Encouraging LGBTQIA+ Inclusivity at Community Events
I want to start by making an acknowledgement. This post is based upon my experience as a white cisgender gay man. I acknowledge that I have significant privilege due to my race and gender identity. Everyone’s journey is different, and the experience of every LGBTQIA+ person is different. I was extremely lucky to have a positive coming out experience, something that not everyone is fortunate enough to have.
The thoughts, comments and recommendations I have written here are based upon my experience, they are based upon things that I have experienced at work, user groups, conferences and industry events that have made me feel more included. I am positive there are plenty of things that I have missed, and things that could be improved in my recommendations. If you have comments and feedback, please get in touch with me as I really, really want and welcome feedback.
The Challenges LGBTQIA+ People Face at Community Events
From the outside, it might seem that the lives of LGBTQIA+ people are easier; in Australia and many other countries same sex marriage has been legalised, there is general acknowledgement and acceptance of us in society. Unfortunately, LGBTQIA+ people still face hatred and discrimination. Suicide rates for LGBTQIA+ teenagers are still dramatically higher than their peers, and violence towards our community is continuing. The truth is, that it is still difficult for us to feel safe in the community. We still face exclusion by families, friends, workplaces and social groups.
Coming out isn’t a once off process. It isn’t something you do once then be done with it. Coming out is a repeated conversation, that frequently presents itself both in the workplace and at community events. A simple conversation about what we got up to on the weekend, suddenly turns to another coming out. This isn’t without its risks. There is always the chance of an awkward or negative response when we do come out during conversation.
Research shows that the many in the LGBTQIA+ community expend significant energy in hiding their identity in the workplace. This self-policing at work, will extend to our community events as well. Consciously thinking about what we say, how we say it, how we dress or even how we walk is an exhausting aspect of our lives. We often make the decision to hold part of ourselves back in ways that non-LGBTQIA+ people don’t, mostly because we are worried about crossing some invisible line that may or may not exist.
I suffer from anxiety; I find social situations extremely difficult. For me, I know that this anxiety is linked to my sexual orientation. There is a fear of someone having a negative reaction to me revealing my sexuality. When making small talk, I find myself having that internal monologue, the one that says “if you say husband, this person might laugh, get angry, upset, or worse. You need to keep safe.” I find myself making an assessment if I should be open about who I am or hold that part of me back. It is utterly exhausting.
The Benefits of Inclusion
Why should you care about making your next event more LGBTQIA+ inclusive?
It is 2019 and making your events inclusive is just the right thing to do. Recognising what our differences are and how they make our community stronger is just common sense. Creating inclusive communities allows people to learn from each other’s experiences, builds stronger communities and fosters innovation. The establishment of inclusive environments fosters an environment where attendee and speakers are valued for who they are.
As community leaders, it is our responsibility to create equal opportunities. It is often the case that we are in this privileged position because someone gave us the opportunity. It is our duty to pay that back to our community.
Attendees are voting with their feet. They are looking for conferences where they feel valued, respected and safe. They want to go to events where they see speakers who they can connect with, that represent their own experiences. If an event doesn’t try to make attendees and speakers feel included, they are simply going to ignore your event and go to something else. A key factor of a successful events is that attendees feel they are truly part of a community.
Corporations are very aware of the benefits of inclusion. This isn’t just by building an inclusive workplace, they want to remain competitive by having a better perspective of what their customers want. Companies are desperate to find new, innovative and effective ways to hire new talent. Event sponsorship has become a major part of most corporations recruiting pipelines. Attending and sponsoring inclusive events give corporations more opportunities to build a more inclusive workforce. By making your event more inclusive, you could be opening new opportunities for sponsorships. Conversely, if your event isn’t inclusive, you might find it harder to obtain sponsorship.
Code of Conduct
Having a code of conduct is a critical step in establishing an inclusive community. A code of conduct defines how your event welcomes people to continue and participate whilst pledging in return they are valued as human beings. You can and should define a code of conduct for your meetups, events, conferences, workplaces, forums, open source projects, and well, really any community where people are contributing and sharing together.
A code of conduct is an overt mechanism to reinforce that unwelcoming behaviours to marginalized people: making assumptions about gender or race, reinforcing stereotypes, using sexualized, offensive or inappropriate language or disregarding the safety and well-being of vulnerable people; have no place. The code of conduct needs to clearly spell out what behaviour standards you will accept and what are examples of unacceptable behaviour. It should clearly cover how people can get help and report inappropriate behaviour and harassment. DDD Melbourne in their code of conduct includes several different methods to report inappropriate behaviour or harassment, including making an anonymous report. Finally, your code of conduct needs to include what enforcement actions may take place, and if you maintain the right to remove the offender from the event.
Unfortunately, it is still common to see event or meetup organisers who, often innocently, believe they don’t need a code of conduct. They seriously believe that their attendees will treat each other with respect and curtesy. This view is out of touch. You need to have a code of conduct; it needs to be defined and violations dealt with. Members of communities with dramatically low representation, women, LGBTQIA+, people of colour and other marginalized populations will look for the evidence of a code of conduct as a sign the event will be a safe space.
Once you have a code, you need to ensure that everyone is aware of the expectations it sets out. There are a few ways you could approach this:
- Ask people to read and agree to it when they sign up. Yes, it might end up a bit like a EULA for a software installation, but when they click “OK”, they are still agreeing to the code, even if they haven’t read it.
- Display the code at the event. This could be near your signage at entrances or doors into sessions.
- Reference the code of conduct during your opening address. You probably already cover other safety information like what to do in the event of a fire.
I personally want to see more transparency around the enforcement of codes of conduct. Some events regularly report and disclose any violations, I think this is a great approach. It shows that you are enforcing the code of conduct for your event. You don’t need to go into any detail, in fact, please don’t as it could negatively impact those who report violations. All you need is a basic report on the number of issues, general descriptions and the response.
Pronouns are words used to refer to a person other than their name. Pronouns like she, he, her and him are gendered pronouns, they denote the concept of male and female. Gender neutral pronouns like they, xe, ze and ey don’t denote any sense of gender, they don’t imply ‘male’ or ‘female’. Neutral pronouns are typically used by genderqueer and non-binary identifying people. When a trans person comes out, they may have new pronouns they want to use.
Most people have a preference to be referred to with a specific pronoun. If someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, that is, misgendered, it can make them feel pretty shit. They might feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, oppressed, dysphoric, or all these emotions. It can leave them feeling really hurt.
When organising events, ask attendees to list the pronouns they use. Listing pronouns helps minimize the stress for genderdiverse people, and it is important that cisgender people list theirs as well as it normalizes the practice. This will decrease the risk of someone being misgendered and highlight the fact that people might have different pronouns from others. It helps demonstrate that whether someone is cis or trans, their pronouns should never be assumed.
I really like the idea of attendees wearing badges that list their name (preferable first and last name) and their pronoun. This doesn’t need to be a fancy badge; it could simply be a sticker where attendees write their name and pronouns with a pen. This simple gesture can increase the inclusivity of your event.
As a speaker, I am also making the step to include my pronouns in my introduction. I am also going to use gender neutral pronouns in my demonstrations, anecdotes and stories that form part of my presentations.
If you do make the mistake and use the wrong gender, it’s ok. Don’t freak out or get mad at the person. Just make a quick correction and apologise, then move on.
Who sponsors of an event can speak untold volumes about the event and its organisers; in both positive and negative ways. As an attendee it is great to see events have such great sponsorship, however it can be frustrating if a sponsor has a history of not being an LGBTQIA+ ally.
There is a history of corporations on both side of LGBTQIA+ history, supporting the community and harming the community. Some organisations have come out strongly to support the LGBTQIA+ community, either through sponsoring community events and initiatives or by supporting movements like marriage equality. Unfortunately other organisations have directly or indirectly harmed the LGBTQIA community; by supporting anti-LGBTQIA+ groups or organisations or by not holding their employees or leadership teams accountable when they make negative or damaging comments about the community.
A recent example of this is digital payment and fintech start-up Up. One of Up’s co-founders was featured in a video by Sam Newman that “satirised” transitioning in a terrible attempt to argue that trans people should be banned from playing sports. Sam’s views are extremely offensive, he has made consistent attacks against the transgender community. In the video, Up’s cofounder felt free to laugh along to Sam’s mocking of transgender people, he took no step to call Sam out. To see a founder of one of Australia’s leading fintech start-ups, one that has been very public about putting people first, supporting such transphobic views is incredibly upsetting. Up initially distanced themselves from the co-founder’s views, later apologising for the perceived association of the co-founder’s views with Up. There is a very real association between Up and their co-founder, it isn’t perceived, he is still listed as a co-founder. Up has taken no steps to call out his behaviour. Up regularly sponsors user groups and meetups. As an organiser, is Ups message one you are willing to help promote? Is Up a brand you want associated with your event?
When reviewing sponsorship offers for your community events, ask yourself:
- Do they have a history of supporting the LGBTQIA+ community in a positive way?
- Have they had any historical instances of homophobia, transphobia or biphobia?
If you are unsure, ask someone in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Presentation Content, Memes and Jokes
The content of presentations can have a significant impact on the audiences’ experience. Speakers can use a variety of tools and techniques to tell their story: text, images, memes and jokes. These decisions can making a massive impact on the audience, they could unite or divide an audience. This is especially significant for those who come from minorities. Will they be left feeling included or isolated?
During the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey in 2017, a very tough time for the LGBTQIA+ community, I attended a session where there were jokes made about marriage. The jokes were not only misogynistic, but during that period, they were extremely painful for someone who legally wasn't able marry the person I loved. At that time, the LGBTQIA+ community was going through a very public and painful process to determine if we should have that right, one the speaker had, and felt it could be used for humour.
I have also attended sessions, by quite respected speakers, that made use of inappropriate female imagery. Not only is this content sexist and offensive to women, but it can make me as a gay man, feel very awkward. I felt so upset that I walked out of that session, and to this day, still don’t attend talks by that speaker.
When including the latest meme or a joke in your presentation, you really do need to validate that they are not offensive. A simple Google or DuckDuckGo search should be able to tell you. If you find out later that something was offensive, apologise and ensure that you don’t reuse that material.
Organisers and speakers should make sure that you use substitute gender binary language with more inclusive language like “everybody”, “folks” or “people”.
It is not practical for event organisers to check speakers’ content before they speak. This can be very frustrating as a speaker and can appear that you don’t trust your speakers. Instead, communicate with your speakers’ what content is and is not acceptable. Make sure you share the code of conduct with them, and that they understand it. Consider sharing with them online guides to the use of inclusive language. Develop a response plan for the situation where a speaker uses inappropriate content. In serious cases, you might need to stop the talk part way through.
When you are holding an event where there are talks, typically a Q&A session follows. The problem is that an open Q&A call creates some challenges:
- Inappropriate questions. Questions about a person’s appearance or sexuality, or even asking the speaker out on a date. It happens and it is gross.
- Joke questions. As a speaker, we have probably heard the joke multiple times already, each time becoming more tedious. You are taking time away from others who have legitimate questions.
- Troll questions. These are often a combination of jokes, statements or inappropriate questions. As a speaker we are aware there are competing viewpoints on technology approaches. We have heard all the questions. Trolling questions just aim to make the speaker, and perhaps the audience uncomfortable. They are not appropriate.
- Questions that are sharing an opinion or making a statement. These are often intended to put the speaker down and show that the asker is more knowledgeable. They are extremely disrespectful. They have a huge impact on speaker confidence, particularly for new speakers. As a more seasoned speaker, I can typically tell who is going to ask a question like this, and it makes me so very frustrated.
- Mansplaining. These do occur at technical events. This is wildly inappropriate, just like sharing an opinion or making a statement, the goal of this is to put the speaker down. Once again, this is extremely disrespectful.
- Complex questions requiring more information. Sometimes an asker will have a question that requires the speaker to get more information or clarification. These back-and-forth exchanges can be interesting, but commonly, they are not interesting to the whole group. They consume a significant amount of Q&A time, and often don’t get answered as they require detailed analysis.
- There is nothing worse than no questions. It can be soul crushing when you finish a 45 minute or hour-long talk, and no one has any questions for you. There is no way that everyone has taken in so much information without a single question. The silence can be so awkward.
- The process puts the speaker on the spot. Public speaking can be anxiety-inducing, fielding questions after a talk that you prepared can be possible question can be practically terrifying. Audiences often have the expectation that speakers will be able to answer every possible question or know how to use a product or technology in the asker’s unique situation. I have often been asked questions where the asker is really wanting me to help solve their production issues or develop an architecture for them on the spot. Speakers are there to share their experiences, not be total experts.
- Asking a question can be just as tough. Just as answering the questions can be nerve racking, so to can asking a question. Those from minorities are less likely to ask a question during an open Q&A. Many people just don’t have the confidence to ask a question in a public forum.
As an event organiser, I recommend taking the following steps to deal with these questions and situations:
- As you are listening, remember (or write down) a simple question that you can ask to warm up the room. Keep it to something that the speaker can easily answer of the top of their head. It helps build the speakers confidence, and warm up the audience to asking questions.
- If an inappropriate, joke or trolling question is raised. Step in and call it out. Say that the question will not be answered and go onto another question, or close the Q&A.
- If an asker starts sharing an opinion, making a statement or mansplaining. Step in, call it out, and move onto another question or close the Q&A.
There is another approach that might be better. Some events are now switching to a longer 20-minute break between sessions. This gives people a chance to come up and chat with a speaker after a talk. If people want to be part of the conversation, they can opt in to be part of it. They are not forced to stay. This isn’t a matter of running questions during the speaker change over period. This is a dedicated window for conversations. Do not leave your speaker unattended. You need to be with them, support them, and step in if someone asks inappropriate questions, attempts to share opinions or statements that put the speaker down, or worse, mansplains.
Other conferences have a scheduled track where speakers are in specific locations where people are free to come and have a conversation with them. I think this could be effective, but once again, don’t leave your speakers alone.
You could also consider using forums, Slack or Meetup’s discussion feature for people to ask questions and speakers (or others) to provide answers.
Venues can really make or break an event. A great venue can boost the enjoyment of attendees and speakers alike. Holding an event in corporate office spaces can be very different than a pub or bar, and this can impact the inclusivity of your event. It might come as a surprise; not all people feel comfortable in pub and bar environments. They often have a focus on drinking and alcohol, something that might make some groups feel less safe. Not everyone drinks alcohol. Pubs and bars are often environments where LGBTQIA+ people feel they need to police themselves. Personally, I am finding myself avoiding conferences or events at pubs and bars, unless I know that there are other steps in place to make the environment a safe place.
Social Media is another area where you must consider inclusivity. What image or brand are you projecting for your event on Twitter, Facebook or Meetup?
Consider someone who is new to the area, or perhaps new to that community, maybe they have just graduated and a looking to get a feel of the industry. If they look on social media, will they see your event as a welcoming community? One where they will be able to be themselves? In your social media images, do you present a diverse and inclusive community, or do the images feature a handful of cis white men eating pizza and drinking beer. Representation needs to be visible.
Mentoring LGBTQIA+ Speakers
The most powerful way to make your event more inclusive is to have speakers (and organisers) who identify as LGBTQIA+. When audiences can relate to your speakers, they will feel included and get more out of the events. Representation matters, not just with the LGBTQIA+ community but all minorities.
Don’t give up if you don’t know anyone. One of the best things you can do as an event organiser is to offer coaching and mentoring opportunities to those who want to speak at events. Everyone must start somewhere, and with the right guidance, we can all become amazing speakers.
Mentoring could be as simple as offering some advice on topics and content, listening to practice sessions or providing feedback. Quite a few conferences and user groups in Australia offer mentoring and coaching for new speakers.
Instead of hour-long slots for talks, consider 15-minute lighting sessions. It can be hard to develop an hour long talk when you have limited experience. Offer inexperience speakers smaller slots so they can start small and build their confidence.
I have been considering the concept of a “new speaker” or “up and coming” speaker night. This would be linked to some mentoring and coaching prior to the event, offering the chance for those speaking to get feedback before the night. The audience know what to expect, that talks might be a little rough around the edges, however they know they are attending to support people trying something for the first time. This also reduces the nerves and anxiety of the speakers as they will know the audience isn’t expecting a rock-star level performance with amazing demos and visuals, attendees are there to support them.
It really isn’t rocket science to make your event more inclusive to the LGBTQIA+ community. If you don’t have a code of conduct, then establish one ASAP. Normalise the sharing of pronouns, vet your sponsors, ensure that all presentation content, memes and jokes are inclusive, learn how to deal with inappropriate questions, ensure that your venue is a safe environment and finally mentor speakers.