienced LGBT mentors still offer students a great deal of value. But the majority of students we host at our conferences -- an admittedly privileged set chosen based on their records of achievement and drawn largely from highly elite colleges and universities -- are already quite comfortable being out.

This can be observed most clearly among the gay, lesbian, and bisexual students we invite to our conferences -- a clear majority of whom are highly confident being themselves, both on their resumes and as soon as you meet them. They expect that the largest and most elite employers will be welcoming, and they believe that they'll have plenty of friends, find partners and start families, and lead rich, fulfilling lives.

This is of course very good news. It's a reflection of the radical transformation in acceptance of LGBT people -- especially gay, lesbian, and bisexual people -- in our country.

But it also created a challenge for our organization. When the CEO of the world's most valuable company is throwing the doors off the closet for future generations of LGBT employees, what's the next change we want to see? How do we cultivate the next generation of LGBT corporate leaders? Out for Undergrad needed to change direction, and this offered a chance to take part in defining the future direction of the LGBT movement as a whole.

Cultivating Allyship

We turned our small group session into a new program on how to be an ally. Allyship is a public or private act of support -- typically committed by a member of the majority on behalf of a member of a marginalized group. For LGBT people, allyship has historically meant straight people supporting LGBT rights; but as LGBT students feel accepted and privileged themselves, we believe they should "pay it forward" by acting as allies themselves. We believe LGBT people should use their increasingly mainstream status and newly-won position of privilege to advance equality and tolerance more broadly.

Allyship can begin inside our movement itself. Transgender and genderqueer people remain misunderstood and continue to be margnalized. As I wrote in this publication two years ago, trans people face frequent harassment, mistreatment, and discrimination in the workplace; and even today they remain largely unprotected by law (in the majority of states you can be fired for being trans).

We can also act as allies more broadly -- toward women and toward members of underrepresented minority groups; and toward friends and colleagues who find themselves in a "momentary minority" for other reasons entirely. For instance, inside my company, I used my own political capital and status as a man to advocate for paid maternity leave on behalf of a pregnant colleague.

Much of the content online about being an ally is about getting companies to implement particular Human Resources policies. Of course, companies should implement those policies, but being an ally is not just about escalating issues to HR or involving management. Those are important but aggressive (and often inappropriate) options.

Allyship in Practice: What Would You Do?

In the small group discussions at our conferences this fall, we presented a series of example scenarios to our students, asked them how they would respond, and structured a discussion about the best way to be an ally. We adapted most of these from the great work done by the ADA Initiative. The experiment was enlightening and exciting. Even the professionals at the conference -- most of them LGBT or fervent allies who work at some of the world's leading companies -- found themselves learning alongside the students.

So what would you do in the following situation we discussed with our students?

A new coworker has joined your team and identifies as transgender. From your desk, you hear several other coworkers in the hallway referring to the colleague as a man (though she identifies as a woman) and talking loudly about which bathroom the new colleague will use. Your new colleague is in earshot of the conversation but just remains at her desk.

How would you handle it? As you think about your answer, remember that reporting insensitivity to HR is not always the best answer. Public confrontation can send a strong signal and encourage others to change views, but following up in private is often a safer and less abrasive approach. Also consider the emotional needs of your new colleague and the situation your actions might place her in.

As we heard during our conferences, there aren't really right or wrong answers when it comes to this example or allyship more broadly. But there are strategies, and they can be practiced and learned.

Future LGBT Leaders as Allies

On the whole, I have come to believe that being an out leader is not just about being visible. The future LGBT corporate leaders will be out, but they must be strong allies as well. To truly create the next wave of change and advance LGBT rights, we have to ensure every marginalized group is protected. It's my hope that Out for Undergrad's training is just the beginning.