LINKAGE Q1 (2022) - BREAK THE BIAS
By Sharon A. E. Mottley
One of the wonders of Trinidad and Tobago’s culture is Carnival. History records that the modern Carnival began in this country in the late 18th century . The two-day festival of masquerading is officially celebrated annually on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. However, in true “Trini” style, Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago unofficially starts following elaborate Old Year’s Night fetes at the Hilton Hotel and other similar settings.
In reality, for a small segment of Trinbagonians (an estimated 3%) who reside in this multicultural, complex twin-island state, the concept of masquerade extends way beyond the two days that encompass J’Ouvert morning’s “dutty Mas” and Monday and Tuesday’s finest costumes. I refer to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, asexual and/or agender, or as we are commonly known, the LGBTQIA+ community. While most LGBTQIA+ or Queer folk have mastered the art of skillfully donning our “masks” all 365 days of the year, many of you know us quite well, for we are your mothers, fathers, children, siblings, co-workers, teachers, spiritual leaders, CEOs, janitors, barbers, stylists, husbands and wives. As you continue to read, take this opportunity to walk in the shoes of those who, though we love differently, share many of the same aspirations as our heterosexual counterparts, particularly as these pertain to familial, educational and career aspirations.
I applaud AMCHAM T&T for doing what is right through the Break the Bias panel on March 11, 2022, and now in its annual women’s empowerment Linkage Magazine’s edition themed “Break the Bias” focusing on “how organisations can make their workplaces safer and more empowering for LGBTQIA+ employees”.
While there is a great deal in the way of published literature, which I will reference throughout, I deliberately started this piece with something familiar, that is, Carnival. Whether you are a masquerader or observer, you understand the process — tremendous hype by all genders as we get our “kits” or costumes ready for every event during the season. From head to toe, we don our “masks” including elaborate/edgy hairstyles, well made-up faces, lashes longer than long time, and outfits to disguise or accentuate — we all don our masks. The big finale begins at 4:00 am J’Ouvert morning, (mud, powder, cocoa, clay, blue devil, Dame Lorraine) all the way through the last lap Tuesday night. As darkness descends, we waylay to our respective abodes and commence the arduous task of removing the façade and detoxing from all that we consumed, in a veiled attempt to revert to our “normal” selves by Wednesday morning. Come Ash Wednesday, CEO and custodian alike enter their places of worship and receive Lenten crosses on their foreheads, symbolically erasing all the transgressions that may have transpired over the season, much of which negatively affected productivity levels for two, perhaps three months. But we are accustomed, it is “we” culture and it’s how we masquerade.
In sharp contrast, sexual minorities rarely, if ever, are allowed to remove their masks and live their “normal” or in their “truth”. That is the dilemma that many sexual minorities face within this culturally biased, classist, stigma-driven societal notion of normality. Many of us maintain the façade within our own homes and almost all of us must don it when we exit our houses to engage in the world at large.
If the bulk of our waking hours is spent at work or school, then imagine for five minutes being in a workspace where you spend between eight to 12+ hours for a minimum of five days a week and not being able to share any aspect of who you really are — your authentic self.
Many of us while on the job may get a call about an ill and/or hospitalised spouse who requires our presence/assistance/support. Imagine having to think twice or concoct an excuse to apply for leave to be by their side. What about those of us with pregnant female partners, is maternity/paternity leave an option for us? Perhaps you had a suicidal “queer” child and would welcome support from your employer, or workplace EAP. Maybe you have just celebrated an anniversary and you want to post framed pictures on your desk like your fellow colleagues but have to wonder, is this even a consideration? And let us not talk about what passes as routine office banter when it comes to jokes and picong, that include words like “buller”, “faggot”, “shim”, “he/she” etc., even when we know it is wrong or it makes us and/or others in the workplace uncomfortable. In lieu of clear organisational policy, we oftentimes facilitate or contribute to this behaviour by an embarrassed giggle or quietly turning our heads.
Again, imagine what it is like to show up as your best self in a workplace where you can only afford to function as an “imposter” and not your authentic self. Especially when those we work alongside do not bear a similar burden. To do well and excel, usually at the cost of our mental well-being, many of us have mastered the art of this double existence. However, is it fair that we are required to give our all to employers and workplaces that are complicit in maintaining and/or reinforcing negative gender stereotypes and hostile work environments for LGBTQIA+ employees?
In 2022, organisations and workplaces have a responsibility to inculcate and sustain an empowering work environment for all employees. Michaela Krejcova points out in their article, The value of LGBT equality in the workplace , the benefits of inclusivity and diversity to both individual employees as well as employers. In terms of the former, they highlight that “LGBT-supportive policies will have an immediate effect on individual people, resulting in less discrimination and increased openness about being LGBT.” Krejcova further references a survey conducted by the Williams Institute, “The Business Impact of LGBT-Supportive Workplace Policies”, which cites that “LGBT employees who spend considerable time and effort hiding their identity in the workplace, experience higher levels of stress and anxiety resulting in health problems and work-related complaints. Ultimately, LGBT-friendly workplaces can lead to improved health, increased job satisfaction, better relationships with co-workers and supervisors, and greater work commitment among the LGBT workers.”
Camille Brouard notes in a June 2021 article , that LGBTQIA+ inclusive workplaces benefit businesses in terms of productivity and profitability. She further references an American study by Out Now titled “LGBT 2020 – LGBT Diversity Show Me the Business Case”, which found that the “US economy could save nine billion annually if organisations implemented more effective inclusion policies for their LGBTQ+ staff. This is partially attributed to avoiding costs from stress and ill-health associated with LGBTQ+ staff who need to hide their identity at work or experience discrimination.” The study also highlights the customer loyalty and buying power of the LGBTQIA+ market and that “customers are likelier to leave businesses who have cases of discrimination made public.” It can be gleaned from an ongoing investigation on LGBTQIA+ workplace diversity that assertive inclusion strategies make sense from both a business perspective as well as an ethical one.
The next obvious question for Trinidad and Tobago enterprises is, how do we go about creating a culture of diversity and inclusion? I would purport that an initial step would require a thorough organisational assessment and evaluation with a view toward eradicating existing discriminatory/prohibitive systems, norms and practices, and intentionally adopting a culture of inclusivity. The good news is there is an abundance of resources available; there is no need to reinvent the wheel. For example, Great Place to Work & Pride At Work Canada developed “Beyond Diversity: An LGBT Best Practice Guide for Employers”, which articulates what they see as the “top 12 Strategies to Promote Inclusion of LGBT People in the Workplace”. Below I have highlighted five strategies that an organisation can implement in the short to medium term to initiate the process of LGBTQIA+ inclusion and diversity:
1. Modeling a culture of inclusivity. This begins at the top with senior and executive management championing the initiative. There is no such thing as an inclusive workplace without an inclusive leadership team. Regardless of the development and implementation of policies and programmes, inclusion efforts will not gain traction if the behaviour is not modelled at the most senior level.
2. Developing and effectively communicating written policies. Policy development is a surefire way to demonstrate your organisation’s commitment because it establishes standards and expectations for behaviour and clearly outlines that harassment, discrimination etc. will not be tolerated. Rather than cutting and pasting from “foreign”, I recommend the engagement of local professionals who can actively engage stakeholders and craft policies reflecting cultural sensitivity and relevancy. It is also important that anti-discrimination and harassment policies specifically reflect sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds for discrimination, and provide examples of what homophobic, biphobic and transphobic discrimination looks like. Policies should be easily accessible and should set out roles and responsibilities for compliance.
3. Adopting and utilising gender-neutral language in internal and external communication. For example, rather than “he” or “he/she”, it is acceptable and preferred to use “they” as a singular gender natural. This ensures that people who don’t identify as either a man or a woman feel that they are represented in written and oral communication.
4. Ensuring that the company’s benefits package is relevant to all employees. This speaks to the heart of most employees. To ensure your benefits package meets the needs of LGBTQIA+ employees, it is important to understand their specific needs related to medical coverage, parental leave, bereavement, etc.
5. Training, training, training. This point can not be overemphasised. To ensure and sustain a cultural shift within your organisation, system implementation and organisation-wide diversity training are essential in soliciting buy-in and support throughout the company. Training can take many shapes and forms and should be an ongoing process, particularly as emerging diversity issues arise.
In closing, I invite us, Trinidad and Tobago, to join our progressive Caribbean and global counterparts in dismantling organisational systems and structures that cause harm. I invite us to intentionally move towards business practices that truly reflect and embrace the people that we employ and serve, and that add value and profitability to our enterprise.
Sharon A. E. Mottley is a Human and Social Development Consultant
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