Wearing a shirt that read “Be the change you want to see in the world,” Karen Lowman, the owner of Sacred Grounds Coffee House, spoke about wanting to create an oasis where people can be themselves.
The LGBT community has faced many challenges, but discrimination in business – both for employees and consumers – is an area still being explored.
It was the topic of discussion for Monday night’s event, hosted by a new student organization called Bulls Out for Business, which featured multiple speakers talking about sexual and gender identities in the business realm.
After graduating from USF in 1993, with a degree in geography, Lowman said she worked for local architecture and engineering companies, where she found her self faced with discrimination.
“I experienced discrimination at the last job that I had,” she said. “I couldn’t necessarily prove it, but I knew that was the underlying tone. So I decided that I wanted to open up my own business that would help people have a space so they can do want they wanted to do and be who they wanted to be.”
But discrimination wasn’t always related to the job sphere, and not all employers were discriminatory.
Gina Duncan, the transgender inclusion director of Equality Florida, grew up as “Greg Pinkston” in New Jersey with two brothers and two sisters, said that one day, at the age of seven, Greg’s sisters and their friends put a pink and blue floral dress and lipstick on Greg.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I could breathe and I remember that feeling throughout my life until I transitioned.”
Duncan said her life was one of extremes: there was a college football scholarship, a wife, kids and an executive position at Wells Fargo, all while keeping her identity concealed. Then one morning the phone rang and his wife called, angry.
She told him she found his mistress’ clothes in the back of a closet.
Duncan had a choice: go with the mistress story or tell the truth. Duncan chose the latter.
Duncan’s marriage ended five years later, but she said she continued to enjoy her career at Wells Fargo, and recently retired as a regional manager.
Michael Malakoff, a senior sociology and statistics double major, identifies as female and is concerned about finding employment after graduation; so she asked Duncan how she should handle her situation.
“One of the critical components of protocols for transitioning in the workplace is that there is a mutually agreed upon transition plan – that the employee and the employer agree upon,” Duncan said.
She began telling a story about a corporate executive in California who would come in one week as a man, another week as a woman and how it caused “chaos” in the workplace.
“There has to be consistency,” Duncan said. “By golly, when you take that step, you need to have consistency in gender expression.”
Manuel Ortiz, a senior majoring in accounting, works at Liquid Lounge in Ybor City and said he comes in contact with many transgender people and has noticed a trend with employment among transgender people. He said he didn’t intend to categorize, but was speaking from his perspective.
“They either don’t have a job, or they work as hairdressers,” he said. “… Since I’m around them, how do I help them better their lives, or maybe if they need some advice how do I show support to them?”
Duncan answered without delay.
“Like you would anyone else,” she said. “Everybody in our community seeks normalcy.”
For her, the moment came when she first went to the DMV to change the sex listed on her drivers’ license.
An older gentleman looked at her after she handed him a letter containing documentation of her gender reassignment story.
“I saw him get his supervisor, and they both looked at the letter and then at me,” she said. “So he comes up – and I think it’s going to be ugly – and he looked at me deeply in the eyes and said ‘You know, you’re my first.’ And I said ‘Well, I hope I’m not your last.’ And he said ‘I hope you’re not, either.’ And I thought ‘It’s been a good day.'”
Nadine Smith, the director of Equality Florida, said Florida could go about continuing to change the culture and politics as a state by using business as leverage.
“It’s important to remind everyone here that not only are you currently, or soon-to-be part of the workforce,” she said. “As part of the workforce, you have an extremely important role to play in the types of policies that companies have for their employees. And as consumers, you have an incredible impact on helping companies understand that equality truly means business.”
Smith went on to talk about how important it is for people to be authentic to who they are. It’s something that she too is still learning how to do. But she said she is empowered by the idea that visibility will break down barriers and stereotypes.
Smith said that 57 percent of Floridians support gay marriage.
“Just to put that in perspective, it’s 59 percent in California and 60 in New York,” she said. “We are leading when it comes to the South. And part of the reason why is because of exactly what Gina was talking about – authenticity. Telling the truth about our lives.”