by Ann Dunkin | When Pat Baillie asked me to contribute to the Out & Equal blog for Women’s History Month, I was honored, but frankly, I was also stumped. Pat asked me to talk about the varying ways I talk and teach about the LGBT community, and particularly how my training is influenced by being a woman. I had to think for a long time about my answer. This also involved a great deal of procrastination – going to the gym, reading email, even writing this introduction were all ways to avoid putting pen to paper or, in this case, finger to touchscreen.
Part of my procrastination was the realization that I identify as a lesbian first and as a woman second. Now, of course, to identify as a lesbian, one is likely to identify as a woman; otherwise, it would be pretty awkward. But, you get my point. It caused me to really ponder the question. How has being a woman influenced my training experiences?
For several years, I worked in an organization where the gay men tended to have professional positions and the lesbians tended to work in the factory (we hadn’t noticed that we had bisexual and trans people in our community yet – this was a long time ago). In addition, many of the gay men worried about being exposed and ruining their careers, but the lesbians had none of the same concerns. So, the lesbians were on front lines of diversity in public, but often felt very marginalized by the gay men when they went back to their ‘day jobs.’ As an engineering manager who fit in neither group (I wasn’t a gay man and I didn’t work in the factory), I often found myself walking a thin line trying to balance the needs of both groups.
As a woman (and a lesbian) in a situation where I fit in neither group, I became extremely aware of the challenges faced by groups with power imbalances and, often, factions. These imbalances often rip groups apart – sometimes without anyone understanding what happened.
As I began to train around the company, I ran into other groups with entirely different power imbalances; groups where the lesbians were clearly in charge, or where the straight allies were calling all the shots. We even had a group where the single LGBT people felt marginalized by LGBT people with families.
So what does that bring to my training experience? When I start working with a group, I spend time understanding the power structure of the organization, as that will inform my experience training that group. When I can, I interview group leaders and members ahead of time to gain their perspective on group dynamics. But many times those in the group aren’t even aware of the dynamics. So, sometimes I learn more from what people don’t say than what they do. And I often learn more in the first 30 minutes of the day, as I watch how people socialize, where they sit and who takes charge, than I did during all my preparation.
All organizations have power structures and some are reasonably healthy. But when they are formed along the lines of gender, race, sexual orientation or even who has kids, they’re probably not going to be very good for the group. Once I know what the power structure looks like, I work exercises into our time together to create awareness of the power structure and, hopefully, change it for the better. This lesson, learned many years ago, has served me well with all the groups I work with that are composed of intact teams – whether LGBT, allies, or groups just starting their diversity journey.