How to be an ally and create a safe space for LGBTQ2S+ employees

    How do we create a “safe space” for the LGBTQ2S+ community in our workplaces? How can the rest of us become “allies” and help make that happen? That was the theme of ITWC’s annual event celebrating the LGBTQ2S+ members of the IT community.

    This is the second year of the event, which happens annually during Pride celebrations in Toronto.

    The event started with a keynote from best selling author Michael Bach, author of Alphabet Soup and Birds of All Feathers. Bach started out by sharing Merriam Webster’s definition of a “safe space” as “a place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism or potentially threatening actions, ideas or conversations.” According to Bach, the idea had its roots in the gay bars of the 1970s – which were the only places that gay or lesbian people could truly be themselves and not fear discrimination or harm.

    Bach also reminded us that although some governments (Canada being one) had decriminalized homosexuality in the 1960s and early 1970s, it remained illegal in almost a third of U.S. states until 2003. Progress at making our world a safer space for LGBTQ2S+ people has been recent. And while some progress has been made in such things as legalizing gay marriage, there are still regressive steps such as Florida’s “don’t say gay” law.

    He also pointed out that

    • 71 countries still regard consensual sex between men as criminal, half of these are Commonwealth countries and the list includes Barbados, Jamaica and St. Lucia
    • 43 jurisdictions regard consensual sex between women as illegal
    • 11 countries still have a death penalty
    • 15 jurisdictions criminalize trans people

    It was a sobering start to the event, which went on to look at how all of us can take positive actions to make our workplaces “safe spaces”, and why that is not only the right thing to do, it’s also a good thing for the businesses that encourage it. Through some panel discussions, a research report on workplaces and some very personal stories, the event gave some clear ideas about how we could build on the progress made to date and really deliver on the potential.

    The stories were poignant, and delivered powerful messages of both struggles and hope. The event was hosted by Cynthia Fortlage, who has bona fide IT credentials and experience. Cynthia was the head of the Winnipeg chapter of the CIO Association of Canada (CIOCAN) when she announced that the person we had known as Nigel was really a woman named Cynthia. At that time, there was a large number of fellow IT leaders ready to leap to Cynthia’s defence if she needed support, many of them colleagues in the CIO Association of Canada. Cynthia’s triumphant return to host this year’s event, at the invitation of IT World Canada (ITWC) illustrated how she has leveraged her experience to help others.

    The event closed with an incredibly moving presentation from Grant Dyer, vice president of people and culture at Beanfield, an internet service provider that makes its support for communities, diversity and sustainability part of its strategic mission. It was a heart wrenching description of what it was like to be a lonely, fearful, and persecuted a gay teen. technology had been the way out.  It was also a story of how career in technology offered him the the hope of not only finding his own “safe space” at Beanfield, but of how it offered him the ability to make that dream come true for others.

    That was a repeated theme in the event, which acknowledged that the work to create a safe space and embrace diversity was not only of interest to Canada’s LGBTQ2S+ community. A safe space would also serve the needs of all minorities including people with disabilities, women and ethnic and racial minorities.

    The event was sponsored by IT World Canada (ITWC), developed with the support of Hospitals of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP) and sponsored by Beanfield, TOPDesk, Pride at Work Canada and QueerTech.

    We’ve included Grant’s story with this article, but if you missed this event and want to see it all, you can go to the event website and register to see the on-demand version.