‘They Don’t Want to Feel Erased’

Author: Casey Gale       

Bernadette Smith, founder of Equality Institute

In June, Maine became the fourth state to offer a third-gender option — gender X, in addition to male and female — for driver’s licenses and state identifications. Gender X is an identifier for those who are nonbinary — not exclusively the male or female gender they were assigned at birth, but somewhere on the larger spectrum of gender identity that includes genderfluid (someone who is not a fixed gender), transgender (someone whose gender identity does not match their birth sex), and more.

Not everyone’s outside appearance matches the gender they feel they are on the inside, which is why Bernadette Smith, founder and president of Chicago-based diversity training organization Equality Institute, says it’s important to allow event attendees to express their identity beyond pronouns like “she” or “he” or titles like “Miss” or “Mr.” Convene spoke with Smith to learn other ways business meetings and events can become more inclusive for those who identify outside of long-accepted gender distinctions.

What prompted you to create the Equality Institute?

My background is kind of a windy road, as I guess is true for all of us. I started my first company 14 years ago when I was living in Boston — Massachusetts became the first state in the country to have marriage equality. I started a business, 14 Stories, focusing on planning weddings for same-sex couples in a way where they would feel safe and free from discrimination and were given the freedom to navigate a very traditional bridal industry. I started a business as a planner with that lens, always very purpose-driven. I started getting a lot of press right away, but because it’s such a hot topic, I started hearing from people in other parts of the country, especially when social media [became popular] a few years later.

Other planners and catering companies and hotels started asking me for all sorts of information about gay weddings. So I decided to create a training program and began getting asked to speak at conferences and events and do training for people in the hospitality industry, and that’s how it all started. About nine years ago I started doing training and consulting primarily around weddings and honeymoons [called the Gay Wedding Institute] and now it’s expanded into other industries and obviously meetings and events [renamed the Equality Institute in 2015] — so I’ve been expanding the original mission.

What kind of training do you provide participants through the Equality Institute?

One of the things that I think is very important is to establish a foundation of language, so we talk a lot about the alphabet soup of the LGBTQ or LGBTQIA acronyms — like what do all of those mean? We talk about the spectrum of gender and sexuality and how it’s not binary. We spend a lot of time on transgender issues and how that can affect meetings and events and anyone, really, in any industry.

And then we also talk a bit about public policy, because a lot of times people don’t know that in 28 states you can still be fired for being gay or be refused a service for being gay or LGBTQ. I put a bit of public policy information in there so people have a little understanding as to why this actually matters and how that sort of fear affects the LGBTQ community as they go about their day-to-day business. It’s a legitimate fear of rejection and it’s been indoctrinated in law. I talk about that for that reason, to establish a bit of the way, and then I also talk about some of the financial benefits — [i.e.,] this stuff is important for this emotional reason, but it’s also important for your business for financial reasons. I talk about the market value of the community, the number of people, the percentages, things like that, again to further establish why this is important.

Then I talk about practical things, like what actually happens in a customer-service experience that can go wrong or in a sales experience that can go wrong and how do you get ahead of it? How do you plan and make sure that you are being appropriate, being respectful? How do you interact with someone whose gender is unclear and you need to know their gender? There are practical things like that that I get into. And then, depending on the audience, I also can really dig deep into specific sales and marketing practices as well.

You come from a planning background and have spoken at many conferences. What are some of the most common ways that events are less than inclusive?

I mean, it’s very cutting edge to be asking people their pronouns. Certainly, within the LGBT conference world we expect that — LGBT conferences that don’t do that are definitely messing up. If they’re not having gender-neutral restrooms, they’re definitely messing up. Now, for the mainstream conferences, it certainly is a best practice [to ask pronouns and provide a gender-neutral restroom], but I wouldn’t say that it’s totally inclusive quite yet. They need some time. I’ll give them some time to catch up. Maybe in a year from now I’ll call them out even more, but right now I feel like we’re all still learning, right?

But [the inclusivity issues at conferences] mostly have to do with not acknowledging the spectrum of gender, not making any accommodations for folks who are transgender, not allowing people to put their pronouns or giving them any place to do that.

How can planners ensure that attendees feel safe and comfortable using the restroom of their choice if the event venue doesn’t offer gender-neutral restrooms?

If the event venue does not have a single-stall restroom anywhere, whether it’s a family restroom or something else that’s single-stall — if it does not have something that can be rebranded as a gender-neutral restroom, the best practice is to rebrand the multi-stall restrooms as gender-neutral.

[A venue] might have restrictions. For example, a hotel might have restrictions that it can only be done on that floor or in a certain corridor. But that is something that is a [matter of] coordinating between the venue manager and the planner.

Why is it important to enable attendees to either choose their pronouns or offer a neutral gender X option when they register for an event?

Ultimately, it comes down to customer service and folks want to feel seen and valued. They don’t want to feel erased, and if their identity is beyond the binary and you’re not offering a way for them to self-identify, then you are, in a way, erasing them and they’re probably not going to return to the event. They might have some negative feedback that they share. You know, you could lose an opportunity to have some sort of important connection. So the most important thing is giving folks the opportunity to self-identify in ways beyond the binary.

Learn more about Equality Institute at theequalityinstitute.com.

Ascent is supported by Visit Seattle and the PCMA Education Foundation.