Growing by Leading: The Power of Creating Space for LGBTQ+ Folks
Authors: Libby Graves (she/they), Executive Director, MA, Cityblock Health and Executive Sponsor, Out on the Block; Georgia Vachon (they/them), Strategic Operations, Cityblock Health and Co-Lead, Out on the Block
The following transcript reflects a one-on-one conversation between Libby and Georgia that has been edited for length and clarity. Libby and Georgia share stories about their queer experiences, including what it feels like to stand up as the only queer person in a room of 400 people, the impact of coming out over and over again, and why it’s crucial for LGBTQ+ leaders to show up as their authentic selves at organizations like Cityblock.
Georgia Vachon (they/them): Libby, thanks for sitting down with me today. I’m thrilled we can take the time to talk as we head into Pride Month.
Libby Graves (she/they): Of course, thanks for doing this. I’m excited to chat.
GV: We’ve been working together on Cityblock’s LGBTQIA+ Employee Resource Group: Out on the Block for several months now and it’s been so enriching for me.
LG: For me, as well.
GV: We’ve actually never talked about this, but I’d love to find out why you wanted to become the executive sponsor of Out on the Block.
LG: Well, someone asked me.
GV: [Laughs] I’m sure there was more intention behind your decision than that. When you thought about taking the position, what went through your mind?
LG: It was a no-brainer for me, really. As someone who is out and a leader at an organization, I felt it would be a disservice not to be part of something that can benefit the queer community at my company. Especially at an organization like Cityblock, which actively works to create inclusivity for employees, I feel that even more.
GV: Tell me more about that. How is it as a leader to be publicly queer?
LG: I definitely feel a sense of…responsibility, I would say, to the community. As a leader, someone who is highly visible at an organization, I want to represent as a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. I think it’s important to be authentic and genuine at work, not only as an individual, but especially when you are a leader. We talk about this idea of breaking a glass ceiling. I want to be someone that folks look to and can say, “hey, that person is like me and got where they are, maybe I can do that too!”
GV: Where does that motivation come from?
LG: I think a defining moment for me was when I was 22, in my first job, and we had to attend diversity training. We were sitting in this huge auditorium and the training moderator was running through their list, asking everyone to stand up for the groups that they identified with. There was a woman sitting next to me, a fellow graduate of the same MPA program. She was much further along in her career and I looked up to her. I knew she was gay but not out. And as the exercise went on she leaned over and whispered to me, “you’re not going to do it, are you?” My heart was racing, waiting for them to name the queer community, and I truly didn’t know what I was going to do. I felt this pull, though. This innate need to stand up. Not to hide. So when it came time, I summoned my courage, took a deep breath, and stood up.
LG: I looked around at the room of 400 or so participants and found I was the only person not in my chair.
LG: It was a moment. And you know, I look back, and while I feel proud of the fact that I stood, I think back to the woman next to me and wonder how many others in the room didn’t feel comfortable standing. As a leader now, I want to make sure that no one feels like they are the only one standing up in a room full of people. I want to stand because I’m able to and I hope that it affords someone else the courage or opportunity they need to do so as well.
GV: That sounds like a lot of pressure. I know I’ve felt that before — the weight of opening the door in hopes of letting through someone behind you.
LG: It’s true, it can be. But I think the alternative — not coming out, not standing up — that’s the part that would add more pressure. The idea that I didn’t do something that was real to me, that would be the thing that’s scarier. I feel that as a parent too; the responsibility to stand up for the right things, to better the world that we’re leaving behind for my boys, and more importantly, to guide and inspire them to continue the work. I try to let that be a force in all areas of my life.
As someone who is out and a leader at an organization, I felt it would be a disservice not to be part of something that can benefit the queer community at my company.
GV: I know that we’ve chatted a lot about coming out in the past, both in our lives and at Cityblock.
LG: Yes, we have [laughs]. I feel like you’ve got a compelling story that folks would want to hear about.
GV: Well, I’ll start by saying that I, like many folks, used to think that coming out was something you did once. When I “came out” as queer to my family and friends, note that I’m using the term loosely because it wasn’t really a big deal to me. I was like “great, that’s over with!”
LG: I had the same feeling when I came out in my 20s. Like, check! Done.
GV: Definitely. But I quickly learned that it was more complicated than that.
LG: Can you say more?
GV: Well, I’m both queer and non-binary. For me, coming out as queer is not something I have to do all that often. My close friends and family were all part of the first batch, as I’ll call it, and then as people enter my life it’s just something that comes up naturally. At work, I make it a point to bring it up when there’s a moment. I am super proud of that part of my identity! But it’s not something that is an everyday occurrence. I’m not exactly talking about who I’m dating at work all the time.
LG: [Laughs] I get it. I’ve got my lovely wife and 4 boys at home, so I guess it comes up a bit more for me. But that’s different than how it is with being non-binary?
GV: Oh definitely. When I finally realized/accepted/acknowledged, whatever you want to call it, my non-binary identity, I learned that I would be coming out again…and again…likely every day, forever. That was a harsh realization.
LG: For folks who may not know, why is that?
GV: Well, today, it’s common for people to assume someone’s gender based on their appearance, their name, the sound of their voice, really any number of characteristics. And for me, people often assume that my gender matches the sex I was assigned at birth, but that’s not the case. It’s not ill-intended in any way; I think it’s really natural for people to see someone and notice things about them that lead them toward a certain conclusion. However, when people don’t think twice about those observations and assume certain things like my gender and my pronouns, it can be harmful. So correcting that kind of natural assumption is something I have to do daily.
LG: What does that look like?
GV: Well, whenever I meet someone new, it feels like I have to tell them my pronouns to avoid getting misgendered. When I say that my pronouns are they/them, I’m outing myself as part of the LGBTQ+ community. I’m doing that with strangers. It’s the second thing I’m telling people after my name.
LG: Is that scary?
GV: Out in the world, sometimes it can be. However, I’m fortunate to live in New York City, and work at a progressive company like Cityblock, so I don’t often feel that pressure. But I know that’s not the case for a lot of folks.
LG: That’s true, especially with all of the attacks on queer and trans people happening in this country. Right now, the ACLU is tracking hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ bills [491 to be exact], including many in the markets we serve at Cityblock.
GV: One hundred percent. For many people here in the U.S. and abroad, it’s a really scary time to be queer. Honestly, due to the safety and privilege that I do have, I feel a sort-of obligation to share and invite people in to learn and connect with the LGBTQ+ community in ways they may not have before. More than just that personal benefit, for the sake of progress. On that personal level, though, I do it so that I can receive that same respect and courtesy that most cisgendered people have inherently: the privilege of being referred to correctly. For me, it is much more comfortable to come out every day than it is to be misgendered constantly.
LG: Absolutely. I can only imagine what that’s like.
GV: I won’t lie, it can be tiring. However, I am fortunate that the vast majority of people I interact with lead with kindness, even if they don’t fully understand my identity. I’m happy to share and educate people as I can, both as a service to myself and others. I actually wear a necklace with my pronouns on it for that reason. It’s a subtle way for me to introduce my pronouns to people, and it’s also a great conversation starter. I’ve probably had more conversations with strangers than I ever have in my life because of my necklace.
LG: That’s awesome.
GV: It is, yeah. I will say that although it’s not easy to constantly come out, it’s definitely worth it. And part of why I’m able to do that is because of my amazing support system, and Out on the Block is a significant part of that.
One of the beautiful things about being queer is celebrating your evolution.
LG: You asked me why I chose to be the Executive Sponsor. Why did you want to be a Co-Lead?
GV: I think you said it was a no-brainer, right? For me, it was the same. Specifically, I wanted to help increase LGBTQ+ awareness and inclusivity at Cityblock, both for our employees and the members we serve. Personally, I wanted to really bring pronouns to the front of people’s minds, since that’s something that is close to my heart.
LG: Yes, I was so excited when you brought that vision to me at the beginning of the year. The concept of pronouns at work has been very impactful for me as well so I was super excited to support that.
GV: Oh, I appreciate that so much. Though, I want to hear more about your journey with pronouns. How has Cityblock played a role in that?
LG: Growing up I never really thought about my pronouns. The concept of being a woman always resonated with me. It seemed natural to me that my pronouns were the same as what women typically use. But as I’ve grown older and through exploration at Cityblock, I’ve started to explore the ambiguity of gender and what that means to me, and I want my pronouns to reflect that and how I’m perceived. It’s strange to think I’m coming out again after all this time but as you said, it’s a continual process as a queer person. To that end, Cityblock actually helped me realize I wanted to change my pronouns.
GV: What led to that realization?
LG: Well, it actually started with a call to action from our former CEO for Cityfolx [Cityblock employees] to be more mindful about using pronouns and the importance of creating space for us all. He recommended we add our pronouns to our email signatures. I thought it was a great idea, so I immediately logged on to Gmail and went to add mine. As I’m staring at the signature page, it hits me: “Wait, what are my pronouns?” My whole life, “she” has always fit (although I would have preferred a far less narrow definition of what it means to be female). I’ve never heard it used to refer to me and thought that it didn’t. But in that moment, I knew, “they” fit too. It was that same pull I felt in that diversity training all those years ago; that need to do what feels authentic to me. So I knew that I wanted to put “she/they” in my email signature.
GV: How did that feel?
LG: It was a bit nerve-wracking. Your email signature, that’s something that not only everyone at Cityblock can see but also all of the external partners that I work with. That’s a lot of folks… much broader than just my team or department. But going back to that idea of being a leader and that responsibility, I wanted to acknowledge that “they” fit. I wanted to be another person standing up in that room, showing that being a leader who uses other pronouns is okay.
“Wait, what are my pronouns?”
GV: That prompting to define your pronouns, it’s funny that it was an inflection point for you because it was for me as well, actually.
LG: No way, really?
GV: It was before I joined Cityblock, but I went through a process of changing my pronouns. I knew that I wanted to display my pronouns to create that welcoming environment and felt it was my duty as both a queer person and an ally to trans folks. But seeing my pronouns next to my Zoom name every day really made me think. I got to this point where I wanted people to know: I’m not just the sex I was assigned at birth. There’s something more to me. I didn’t really know what it was but I wanted to convey that, so I added “they.”
LG: Having it in writing is super powerful.
GV: Absolutely. It definitely spurred me on as I explored my identity. And it was actually a conversation with an old co-worker, who was the Co-Lead of the LGBTQ+ ERG, that helped me make that final push. I was chatting with them and they said, “Well, when I used [old pronoun] for you, you cringed every time, but when I used ‘they’ for you, you didn’t even notice or it even felt affirming. Maybe you only want to use ‘they’?”
LG: Wow, that’s…
GV: I know, right? This is a conversation I’m having with a co-worker, basically coming out on the phone. That conversation prompted me to change my pronouns to “they/them” the same day. It was a few weeks later that I came out as non-binary. For me, the pronouns came first, and then what that meant for my gender came later. So I guess that’s another reason I took the Co-Lead position. I wanted the opportunity to create that space for someone else.
LG: Talk about a connection to an ERG.
GV: Yeah [laughs]. I should text my former Co-Lead. I don’t know if I ever told them how impactful that one conversation was for me…
LG: To your point about creating that space, you’ve done that here, for sure.
GV: That makes me so happy to hear. But it’s not just me. I mean, part of why we are able to have such a beautiful and protected space within the ERG is because of Cityblock and the mission we have.
LG: I couldn’t agree more. If I had gotten that email about pronouns at another organization, I can’t say that I would have had the same thought process, the same room for exploration. It’s been a transformative experience, working here, one that I never could have expected when I joined.
GV: I have to say I love that word: transformative. I feel like that embodies the queer experience so much. One of the beautiful things about being queer is celebrating your evolution. I’ve learned to accept that I may not have answers to all of my questions about my gender, sexuality and pronouns. Or even more so that the answers may change. But learning to celebrate that, be proud of that journey and where I am at each step, that’s one of the things that makes me so proud and lucky to be queer.
LG: Wow, I love that. I feel like my identity, my pronouns — I feel like I want to add an asterisk to my email signature that says, “subject to change.”
GV: You should totally do that. And then for explanation, you can link to this interview.
LG: [Laughs] I just might.
Being a part of an organization that celebrates diversity, talks about challenges, and brings to focus the experiences of so many different groups of people creates a deeper level of understanding that translates directly into the work we do.
GV: Well, I know we could just talk for hours so I’ll wrap us up. Do you have any final thoughts you want to share?
LG: Employee Resource Groups are important. There are studies that show how they create an inclusive culture and improve retention of a workforce and they’re right. When you empower your employees to come together in communities, really amazing things come from that. ERGs create opportunities for personal growth and exploration, and that aspect is something that sticks with a person; it has for me. Beyond that, the ERGs at Cityblock are tied to our mission of health equity. The work done through ERGs will help us be more effective with the populations we serve and the care we deliver. Being a part of an organization that celebrates diversity, talks about challenges, and brings to focus the experiences of so many different groups of people creates a deeper level of understanding that translates directly into the work we do.
GV: You’ve been an incredible advocate for Out on the Block and the ERG program. We’re so lucky to have you. You know, It’s strange to think that my life was altered by an ERG…but it’s true.
LG: It’s awesome, is what it is.
GV: Yes, I’d have to agree. Well, Libby, this has been an absolute pleasure.
GV: And Happy Pride Month!
LG: Happy Pride!