Today is the 2017 Day of Pink. People in Canada and other countries are wearing pink to mark a day against discrimination, bullying, homophobia, and transphobia. These are wonderful words found on the Day of Pink website. Like the day of transgender visibility, we acknowledge the harm being done and speak out against bullying. Yet, like the Transgender Day of Visibility, it is a day on which organisations can be, and often are, quite hypocritical in their messaging. The description of the day shows some of this, when organisations who use it exclude bisexual people and the discrimination and bullying they face. In this article I am using ‘organisation’ in a broad sense, which includes businesses and faith communities.
In my work and daily life I communicate with people who are involved in a wide variety of organisations, work, and activism. On a regular basis I am told about first-hand experiences in these various organisations and interactions with them by members of the wider LGBT* community. The public message and image being portrayed is not the experience of those working in the organisations. The information I am presenting in this article comes from first-hand reports. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the reports, and in some cases I have witnessed the fringes of it.
A rather perplexing situation is an organisation that is telling a transgender employee that they are not able to change the individual’s email address to something other than their legal name. Because the person has not yet had their legal name change and a piece of ID updated (the reasons for which are not important or relevant, it is entirely their own business!), they are forced to use an email address that deadnames them to anyone with whom they are communicating by email. While doing this, the organisation is putting up Day of Pink posters and encouraging the wearing of pink. Having a lot of experience with email systems, setting up email addresses, moving email addresses, and changing my own email when I changed my name, I know this should be a fairly trivial task. The only reason I can see for it is that the organisation is simply not willing to do so. But, they are against bullying and transphobia, so that couldn’t have anything to do with their refusal to accommodate.
On Twitter I saw a link to a video produced by the Toronto Police LGBTQ Internal Support network. I am pleased they are producing these resources for their officers. Police forces are not known for being supportive of their LGBTQ officers and employees. At the same time, I think of the constant reports of violence being perpetrated against LGBTQ people by this same police force—violence that is disproportionately targeted against trans women, LGBTQ people of colour, and those who are HIV+. It is good start at supporting their own people, but there still is a lot of work to do to deal with the oppressions that the force continues to perpetrate.
The most concerning situation for me on this year’s Day of Pink relates to an organisation whose core mandate is to work against the bullying of LGBT* people, specifically teens and youth. They provide educational resources, workshops in schools, and conferences for youth. The Day of Pink is one of their signature events. Yet, for a while now their internal practices have not matched their public relations messaging. This became painfully evident recently when former employees and volunteers spoke out about what was, in essence, abusive and bullying behaviour.
The public posts—as well as what I had heard first hand about what people had experienced in the office and at a conference—talked about bullying, transphobia, not respecting people’s genders, and being burnt out by the work environment. One person turned down a job at the organisation after people who had experience with the organisation warned them off. Based on everything I’ve heard, it sounds like a toxic environment with little chance of change, given the governance and management structures.
Where the bullying got out of hand, however, was in how they decided to handle the situation when people came out publicly. Rather than engaging and seeking to grow, they went on the defensive in their messaging. The concerns of the people were minimised. There was gaslighting. There is a thin veneer of messaging to be able to say that they are seeking to improve and become better, but their actions do not support this.
Rather than trying to engage in a process of reconciliation and acknowledging their behaviour, they decided to take another route. They decided to threaten people with legal action for speaking out. A number of people received cease and desist letters from the organisation’s lawyers. I have seen one of the letters. I was disappointed to say the least. Instead of working to resolve the conflict and deal with their own behaviour, they are trying to shut people up. This is not acceptable. Particularly in an organisation that is, supposedly, against bullying.
How to move forward
I do not take pleasure in writing this post. I truly wish the situations were different. That these organisations would care about LGBT* people and properly support them. Each has, in their own ways and to varying degrees, done some good work. That work, however, does not resolve them of their responsibilities. It does not make them immune to criticism and critique of their own policies and practices.
I received an award two years ago for being a role model for youth. I would be remiss in my responsibility as a role model if I were silent about these issues. It is incumbent of all of us, particularly those on the outside, to support those who have been treated badly by organisations purporting to be supportive. Those inside the situation, or who are still too close to it, are often unable to speak out for fear of retribution.
We can, and we must, stand up in support of them. We must show solidarity to those who are facing oppression in organisations that are claiming to be doing work that seeks to minimise oppression. We must join our voices with those who are speaking out about their experiences and the abuses they have faced, and continue to face.