The Center’s LGBTQ Institute Executive Director, Ryan Roemerman on PRIDE Month
“Today, I had the opportunity to provide the keynote speech at the Georgia Diversity Council’s LGBTQ+ Unity Summit. This year’s theme was “Pride Unites: Reigniting Allyship through Unity, Equity and Inclusion”
The event was hosted at Inspire Brands and included C-Suite and diversity, equity, and inclusion officers at various companies. My speech made several connections around allyship, the diversity of our movement, the importance of history, and the need for everyone to have access to it. It also focused on businesses and what they can do beyond pride month.
As we move into pride celebrations, I am happy to share my speech with you. I hope that the words inspire you and that you have the opportunity to reflect and then take action to end racism and anti-LGBTQ hate.”
LGBTQ Institute Executive Director
National Center for Civil and Human Rights
In the early hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn was raided by police. Police harassment was a common occurrence at gay clubs and patrons were fed up. On this night, police raided the New York City bar and harassed and assaulted some 200 queer folks.
The raid sparked a riot among bar patrons and police leading to six days of protests. Two trans women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera helped lead a group of bold and brave queer people who together, changed history. In 2016, President Obama designated the site of the uprising as a national monument.
As a student of stonewall, this history-changing event serves as a reminder that the movement for equity for queer people and communities of color has always been intertwined and that the work is far from over.
As Coretta Scott King said, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation” If there was any doubt about this fact, look no further than the racist and anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced in state legislatures across this country.
It is why celebrating pride is important–it helps pave the way for more people to see themselves in full color—to see that they are not alone. It’s why I want to talk about allyship, the diversity of our movement and the importance of history, and the need for everyone to have access to it.
The visibility of LGBTQ people and the history that pride presents is a lifeline for many young people especially.
Consequently, a growing number of LGBTQ people come out earlier. This year, a Gallup study found that “The proportion of U.S. adults who consider themselves to be LGBT has grown at a faster pace over the past year than in prior years… With one in 10 millennials and one in five Gen Z members identifying as LGBT.” There are still many young people, however, who are not out. For some, it would mean being ostracized, harassed, beaten, or sent into “conversion therapy”–an attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. From a very young age, many understand that who they are is not acceptable to their families or communities.
I knew of no one in my childhood who thought being gay was okay. Not one.
We place so much value, and rightly so, on the quality of the childhood experience. Our children are our future. When they are born they are helpless. We tend to them to make sure that they are well fed and cared for. And we teach them. We teach them to eat, to read, to love. And sometimes, we teach them to hate. They watch us. They listen to us. They listen to what we say and don’t say.
We aren’t born knowing how to hate, we learn it.
That is why we must not only teach people not to hate–by being mindful of and willing to explore and understand our own biases and beliefs, but we all must come out.
Not just LGBTQ people. But our straight allies must come out as well. Our liberation is tied to each other and because of that, lifelong learning is required. Education is liberation.
Understanding others, being willing to listen to someone else’s story, and meeting them where they allow you to welcome the stranger who can become a friend and ally.
Reigniting allyship requires a willingness to understand and learn from others and their experiences.
If education is liberation, then a key lesson is knowing your history.
But even that is now being debated.
We have seen this in the manufactured debate around critical race theory. CRT is taught in law schools and higher education courses and explores how racism has shaped public policy. It’s a theory that’s been around since the 70s. It’s not taught in K-12 schools.
Nevertheless, according to reporting by ABC News, conservative activists and reporters began amplifying reports that it was being taught in K-12 schools. This was part of a larger effort with one of the leading activists detailing:
“We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.'”
Many researchers say this effort to attack education on race and diversity has worked. We have all seen the waves of legislation and debate. Evidence that the term CRT had become toxic was seen in a Monmouth University survey in November 2021. They found only 43% of respondents supported CRT.
But when respondents were asked if they supported the idea of education on race, 75% of respondents indicated they were in favor.
As one education historian said in Education Week, a k-12 education news journal, “The culture wars are always, at some level, battled out within schools..they’re talking in the language of school and school curriculum—That’s the vocabulary, but the actual grammar is anxiety about shifting social power relations.”
Our history is being held hostage by those clinging to power.
The chaos these laws create deprives young people of their history and makes them less prepared for the future–one that will require them to be able to empathize and have compassion for others and understand where others are coming from.
Empathy is the most important leadership skill according to research. To build successful companies you need employees and leaders who understand this. As Forbes detailed, empathy has some significant constructive effects that directly impact your company’s innovation, engagement, retention, inclusivity, and quality of work life.
- When people reported their leaders were empathetic, they were more likely to report they were able to be innovative—61% of employees compared to only 13% of employees with less empathetic leaders.
- 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged compared with only 32% who experienced less empathy.
Beyond empathy, many are also talking about the need for compassion.
Where “empathy is “a linchpin for good leadership, a compassionate work culture—where leaders regularly demonstrate concern for people experiencing difficulties, and act upon the concern to help and support—is also a key element.”
As the Harvard Business Review simply put it, the most successful leaders connect with empathy but lead with compassion.
To have compassion you need to understand history.
I have the honor of working at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. It is an educational institution with a museum at its heart, where through our exhibits and programming, we teach the history of civil and human rights every day.
At The Center, I serve as the executive director of the LGBTQ Institute which advocates for the rights of LGBTQ Southerners. More LGBTQ people live here than anywhere else in the country: Roughly 3.6 million adults—yet we are under attack most often physically and legislatively.
Last year, the majority of anti-LGBTQ legislation proposed across the United States was introduced here, and more transgender and gender-nonconforming people were murdered here.
At the same time, responding to these threats is challenging because LGBTQ work in the South is vastly under-resourced. Compared to funding across the country, the South, as a region, receives little, just 8 percent each year.
One shining light is the diversity of the South: More than four in 10 LGBTQ people in the South identify as a person of color. And more than one in five LGBTQ Southerners are Black.
This intersection of race and sexual orientation and gender identity is a story we try to share at The Center: that civil and human rights movements are inextricably linked with one another.
This vantage point is why for years The Center had been fielding requests for us to do diversity, equity, and inclusion work. In 2019 we began in earnest to explore the idea and invited over two dozen DEI professionals to come to the Center and tell us what they needed most. What we witnessed was a catharsis amongst the participants who felt the power of community. Much like I’m sure everyone will experience today. They opened up and told us about their challenges and successes.
The common refrain we heard from them is that The Center does a great job of connecting history to present-day struggles.
This thoughtful insight mirrored what Pamela Newkirk, author of “Diversity Incorporated” found in her research.
In her interview with Kirt von Daack, history professor and assistant dean at The University of Virginia who chaired The UVA President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, he said:
“What we’re wrestling with is a microcosm of what America has not come to terms with since the Civil Rights Movement. It powerfully shapes the world we’re in.”
“Institutions cannot claim a commitment to diversity and inclusion without honestly confronting and correcting destructive narratives. Diversity demands more truth-telling of our past.”
What we learned from our brain trust of DEI colleagues and our research, is that The Center has the opportunity to complement their internal DEI conversations and convene folks around this work considering our power of place and the context we can provide.
Tanya Odom, a senior consultant for the FutureWork Institute, an organization that works with Diversity Officers said, “It has to be more holistic than it’s been. You can’t talk about diversity and not speak about what’s happening on the outside.”
But what we see happening right now, when it comes to talking about race and sexual orientation and gender identity, is elected leaders trying to stop us from talking about these movements, this history that links us together, that tells the story of this country. They want to ensure we don’t talk about racism in America, that we don’t even mention the word, “gay”.
Businesses hold so much power in this country, and it is why you are uniquely placed to ensure that those of us targeted by racist or anti-LGBTQ laws are protected. Having business stand up for us lets us know you are an ally and a brand we can trust.
We need our business partners and DEI leaders to advocate for us in the workplace and the statehouse now more than ever. It is with your allyship that over the last five years, LGBTQ Southerners successfully defeated 93% of the anti-LGBTQ bills that were introduced in state legislatures.
Future generations will be even more diverse than Millennials or Gen Z. They will demand corporate leadership, whose leaders are emotionally knowledgeable of the varied dimensions of diversity. Companies must be able to speak readily and authentically when it comes to race and sexual orientation and gender identity issues. In a society whose ultimate deciding factor is asking the question of whether it’s good for business?
The answer is an overwhelming yes—DEI is crucial.
LGBTQ Customers of the coming generation with buying power of at least 3.7 trillion dollars, will not only expect companies to invest in DEI internally, but they will also expect the products they use and the marketing they see to reflect the diversity and values of their communities.
We also know that 63% of straight millennials identify as allies.
In addition to creating brand awareness within the LGBTQ community, supportive measures and marketing will also deepen support in the 37 trillion dollar LGBTQ ally marketplace, where 67% of straight allies factor LGBTQ friendliness into their shopping decisions.
To bring it closer to home, according to Out Leadership, “4.5% of Georgia residents identify as LGBTQ+, 27% of whom are raising children. Conservatively, that’s LGBTQ personal income of $21.6 billion – it’s a market your business can’t afford to ignore.”
LGBTQ Southerners reward those who advocate for them, with their time, talent, and treasure.
To serve as an advocate and ally requires truth-telling. It requires speaking truth to power.
Ambiguity on these important matters is dangerous to you, your employees, your customers, and your bottom line.
Your company’s words need to have the weight of your c-suite behind them. Your company must fully invest in the people who shoulder the weight of this work. It is a down payment on your future. It is what will attract the best and the brightest.
I think back to a key moment in my years of student and community organizing. I specifically remember a brave young man who stood up, in front of our Governor and his teachers and said, “Every day I prepare myself for a school that is not prepared for me.”
These young people grow up and will be part of your company someday
Will a young person today look at your business and feel like you are prepared for them?
Is your company prepared to be brave? Not just during pride month but all year, even when the people in power are seated for the legislative session? Even when the convenient thing to do is remain silent? Will your company be seen as a true ally?
The fight for LGBTQ and racial equity will continue. And, our continued success against the hateful bills and rhetoric will depend on our collective willingness to act.
As Bayard Rustin said, “the proof that one truly believes is in action”
So this pride season, reflect on the success–and then take action. Here are some ways:
- Learn more about queer history, especially people of color who led the way like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera
- Come out when you are ready as LGBTQ or as an ally.
- Stop anti-LGBTQ and racist rhetoric and behavior by speaking up.
- Learn about privilege, stereotypes, and unconscious bias
- Donate to organizations working to end racism and anti-LGBTQ hate
- Use correct and inclusive language
- Be willing to listen.
We are diverse. We are resilient. And, we know that our civil and human rights movements are bound to one another. That as a community, we understand that our shared destiny for equal dignity will be determined by our commitment to each other.
We are on the righteous and loving side of history. And we know it.
Have a safe and happy pride.