When there’s a full spectrum of colour, the world is a more interesting and diverse place
By Kimberley Puhach
The rainbow and the alphabet. What does LGBTQ2S+ mean, and why does it matter that you know? As has been the case with earlier Just Ask columns, this topic comes with so much curiosity, and if we are being honest, likely fear as well. It also comes with misunderstanding and, perhaps, judgement.
In this article, not being expert myself, I felt it important to share perspectives from folks with lived experience from the community. This would allow for knowledge sharing in a respectful way. Building bridges of understanding and providing a forum for information and healthy dialogue are core to these articles as a start to your own self-education. In that spirit, I took my own advice to just ask.
I have the honour of knowing members of the community that represent varied perspectives and lived experience on gender and sexual identity. Three of them were gracious and kind about providing their insights. Cynthia Fortlage was a key contributor and took the main pen for this article. Together we co-wrote what we believe to be only the beginning of an evolving learning opportunity.
Through Their Eyes: Cynthia, Albert, and Janine
The phrase ‘Just Ask’ has been reiterated over and over. In regard to the LGBT2SQ+ community, the same applies. I could say it’s because it’s 2019, maybe that language can be oppressive to folks, or it’s the law in Canada, perhaps even because it’s just common human decency. For me it’s deeply personal, and while I never attempt to speak for others and their lived truths, I do speak from my truth and my experiences.
For the first 50 years of my life, I was part of Winnipeg’s business community and lived the stereotypical life of a technology executive who was a white cisgender male. Today I am founder of a start-up firm as an independent female business owner. Yes, I am a woman with a transgender history.
One of the more common aspects I hear folks asking about is what I refer to as the rainbow alphabet, listed here as LGBT2SQ+. Each letter matters, as does the plus versus an asterisk at the end. I had to find my letter to know myself and my community of like folks. It was important to grasp the emotional, psychological, and physical aspects I would be encountering as I started my journey. I don’t live there, as it was just a starting point for me in “coming out.”
I can come out and tell you about myself, but for you to tell someone I am transgender means you “outed” me. This may not be done to cause harm, but it can pose a dangerous, even life-threatening risk to me. You nor I may know how everyone will react, and their reactions could impact me in a variety of ways. If you were introducing me, I would simply be Cynthia, the woman that wrote that article.
It’s an evolution
For every term, there are folks who will use it, and folks who do not use it. So how do you know? Just ask, of course!
Take the word ‘queer’ for example. It was used as a slur for the longest time, but I and others are reclaiming that word, declaring we are queer people. When we use it, we know who we are. Others who are also queer can use it, but if you’re not, it’s inappropriate for you to call us queer. We don’t know if you’re trying to be cool or slanderous, so it is more respectful to not create that doubt and ask how we wish to be referred to.
In some groups the phrase or a version of “gender and sexually diverse people” is emerging as a replacement to the rainbow alphabet for non-queer people to use who wish to be respectful and not miss a letter. I have seen almost every organization and level of government use a different set of letters in their rainbow alphabet, so I try and adjust my language around the group with whom I am interacting. You’ll often see the letters rearranged based on whose voice is being shared.
This raises another key question between gender and sexuality. For that I use a model called the Genderbread Person by Sam Killermann. There are four aspects we use in the very complex discussion of identity. The first is our gender identity which exists in our brains. Next is our sexuality that we refer to as the heart or who we love. Third is our genitalia which doesn’t define our gender, but societal expectations are often determined based on a doctor’s visual inspection of our genitalia at birth. The fourth aspect is how we present in the way we dress.
As each of the four elements in the model have a spectrum or sliding scale, there are infinite variations in identity that exist. Some may refer to this as ‘fluid.’
It’s nothing new
Some communities dating back thousands of years had as many as seven words to describe gender, says Albert McCloud of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba. The ‘2S’ used in the rainbow alphabet is to recognize and include those people who prefer to use their heritage reference rather than one assigned by non-Indigenous persons.
Two Spirit is a term used to describe Indigenous people who assume cross- or multiple gender roles, attributes, dress, and attitudes for personal, spiritual, cultural, ceremonial, or social reasons. These roles are defined by each cultural group and can be fluid over a person’s lifetime. Modern terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual and intersexed (in combination with, or exclusive to, Two Spirit) may be adopted by some Indigenous people to define who they are. The alphabet in this case often is expressed as 2SLGBTQ+.
Engage with youth
The youth give me hope; they generally don’t see life as a binary of yes/no or male/female. They understand the differences between applying equality and equity, and when privilege is an inherent bias in interpretation and use of language. I would encourage you to seek reverse mentoring from these youth because they are your workers and emerging leaders. If you want to attract a future workforce, you need to engage with them.
Janine Brown shared that it never hurts to start with a simple Google search where you can typically find which terminology is appropriate. From there, by using proper language when asking a member of the LGBTQ2S community or an ally for further clarification, you can be sure you are asking in a respectful and friendly way.
When you wish to ask a question, it may be helpful to start off with ‘May I ask you a question about _____?’ This prepares the person you are asking so they will not be taken aback as well as avoiding an uncomfortable situation if the person prefers not to disclose details about their identity or experiences.
I personally believe it is up to the uninformed to ask. When someone wishing to learn more asks questions, this opens up healthy dialogue.
It’s only a start
We can agree that words matter. They can be inclusionary or exclusionary. They can create a safe place to be open and creative at work, or they can threaten someone’s social, economic, psychological, emotional, physical, or spiritual sense of safety. What we can do is just ask.
Cynthia Fortlage, an award-winning leader with a passion for helping people and organizations, is founder of CAF Services, a multi-disciplinary consulting, coaching, and public speaking firm. She serves as board president for Rainbow Resource Centre in Winnipeg, and she is national board chair for Women’s March Canada.
Kimberley Puhach is Associate Vice President, Human Resources – Western Region for Gallagher. She also serves as chair of the Mayor’s Indigenous Advisory Circle in Winnipeg, and was recently appointed to the MAVEN Leadership Council, which aims to address gender equality in the tech sector.
Have a question? Just ask.
Conversation is a powerful tool. It has the potential to break down barriers, dispel stereotypes, build understanding, and strengthen relationships.
Sometimes, however, the sensitivity around a particular topic can result in those conversations not taking place, regardless of how important they really are. That’s why, in 2019, we here at Prairie Manufacturer Magazine are committing to steps to improve the dialogue.
Winter 2019 will focus on workplace diversity.
I hope you will join us and be a part of the conversation.
Publisher, Prairie Manufacturer Magazine
Just Ask Guest Columnist