After concluding another powerful Pride Month and as the world starts to go back to some sense of post-pandemic normalcy, attention can be devoted to how to help make your community and the local government profession a more inclusive and welcoming place for those in the LGBTQIA+ community. A great way to start is by viewing the newest in our Courageous Conversations sessions on The LGBTQIA+ Experience in Local Government. ICMA gathered a diverse panel of LGBTQIA+ local government leaders who shared their experiences, challenges, and triumphs, as well as some helpful tips on how you can make a difference for the LGBTQIA+ community.
It is hard to believe that one’s gender identity or sexual orientation can impact being hired for a job, yet it somehow still does. The blatant lack of understanding or acceptance of those in the LGBTQIA+ community is still prevalent and has affected most of the panel members in both getting placed in certain roles or being accepted in the roles they have successfully held for years. Panel members took a deep dive into a number of these uncomfortable and unjust experiences, putting some of the challenges of being a part of LGBTQIA+ community into perspective.
Have you ever casually mentioned your spouse or children in an interview? While it is not required that you disclose such information during the interview process, sometimes the subject naturally comes up. For these panel members, they need to think twice about sharing that type of personal information, or even avoid the topic altogether to prevent potential discrimination in the hiring process. In the case of panel member Eric Osterberg, assistant to the city manager of Klamath Falls, Oregon, he has found multiple barriers to entry in local government leadership roles. Though he found an ally in his current city manager, Osterberg’s hiring did not come without opposition from some who thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to hire a “gay man.” While raising concerns about someone’s sexuality during the hiring process is bad enough, Osterberg has also experienced being turned down altogether for a town manager role due to his sexual orientation. Now because of these experiences, Osterberg is careful not to mention anything that could give away his sexual orientation until after he has already been hired.
While not revealing an LGBTQIA+ identity during the interview process can be relatively easy, it is not nearly as easy to keep it under wraps once hired. Nor should one need to hide it. Could you imagine successfully holding a role for years, only to be ousted once others discover your sexual orientation? One panel member experienced just that. In the case of panel member Steve Rogers, town manager of Yountville, California, he finally came out in 1992 after years of denial. Even though he had successfully completed five years in the profession at the time, two councilmembers still felt the need to approach him and make it clear that they felt “people like him” should not be in local government. Despite this devastating blow, Rogers still managed to find allies in city managers and others who supported him.
Although Rogers and the other panelists have seen a lot of noticeable improvements in this type of discrimination throughout the years, there is still a lot of work to be done. Some panelists still limit themselves to only seek work in states or communities where they don’t need to worry about their rights being threatened, while others specifically look to work in communities where they can make a bigger difference for the LGBTQIA+ community. Finding work can be hard enough, and worrying about rights being violated or facing discrimination in the workplace is something that no one should need to consider while on their job hunt.
Balancing Personal Story and Professional Career
The experiences and hardships that come with being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community have naturally shaped the lives of each member of this panel, and for that reason, it can be hard to completely separate their personal stories from their professional career. In the case of panel member, Pam Davis, assistant city manager of Boulder, Colorado, she was inspired to join the local government profession because of her experiences growing up as an LGBTQIA+ teen. While in high school, Pam created a gay/straight alliance school club that was threatened to be shut down, but was ultimately ordered to remain active because of the Equal Access Act . Because of this act that protects public school students’ First Amendment right to conduct meetings, her life as an LGBTQIA+ youth was made better, sparking her inspiration to join local government where she can help make a positive impact for someone else’s life through her service.
In a profession where political neutrality is required, this panel feels that their work toward equity and inclusion for all is not indicative of their political affiliations, as much as it is doing their best to serve the needs of everyone that their community represents. Since they have a first-hand view of the damage that discrimination creates, their passion to foster an environment where others do not need to experience the same hardships is second to none. This unique perspective is one that should not just be welcomed but sought after in local government.
How You Can Build a More Inclusive Community
One thing that all of the panelists have in common is experiencing some form of brazen discrimination and judgement, whether it be in their schools, personal lives, or even in their local government careers. This is the troubling reality and uphill battle that most LGBTQIA+ community members experience at some point or another. No one should need to prove that their sexual orientation or gender identity has nothing to do with their ability to contribute to society, and as local government leaders, it is important that you guide your organization and community at-large on a path to acceptance and inclusivity. This requires leading by example. Take a moment to address any preconceived notions you may have about the LGBTQIA+ community. Furthermore, if you have an LGBTQIA+ individual as an employee or prospective employee, ask yourself, “What does this person’s sexual orientation or gender identity have to do with their ability to perform the job?” Remember that your comfort is not more important than their ability to hold a career, have a family, or feel safe and secure. Once you complete that critical self-reflection and realization, you will become the ally that this community urgently needs.
As a local government leader, it is your obligation to make sure everyone is given equal opportunity. Although our society is taking critical steps forward, there must be continuous work done to achieve a more inclusive environment for everyone to be their authentic selves. Some work that the city of Boulder is doing to foster a more inclusive environment, and you can add to your inclusion playbook, is utilizing dedicated officers to address LGBTQIA+ hate crimes and other issues, participating in Pride events, reviewing forms for more gender-neutral language, installing gender-neutral bathrooms, and collecting data on LGBTQIA+ owned businesses to support. These small steps can create big change for more people than you think, sending a critical message that everyone in your community is welcome.
Being seen, heard, and supported is what this community needs most. These panel members managed to break down significant barriers in both their personal journeys and careers, finding their place and voice to make real change through their local government roles. Now it is our turn to help build the type of equitable community where such barriers don’t exist for the next generation of LGBTQIA+ local government leaders. As we all navigate through the next steps in our endless work to continuously improve the quality of our communities, keep leading with equity in mind and uphold tenet 4 of the ICMA Code of Ethics “to serve the best interests of the people.”