“Out for Work” panel explores the complexities of being LGBTQ+ in the workplace

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Panelists Bobby Silk, Allison Kendrick, Brian Jackson, Armonté Butler. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

By Luke Gair
Executive Staff

In early October, the Office of Career and Leadership Development, the Queer and Ally House, and Spectrum co-hosted “Out for Work,”  a panel that sought to provide transparency and guidance for LGBTQ+ students preparing to enter the workplace.

Both current undergraduates and alumni can attest to Sewanee’s diminutive LGBTQ+ community and the difficulties surrounding that. Unfortunately, some students have found that the campus’s strong Greek life presence and overall sense of isolation often contribute to the difficulty of LGBTQ+ students acclimating to University life.

The panel, consisting almost completely of Sewanee alumni, included Armonté Butler (C’17), Brian Jackson (C’89), Allison Kendrick (C’10), and Assistant Director of Residential Life Bobby Silk. Having panelists who understood the implications of what it means to be a LGBTQ+ student at Sewanee allowed the audience to see how their experiences can transpose into the workplace after graduating.

The Director of Career and Leadership Development, Kim Heitzenrater (C’89), told The Purple that each staff member in the office supports “all students as they prepare for and navigate the transition from college to the world of work,” but she mentioned they “had not provided specific resources for LGBTQ+ students until this semester.”

It’s no secret that in the American workplace, the existence of LGBTQ+ discrimination is a definite possibility. According to Out and Equal Workplace Advocates, a nonprofit organization that works to foster queer equality in the workplace, nearly a fourth of LGBTQ+ employees have faced prejudice in the last five years.

For the Office of Career and Leadership Development to offer an opportunity that explores the relationship between sexuality and the workplace demonstrates both acknowledgement of the community and an initiative to assist students in finding jobs where they feel comfortable in their respective work environment.

Panelists shared experiences and insight related to their own experiences of prejudice. As a youth ministry director, Kendrick’s employers asked her to stay closeted for three months. She highlighted the importance of “choosing your battles and constantly be learning what the next step is.”

For Kendrick, the difficulty of an oppressive workplace was “finding your place and your people” when moving somewhere new. Although it might have felt like “starting college all over again,” she noted it was a necessity to find social spaces where they can feel comfortable. Currently, she works as a photographer and videographer for her own company, Kendrick Photo + Video.

Butler added that “by going there and simply working [at an intolerant workplace] is a step in itself,” but he acknowledged that no one is going to stay somewhere they feel uncomfortable. His own work is heavily intertwined with LGBTQ+ workplace issues as he works as the LGBTQ Health and Rights Program Manager for Advocates for Youth. With such a strong background, Butler said he has been able to “work for better institutional changes.”

When it comes to workplaces that are self-proclaimed “inclusive,” Silk mentioned how they “need to spell out exactly how they are inclusive… and what about them stands out.” In his first weeks working as Assistant Director of Residential Life at the University, he recalled an activity in which participants stepped into the circle if their identity aligned with the one announced.

After being prompted with “one who identifies as LGBTQ+,” he was the only one who stepped forward. “I had an immediate moment of, ‘Should I have stepped out?’” Silk shared.  

He remembered questioning whether he had just closed himself off from others. Silk said he has been openly welcomed both in the office and in the greater Sewanee community, but his story still shows the relentless fear LGBTQ+ members have when entering a new work environment.

Nora Walsh-Battle (C’19), who attended the panel, said,  “I don’t think my experiences at Sewanee will translate at all into the workplace. I think a culture of acceptance exists, yes, but overall I think the compartmentalization mandated by such a close-knit environment makes it difficult to recognize and relay any issues I have relating to my sexual orientation.”

Nearly 30 years ago, Brian Jackson (C’89) recalled that during his own college experience, “there was very little support available for gay students at all, and in some ways people were very hostile towards them.” Looking at the bigger picture, he cited how corporate America is continuing to become much more accepting than it was previously and how in a modern progressive era, “it’s bad for business not to be inclusive.”

Jackson raised an important question: is corporate America moving forward with good intentions, or is it simply presenting a facade to blend in with a more progressive era?

With an understanding of the possible difficulties that lie ahead, the LGBTQ+ students in attendance were left with sound advice and several resources to refine their future workplace experience.