Do Not Block Intersection Road Sign” by the Tire Zoo

The Building Movement Project’s second report from its latest Nonprofits, Leadership, and Race Survey, “Working at the Intersections: LGBTQ Nonprofit Staff and the Racial Leadership Gap,” highlighting findings from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) respondents, found significant anti-LGBTQ bias in the nonprofit sector. In fact, many states allow discrimination against LGBTQ people, so it’s legal for many nonprofits to openly discriminate this way.

BMP’s Sean Thomas-Breitfield said, “What stands out is that the nonprofit sector is just as bad as the rest of the work force. I think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard than the for-profit sector, in all kinds of regards, especially when there is not legal protection against discrimination.”

Mirroring the findings of the first report in this series, Race to Lead, LGBTQ “people of color aspire to be nonprofit leaders more than their white counterparts” and “there were not significant differences between LGBTQ people of color and whites in terms of their education, salaries, current roles, or years in the sector.”

LGBTQ respondents had the opportunity to submit stories about their experiences regarding leadership in the nonprofit sector. Of the 850 respondents in the study who identified as LGBTQ, 108 shared stories about being passed over for promotions, being outed, and being fired. According to the report, “the intensity of the write-in responses about the negative impact of respondents’ sexuality on their career…reflected a real problem with biases against LGBTQ people in too many nonprofits.”

Local political context is also a major factor in the intensity of homophobia respondents faced, particularly in the Bible Belt where many nonprofits “require a statement of faith or have uninclusive work environments.” Respondents shared stories about having to move to more urban areas when looking for leadership opportunities.

However, one of the report’s key findings is that though LGBTQ people of color face compounding barriers, race was the most important diversity dimension impacting their opportunity to advance into leadership roles: “The combination of race, class, gender/gender identity, and sexuality resulted in LGBTQ respondents of color reporting more challenges than either straight people of color or LGBTQ whites.”

One respondent shared that as a black butch lesbian, she was not a desirable face for the organization, except in the most local or community contexts. However, she noticed that as she grew her hair and dressed less “masculine,” she experienced more acceptance and opportunity.

This story stood out to Thomas-Breitfield. He said,

It’s not just about race and sexuality, but gender presentation, how conforming you are. And this is not someone who is even identifying as gender nonconforming. And on top of this, this woman is navigating this as a woman of color. How much less leeway do you have as opposed to a white butch lesbian? It is a nuanced experience and story.

This is a missed opportunity on the part of the sector. Why is it that this person is bypassed, not given the opportunity to talk to funders and national partners? And, what is missed by not having someone who has a nuanced experience in a role where she has the opportunity to lead?

Respondents referred to the heteronormative culture in the nonprofit sector as a key factor in their needing to learn to navigate race, sexuality, and gender. They had to code-switch in regard to all these aspects of identity. As a theoretical framework, intersectionality tells us that the effects of simultaneous “isms” are compounded, and we see the evidence of this in the data.

Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, wasn’t surprised by the findings. He sees the discrimination cases on a daily basis. He said, “Here at TLC we receive calls every day from gender nonconforming people that are experiencing extreme discrimination in employment, healthcare, housing…I don’t think that the nonprofit sector is immune from the types of structural and systemic racism and homophobia and transphobia and sexism that is a part of our society.”

Hayashi observes that the top need is identity documentation, which affects employment, healthcare, and housing. He said, “Across the board, trans people, particularly trans people of color, are struggling to survive on a daily basis without the basic needs people need to survive.”

The study also found that 51 percent of LGBTQ people of color work in identity-based organizations (LGBTQ only, intersectional LGBTQ, and other than LGBTQ), compared to 36 percent of white LGBTQ. Sixty-four percent of white LGBTQ respondents work at organizations that are not identity-based, compared to 49 percent for LGBTQ people of color. Further, 35 percent of the LGBTQ people of color that work in identity-based organizations are at organizations that have identities other than LGBTQ. This means that 84 percent of LGBTQ people of color work at organizations that do not work on explicitly LGBTQ issues.

Respondent Nancy Haque said, “I think that especially as a woman of color, as the daughter of immigrants, the daughter of working class parents, the thing that most heavily influenced me wasn’t that I loved women, it was that my dad worked two jobs when I saw other people working one. I wanted to make the world better for people like him…being queer is how I’ve always identified, but it was just one part of my identity.”

Respondent Phyllis “Seven” Harris said, “As a black woman who is the executive director of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, it is important I advocate on behalf of the LGBT community, and there are all sorts of people who identify as queer who would have that expectation of me. But I am also black and I can’t disconnect myself from issues that are affecting black people. I’m also a woman and a lesbian. I can’t separate out my identities.”

But she experienced what she called “a rude awakening” when she first joined the center. She said, “I would walk into these meeting rooms and I’m still the only black person. There’s the privilege of being invited to the table, but also exhaustion of being the only one. What are you doing to build that leadership if it doesn’t exist? Before, there were people who had power and influence who helped me to get in. Once I got in, they helped me navigate the cultures so I can exist.”

Harris remembers growing up in Cleveland and coming out in a vibrant community of white feminist lesbians and an equally vibrant black lesbian community. She benefited from the efforts of these two groups to intentionally overlap; now, she wonders what today’s equivalent of that is for LGBTQ people of color.

Harris also provided an illustration of how LGBTQ bias shows up in the work with people of color—and, conversely, how racial bias shows up in LGBTQ work. The Ohio Diversity Council recently had an event in Cleveland. When the marketing materials were sent out, Harris noticed there were no people of color at the LGBTQ roundtable with corporations and colleges, a table about diversity and inclusion. She forwarded the materials to a couple of friends, asking, “What do you think about this group?” She knew the people on the panel and wondered why they hadn’t questioned the fact that there were no LGBTQ people of color on the panel with them. It resurfaced on social media when a transgender person noted no trans people on the panel. “We all do it,” Harris said. “We all look for who’s missing.”

The planning committee member who posted the material to social media in the first place saw the trans person’s comment and called Harris a week before the event to ask her to participate. Harris recalled, “When I finally talked to them, I told them I saw these materials a month and a half ago. When I get asked to be on a panel, the first thing I ask is ‘about what’ and ‘who else will be on.’” The committee member admitted to having challenges and committed to doing better.

Harris agreed to show up for 15 minutes and talk about two things. The first was the need to decenter whiteness when thinking of LGBTQ. The second relates to her learning that other people of color were part of the larger planning group, and when the group got closer to planning the LGBTQ panel, the straight people of color backed out. Harris notes, “It’s not your thing, so you leave it up to other people to do it. This is how black people discriminate against LGBTQ.”

While white LGBTQ respondents demonstrate significantly more racial awareness and commitment to addressing racism in the movement, the study found that mainstream LGBTQ organizations are perceived as not welcoming to people of color. One respondent who identified as transgender said, “It was tough being one of the couple staff people of color in an LGBTQ organization. I would see things others didn’t and I would name it. That was sometimes really difficult for my superiors to hear.”

The study also found that 73 percent of LGBTQ people of color think the LGBTQ organizations reflect neither the full diversity of the LGBTQ movement nor the needs and concerns of people of color or low-income people. In fact, the report notes, “Within the nonprofit sector, leaders of LGBTQ organizations and LGBTQ people working outside of that movement have expressed concerns that the focus on same-sex marriage was a ‘double-edged sword’ and made the movement less representative of the LGBTQ community’s diversity, with particular attention paid to the lack of leadership of people of color.”

Further, “as several LGBTQ organizations that focused on marriage announced their closure in the months after the Supreme Court ruling declaring same-sex marriage legal across the nation, some LGBTQ activists hoped for new opportunities to formulate an agenda for LGBTQ organizations that centers concerns about homelessness, economic inequality, housing and employment discrimination, and other issues that were pushed even further to the margins in the past decade or more.” However, as was reported in a recent NPQ newswire, marriage equality opponents have a long-term plan to roll back marriage equality at the state level, which we’re already seeing in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana.

According to the study, 21 percent of survey respondents overall identified as LGBTQ. In a recent Gallup poll, 4.1 percent of U.S. adults identified as LGBTQ. According to the report, LGBTQ bias in the work place is understudied in comparison to racial bias. So perhaps the significant difference in people identifying as LGBTQ in the nonprofit sector versus the for-profit sector is a matter of data collection. However, it could also be that LGBTQ people are concentrated in nonprofits. So, there are many reasons why the nonprofit sector should address LGBTQ bias in addition to racial bias.

The report makes three recommendations to address LGBTQ bias in the nonprofit sector.

  • First, address race first, but not in isolation. “LGBTQ people of color reported more frustrations and challenges with their jobs and advancement than both straight people of color and LGBTQ whites.” This report reiterates the finding of the earlier report that addressing racial bias in the sector is a top priority and that it should be done by addressing systemic barriers “through hiring and promotion practices, training boards of directors, and integrating race equity into all leadership development programs.”
  • Second, commit to—and incentivize—nondiscrimination across the nonprofit sector. The report recommends that institutions of influence, like funders and national and state associations, should promote the adoption of nondiscrimination policies that include sexuality and gender identity and establish monitoring systems.
  • Finally, the report recommends increased funding to support intersectionality and inclusion across the LGBTQ movement. It encourages former marriage equality funders to lead the charge in supporting intersectional capacity for LGBTQ organizations. Further, not only should funders prioritize autonomous organizations of LGBTQ people of color, they should fund LGBTQ leaders of color regardless of whether their organizations explicitly address LGBTQ issues.

Respondent Jason McGill, co-executive director of Arcus Foundation, which supports and funds various organizations in the LGBTQ movement, said, “Part of it is acknowledging that there is a problem, as much as it’s painful. The signals are there that we can be hopeful that the movement will respond appropriately.” Harris concluded, “The mainstreaming of queerness drives me bananas. I want a queer culture.”