In this episode of the Culture Moments podcast, LCW Consultant and host Larry Baker has a brave conversation about what a post-pandemic “return to normal” might look like for the LGBTQ+ community, how organizational leaders can support their LGBTQ+ staff members, and what authentic change looks like in practice.

Indigo Avisov (Sr. Diversity & Inclusion Business Partner, Uber) and Dr. Joel A. Brown (Chief Visionary Officer, Pneumos) share their insights and perspectives on the pandemic, Pride Month, and what it means to challenge organizations to make meaningful and lasting change.

After tuning in to the conversation, we encourage you to share your takeaways on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Show Notes & Highlights

4:03: Joel spotlights how the COVID-19 pandemic is not the first epidemic the LGBTQ+ community has faced

16:05: Both Joel and Indigo share their thoughts on Pride Month, what progress it represents, and what needs to continue to happen year-round

25:06: Indigo issues a challenge to organizational leadership across the globe; make support for LGBTQ+ workers an every-day commitment

26:30: Joel discusses what it means to push past cisgender fragility

Show Transcript

Larry Baker: Hello everyone. And welcome to the Culture Moments podcast. I’m your host, Larry Baker. And I’m thrilled to have you join us for our second season called Brave Conversations with LCW. In these episodes, you’ll hear from a panel of guests, from specific communities offering a range of perspectives on the past year. We’ll hear about their own experiences as well as their insights on what’s changed and more importantly, what needs to change to move equity forward. As we all know so much has shifted and changed over the past year and a half. And for many of us, we’re still in recovery from a very rough 2020.

In this episode, LGBTQ+ leaders have shared with us what return to normal might look like for them and how we can begin to support this community. Joining us for this conversation are Indigo Avisov and Joel Brown. Welcome to you both. And let’s begin by having a brief introduction of both of you before we get started.

Indigo, I will ask that you go first. Thank you.

Indigo Avisov: Thanks so much, Larry. And thanks for having me. Hey folks, my name is Indigo. My pronouns are they/them/theirs. I’m really glad to be here. I’m a senior diversity and inclusion business partner at Uber technologies where I’ve been working and developing practices and programs around equity and inclusion for the last almost five years.

I’m also a certified purpose guide. I’m a former political science major someone who is really passionate about political social systems as well as cultural development. And that’s a little bit about me.

Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Indigo. And now, without further ado, we will have Joel Brown, give us an introduction of himself. So, Joel…

Dr. Joel A. Brown: Got you. Boy first of all, thank you all for the opportunity. It’s always good to be among old friends and new friends. My pronouns are he/him/his. So who am I? First thing I would say is I’m a poet and I’m a storyteller. So that’s my first passion.

I am the Chief Visionary Officer of Pneumos LLC. We are a management consulting and coaching firm based in San Francisco and Nairobi. And we do a lot of work around organizational culture and strategy as well as global inclusion. And we do focus quite a bit on LGBTQ+ inclusion.

I’m also a professor. So I teach overseas at the IÉSEG School of Management in Paris, in Lille France. And I’m just glad to be here. Happy pride. And looking forward to this dialogue.

Larry Baker: Thank you both so much for that fantastic introduction. And I’m going to just jump right in and start our conversation over this extremely important topic. So the first question, and I will ask Joel, you can respond to this question first. What are some of your personal thoughts, some stories, some reactions to the changes that have occurred in the LGBTQ+ community from the beginning of COVID to the current moment?

Dr. Joel A. Brown: Changes… I think in many ways, it’s too early to tell what those changes are because we’re still emerging from it. And I think it takes time for us to examine and to be present with where we are, who we are and what we aspire to be in this moment. What I will share though, is that for our community, this isn’t the first pandemic we’ve been through. We’ve lived through a pandemic known as the HIV and aids epidemic in, the last 50 years.

And so what I think I’ve noticed at least in my circle is number one, people revisiting the history, people recognizing that the same tools that have allowed us to be where we are now are tools that we can revisit. And I hope what is helping us do is to focus more on how we can continue to build community and how we can see all the community.

One of the things I always say is that we’re many peoples, but one community. And I think if anything, hopefully this gives us opportunity to actually focus on, and to recognize who are the people who have not been fully seen, who are the people who have not been fully honored, whether we’re talking about trans members of our communities, the BI community, whether we’re talking about women or whether we’re talking about the QPOC community, the queer people of color community.

There’s so many pockets that I think don’t get visibility whose stories do not get told and whose narratives gets assumed into something that’s more palatable for the mainstream. Typically, what is, geared towards or speaks to cisgender rich white men, able-bodied white men. And I think we need to do more to uncover that.

So that’s what I’m seeing. And I’m seeing, frankly, in some respects, a lot of the LGBTQ community being able to deal with this pandemic in some ways, a little bit better, or maybe differently than perhaps our cisgender and heterosexual counterparts, because we’ve lived it, we’ve dealt with being ostracized, we’ve dealt with a mysterious illness or illnesses in the world.

We’ve had to, be reliant on our own resources and our own communities and structures in order to survive. But I’m still processing that myself. And so I’m hoping that this helps us to once again, return to the things that have made us strong and the things that have helped us to be where we are as of today.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Thank you so much for that insight, Joel. Indigo, I’m going to pass the same question over to you. Give me some of your personal thoughts and some reactions to the changes.

Indigo Avisov: Yeah, thanks so much. Joel, I really loved the points that you brought up and I think, we are still emerging from a global pandemic and in some ways we’re trying to move through in all the ways possible how we can emerge from this.

As well as in a year of not only facing COVID-19, but we were faced with the true reality of the very real inherent and systemic racism that still exists, not just in the United States, but in other regions and countries around the world. And I feel like in a lot of circles that I’ve been a part of the thing that I’ve seen most of is people really trying to rise to the occasion of building community. But really trying to do that in a way that not just surfaces and holds up communities that have been historically overlooked within the LGBTQIA community. But really trying to take an honest look at how we can create and sustain community over the long-term.

And supporting not just the people who have the most visibility or most access, but folks who get overlooked in our community. And my hope is that we continue to process everything that’s happened in the last year and a half. I think that we owe it to ourselves, and to society to really do due diligence in terms of continuing to not only process what’s happened, but what’s to come.

And yeah, I think what’s given me a lot of hope is the fact that we’ve been able to rely on that community, that I’ve been able to rely on that community in the last year. Because it’s been a really tough year. And my hope is that we can continue to do that and we continue to have that reflection and have difficult conversations.

And then we continue to activate on holding up parts of the community that our trans brothers and sisters and our nonbinary family, that we continue holding up and raising those voices up as we move forward..

Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Indigo, for that insight. And Indigo you actually said something in your comment that is going to allow me to pivot to our next question.

And I’d like you to take the lead on it. And then Joel, you can respond to this question as you see fit as well. So when you talk about the global view, what courageous conversations have you been a part of that people in the US should know more about specifically when it comes to your community in regards to inclusion, that’s going on in other parts of the world?

So Indigo, I’ll ask you to kick it off and we’ll pass it over to Joel.

Indigo Avisov: Yeah, thanks so much. This is really an interesting question and I think, I’ll just share that, as a person who was born and raised in the United States who was born and raised in California to be exact it’s really easy for people to have a limited kind of scope in terms of how they view what’s going on in the community.

You have to really consistently be reaching out and expanding yourself and expanding your understanding and expanding your perspective. And the thing that I’ve continuously tried to encourage and cultivate in terms of courageous conversations related to the issues faced by people in my community, outside of the US is that people outside of the United States and in a lot of countries around the world, do not have even remotely close to the same access to being who they are simply. And that spans from trans people not having access to gender confirmation surgery is in some countries, or it spans to people, not even being able to hold the hand of the person that they love on the street.

The spectrum is broad, in terms of what’s limiting to folks just being who they are and being an expression around that. And for me, like what’s been happening a lot lately is especially in the context of the work that I do is trying to understand what those challenges are and build and create awareness around it, but also build and create systemic resources or resources on the ground for folks who have such drastically different realities than I do here, living freely, in, in the United States. Some of that’s been really challenging but it is really important to continue. Not just raising up those experiences and then shining a light on them, but then addressing how we might be able to on a whole address, those disparities I think is really critical as we move forward to supporting the rights of LGBTQIA people around the world.

Larry Baker: Thank you so much for that, Indigo. Joel, I’m going to ask you the same question. I want you to take that global view and talk to me about what people in the US should know or what people in the US should be talking about.

Dr. Joel A. Brown: I think what people in the US should be thinking about is the fact that the ways in which we even talk about sexuality, the ways that we talk about gender identity are going to be different across the world.

There’s language that we use in the U S and in the global north and in the west that doesn’t necessarily always translate neatly to other parts of the world. I think we have to be aware that particularly in the U S context we have, or the country has exported a lot of the homophobia that you see in other parts of the world.

So what do I mean by that? So when we go to look at, for example, what’s happening in Uganda and we look at what’s happening in parts of, east Africa, what we look at in terms of what’s happened in India, we look at what happens in southeast Asia. A lot of that has been promulgated supported by us and European foreign policy.

So for example, when former president George Herbert Walker Bush was supporting or leading campaigns into Africa and this, and they were supposed to be philanthropic and humanitarian. A lot of the people who were supporting those efforts also very much exported their homophobia and transphobia, which led and sow the seeds for what you see now in terms of the kill, the gay laws that had been on the books and some of that stuff has been repealed. Some of that stuff is very much so in tact though however, and so it’s very easy for people in the US to say, oh my god, what’s happening in Uganda?

What’s happening in, different parts of the world where our foreign policy helped to support that. So when I was in Kenya two years ago and talking to some activists there. They’re polite words to me were, cause I asked them, what’s your advice for us? And they said, please deal with your blank in your country so that it doesn’t poison the rest of the world.

And I told them that’s easier said than done, but we will certainly try our best. So those are things that I think about. And I think to Indigo’s well-stated point, the struggle is not over. It’s very easy for us to think that we’ve won the battle. Victory has been won. And even in parts of the US, there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done outside of the quote unquote queer metropolises of San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Miami, and other places in between.

So the work still continues. And the thing that I get concerned about it. Pride of course is a very celebratory thing, but it also carries with it the responsibility and I want us just to be able to hold both of those at the same time while we’re having a good time. And I think many people know this.

I don’t want to pretend like this is just me speaking. I think many people in the community share this view, but recognizing there’s still a lot more work that we need to be doing that everybody can be free. So that’s what I would say is the lesson that I would share, or the reminder, I would say.

Indigo Avisov: Can I just underscore something you said? I really love that you brought it back home. And I think that there’s a massive global view and like underscoring that there’s still many, much work to be done, but also reiterating the fact that there’s definitely still work to do here.

We see a lot of anti LGBTQ legislation surfacing all across the country, specifically, in places like Texas, where there’s anti-trans bills that are going to affect children, and anti trans bills surfacing in other parts of the country.

There’s some legislation beginning to surface around access to voting. And I know that a lot of that is centered around socioeconomic or even racial access to voting. But a lot of that legislation also impacts communities like the trans community. And it’s really critical for us to unpack maybe some of our own barriers to understanding difference as it relates to gender identity, sexual orientation and things like that. Because when we see these things happening outside of the United States, it’s not so much of a shock. It isn’t shocking, right? Don’t twist words there, but it becomes this idea of this notion of what we see is a subset of a broader global movement around unpacking, internalized ideologies around difference being bad or difference being weird or what have you. And so I think, we’ve made a lot of progress here in the United States.

Don’t get me wrong. But I think that we still have work to do here and we also still have a lot of work to do to support basic rights for LGBTQIA people outside of the United States. So I really love that you brought it back home. They always say, right? Like you gotta have your house in order first. And I fully support that messaging.

Larry Baker: So you both have mentioned some concepts that I want to pivot on to bring our conversation to the next topic.

And Joel, you mentioned Pride Month. My question is how much progress do you think companies have actually made to expand true inclusion and belonging of the LGBTQ+ community, especially, and Indigo, this kind of gets to your point, especially from this intersectional lens.

Joel, I’ll ask you to kick us off with that question as well.

Dr. Joel A. Brown: That’s a very in-depth question. You’re asking very Oprah-esque questions.

Larry Baker: Well, in my future life, I want to be Oprah.. I just do.

Dr. Joel A. Brown: I think you’re already there. So, there’s a lot to unpack there. What do I think, or what do I think of companies’ efforts?

And this is actually I’m writing on this now. So hopefully by this time next year not hopefully by this time, actually I should have my book done. I think part of the challenge and the frustration that I have is that when we talk about the benefit that communities bring to or different underrepresented groups bring to the workplace… I’m just gonna use Black people, because I know Black people, I think a little bit.

What you’ll hear a lot is, Black people make this contribution or, they bring resilience and grit. They bring a sort of awareness. And I still think in certain pockets of the business community, when you ask them and I’ve asked a number of CEOs, why is LGBTQ inclusion important for you?

And they’ll say, it’s just the right thing to do. And I say, yes, I agree. But can you actually do understand why it’s important beyond just the fact that, queer people are cool and we’re colorful and whatnot, but do you understand the value proposition of what we bring into companies?

And I think that’s the thing that needs to be clearer. And I don’t know if many people actually understand it and I sometimes find senior leaders, not really being clear as to why they’re supporting something and not understanding the beauty of our community, the diversity of our community, the complexity of our community.

And that’s one thing that I think, we can do a better job of is saying actually, when you bring in, for example, LGBTQ people, and this was part of my research I did, we do contribute in ways, whether it’s around, inclusion, whether it’s around creativity and ingenuity, whether it’s around, getting out of binary, thinking those are some tangible things, that impact, how people work, how you impact the bottom line, how you engage with clients in the community.

So there’s that. Now to the second Oprah-esque question that you asked about, the intersectional piece. I still think there’s an opportunity for us to recognize and to decolonize how we look at LGBTQ+ issues, because in my mind, they can still be very white centered, very cisgender centered. And I remember, so once again, I’m here in San Francisco, so I’ve gone and done, speaking engagements with youth.

And I remember I was here in San Francisco with a group. And most of them were of color. And I remember one of the guys saying to me and to the panel why can’t we ever see people of color who are queer? And I was like, that’s a really good question, but they were really pressing us. And we had to say to them, the same forces that operate, in the world, such as, racism and patriarchy obviously are still part of the fabric of the community.

So we have to make sure that we are addressing those. I would also say too, in the final point, that, although there has been a lot of pride washing, so June comes around and corporations have a lot of colorful floats and they make their flashy campaigns and everything is draped in a rainbow flag.

We have to look at the statistics. You still have a very high number, disproportionate number of people who are closeted at work. Who don’t feel comfortable at work. Leaders, who as they make their way up the corporate chain, like they have to go back in the closet. There’s not a lot of mentorship. There’s not a lot of professional development.

And so that, to me, signals that people recognize the money that our community has, but they still don’t recognize the humanity and the human value that we contribute. And so back to your original question there’s still a ton of work to do. And of course, on a case by case basis, you could look at different companies and say maybe some are doing better, someone doing worse, but to me, all it comes back to is our psychological safety.

Larry Baker: Yeah.

Dr. Joel A. Brown: And there’s opportunity and there’s a lot of work to be done. Particularly if you’re talking about global or multinational corporations who have offices and satellite locations in parts of the world, where there are laws in the books that make it illegal to quote unquote, even talk about these things or to quote unquote, be LGBTQ+.

It’s 2021 and we still have a lot more to do.

Larry Baker: Absolutely. Definitely appreciate that insight, specifically I relate to that concept of valuing our money, but not valuing the community. So, Indigo, I’m going to ask you to dig in and do the exact same. How much progress do you think these companies are actually making when it comes to truly expanding inclusion and belonging in the LGBTQ+ community?

Indigo Avisov: Yeah, thanks so much. And Joel provided such a comprehensive thought process around this. As it relates to the progress that’s been made, I think that progress is small, but incremental in the grand scheme of things.

To that point that was just made about caring about the money, but not necessarily about the inclusion aspect, There are some studies that indicate that the LGBTQ community is one of the fastest growing economic demographics in the globe. And as that continues to be the case, many researchers might indicate it’s going to be really important that we are leveraging, not just the pocketbooks of these communities, but all of the diversity of thought and talent and experience that they bring to our products, to our solutions, to our to the societies across the globe.

A lot of the growth has been, again, like I said, it’s been small and incremental. I think that if you notice advertising campaigns, just as an example, Since the nineties, the first advertising campaigns that showcased any LGBTQIA person, there were usually white cisgender gay men.

And as we’ve continued to see and watch evolve marketing and this is just as an example we see that much of that is still very much skewed, more towards highlighting the normative or what society deems as the appropriate versions of the LGBTQIA community. And so my challenge to corporations and to organizations is to continue to lean into all of the spaces that we occupy and to utilize and put LGBTQIA people in leadership positions and to make sure that their voices are being leveraged and generated and not just for your yearly pride campaign.

You know, are they in the room when business decisions are being made? Cause at the end of the day, and I’ll say this a million times over is that diversity, the power of diversity is it drives creative solutioning and innovation, right? Like you have diversity as a business case for that reason. And for a lot of other reasons, frankly, but that is definitely one of them. And if if the full scope and full spectrum of this community, isn’t being leveraged for that to solution, not just for the employees, but for the products and services that they’re building or for the customer populations that they serve then we’re not even close to being done.

And I think I think there are certainly organizations that have made a lot of progress. I don’t want to undercut that because I think cultural change and progress happens over long periods of time. Right? So, Yeah. A little bit, but we still have a while ago.

Larry Baker: What I am appreciating so much about this conversation specifically, is that being a member of a underrepresented or marginalized group, I can see so many of the things that are transferrable to all of our pursuits for this race towards diversity, equity and inclusion.

And one of the themes that I see that’s common from our conversation right now is that there does tend to be this whitewashing of our perspectives. So even though we are striving for things that may not seem to relate, one-to-one with each other, we do have a common denominator that we’re both in these groups that are being perceived by definitions that are not given from our culture, if that makes sense.

So when we think about our leaders, and again, I want to just get some more insight beyond Pride Month. So if you could speak to, and I know that you probably have access to CEOs in various organizations, and Indigo, I know you have access to your CEO group at your organization, but what is one ask that you have of your leaders to go beyond Pride Month or what should be their next step when it comes to their journey of being a true ally to your community? So, Indigo, I’m going to ask you to start and then Joel, I’ll ask you to follow.

Indigo Avisov: Thanks so much, Larry. Yeah, it’s, that’s an interesting question. I loved the point that Joel brought up about not always seeing things from a binary perspective. And for me, I think the biggest challenge that I would have to folks in leadership as we move forward is how do we continue normalizing the LGBTQIA experience in every room, in every office? How do we normalize gender non-conformity? How do we normalize being trans in the workplace? How do we normalize and create the least amount of barriers for those people to not only show up to work as themselves, but to be successful in bringing all of their uniqueness into their jobs on a day-to-day basis.

So identifying those specific systems or policies or practices, or even as simple as creating gender neutral bathrooms, right? What are the things that are that are creating barriers for the LGBTQ experience for those folks to bring their full selves and not only bring their full selves, but activate on that uniqueness to impact their day to day.

That would be my challenge is to continue leaning into those spaces and understanding what those opportunities are.

Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Indigo. And Joel, same question. What is your ask of leaders beyond Pride Month and what types of things should they be doing for their allyship going forward?

Dr. Joel A. Brown: I had to really think about this and I’m still processing. And, in this new era I’m resisting, putting out, trite answers and really trying to be thoughtful. I love what Indigo said. Indigo, if you didn’t know you’re gonna be my new homie so, uh, we’re going to be fast friends. So I’m claiming you now.

I’m going to cheat and say there are a couple of things. Number one, courage. In this political climate, I know there are risks that people have to take in order to stand up for these things that seem pretty straightforward to me, no pun intended.

But I would like to see leaders show courage and to show some grit and some resilience. Which means that even when you get beyond June, even when you get beyond the period where things are trendy, that you’re still bringing these things up and not falling into this trap of cisgender or heterosexual fragility… where it’s oh my god, I’m so tired and this is so exhausting.

Because guess what? Every single day you have a queer person somewhere around the world, who’s fighting some invisible, discreet battle and no one’s there to applaud and no, one’s there to give them encouragement and they’re still able to push forward and they’re contributing to the world. So if they can do that, then guess what? You can do that too.

I would love to see more empathy. And this is one of the things I actually teach on. And it’s the whole idea that you don’t have to have the same lived experience to understand the core emotions of how people feel. People misunderstand me, but, so they think if I didn’t live as you have, then therefore I can’t understand. No, you can understand because you can get to the core emotion.

If you’ve ever felt lonely, sad, confused. Proud different whatever that might, because so much of our experience is actually wonderful and positive. I don’t, I want to make sure I highlight that, but really empathize with the core emotion, which will allow you to make the human connection.

And I think that final thing I would say too, is making sure that when we talk about building inclusion, that’s actually built into the fibers of the organization. So people know on a day-to-day basis, what does that look like? It means, not making statements like what’s your sexual preference? Or, what are your preferred pronouns?

It means questioning your own biases. It means also creating intentionally inclusive space so that people feel seen, heard, and respected, and being able to handle feedback and to go back and address it..

And I can say, as someone who’s done this work for quite some time, I don’t have any qualms and telling people I mess up. I commit what I call cultural full pause. I commit errors. I sometimes step in it, but you got to recover and you got to move on. And it doesn’t mean that you’re a horrible person. If you do. It’s how you respond to that, if it does happen.

And I would also say too, just recognizing that once again, we bring a lot to the table. Indigo already talked about this in terms of our growing influence… the world would not be what it is without us. And in the most positive sense. I don’t mean that in the negative sense, but in the most positive sense, the beauty that you see in the world, a lot of us have been inspired, created by and built by LGBTQ+ people.

Recognize that and recognize that it’s not just doing us a favor by furthering these initiatives it is also by sustaining the world and sustaining humanity that you should focus on and create more inclusive space for queer people. So that’s the thing I will finish with.

Larry Baker: Yeah. So thank you so much for that insight, Joel, thank you so much for your insight, Indigo.

I just really appreciate the transparency that everyone that we’ve talked to, they bring to these podcasts. You can tell that it is true. It is real. It is genuine. And there’s this desire for individuals to get these concepts on the table and something that you’ve mentioned earlier, Joel, about what are you looking for organizations to have…

And that’s that courage, right? That’s really, what we are trying to do with this season is to create that space where people come in and. Have courageous conversations, right? So we can give them some talking points and some ideas from each of these communities that are real and transparent, that individuals that are listening to them, they can actually take it and go and do something with it.

So I absolutely appreciate both of you, incredible guests. I absolutely am so encouraged. I feel like. I cheated a little bit, because I know both of you from work experiences. So it really added to just the genuine conversation. So I appreciate you both so much for your engagement and your willingness to share this topic.

So, thank you. Thank you. Thank you, so much.

And to all of you that are listening, we want to know what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? Please share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW. Once again. Thank you for joining us in Courageous Conversations with LCW.

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