Behold my epic legend and hard-earned techniques for surviving as a graying, gay man in tech.
I’ve worked in the field for close to 35 years and alternative newspapers before that. I was always interested in changing the status quo through media and associated myself with organizations where I felt I could make a difference. With a history of human rights activism it was also important that my employer accepted who I was.
When there was discrimination it was often subtle. The confrontational habit we needed in the gay liberation movement drove me to be reactive first.
After some stumbles, I survived with a technique I’ve come to call The Humanist + Activist Approach. Here’s why it’s more important than ever today.
Here’s how to put The Humanist + Activist Approach to work in such situations:
Before you react, take time to understand the experiences and point of view of the people you interact with. That’s the humanist part.
You DO have a right to be at the table without discrimination though so, don’t ever back down. – That’s the activist part.
You may have noticed some of the signs. A subtle uneasiness which reveals itself as something being slightly off. You can’t put your finger on it. This is when understanding that person matters.
Still, a lot goes unstated, but you can almost hear it “He’s old and doesn’t get it.”, “Gay people are just different.”, “I’d rather not know about that thing I don’t understand.” or the easy out “We don’t have anything in common.”
It’s the same thing we see in polarized politics today. Nobody is listening to or understanding anybody outside of their comfortable bubbles. You may not agree with your colleagues on a lot of important issues to you, but there may have a well of shared experiences where you can connect.
Many times what is going on doesn’t even have anything to do with you. And how do you tell the difference? You can begin with the humanist connection to people outside of your comfort zone.
Through protege/mentoring relationships, you can get to know each other and find common ground. Especially as it relates to ageism. Pairing different cohorts together works well for product teams. It would be revolutionary for HR leaders to begin implementing programs to match old/young, gay/straight, leaders/new hires. A mix of experiences made more valuable than individually (or in the single mind-set).
If I look back 40 years, my influences were usually older artists, writers and activists that had been through the Vietnam War resistance. They were my teachers and the classroom was challenging.
One example: I worked for a leftist newspaper collective – a lot of good was done by keeping many bad guys honest and staying defiant through the power of the press. However, the internal workings to make that happen were volatile and sometimes antagonistic to meet the goal of being a transparent, conscious organization.
I was also present for some of the early meetings for ActUp. ActUp was the truly radical organization that stood up to the AIDS epidemic. The meetings were held in the basement of the Gay and Lesbian Center in Greenwich Village. They were wild and passionate shouting matches to get to the most effective way to fight. We needed to get the attention of a government and pharmaceutical industry who were ignoring a public health crisis. Ignoring it because many early victims were gay men.
These experiences illustrated to me how similar tactics could be brought to new challenges. It established my response to discrimination.
To address AIDS we broke all the furniture in the room to be heard.We challenged the government, the drug companies, the Catholic church. We made everybody uncomfortable to be heard. We had ZERO tolerance and questioned everything.
At the same time we were emotionally beaten up and grieving from the relentless death around us. And THEN we had to get on with things.
In the middle of all that resistance and mourning, those of us that survived were gathering ourselves and starting our careers with peers that had radically different experiences.
The activist bent stuck for me and was an uncomfortable stance to bring into the workplace. Certainly one that didn’t resonate with many in the room who may have been getting away with keeping people marginalized before.
I remain ready to fight for what is right but have a tendency toward empathy and kindness.
And now a new form of discrimination for me, AGE.
‘The very people who might be affected by age discrimination often don’t want to bring it up—especially in Silicon Valley.’
She got that right.
With something fairly new to me like age discrimination, I can miss the signals. It seems nobody wants to acknowledge it anyway.
Maya Angelou said:
‘If you let a bird nip at your ear, before you know it your whole head will be gone.’
As discrimination incrementally goes unchecked, what was questionable before becomes normalized. The toxicity is multiplied.
So Stop it! When you see it. Stop it. You can try first with compassion and grace, but don’t back down if that doesn’t work.
Understand your boundaries, let them be known. Or … the bird will eat your head.
At the same time, try, try, try to find some common ground with people you work with. Especially with those who come from different experiences and points of view. It provides context and some humanity when interacting.
From an activist side, Do not kid yourself, the assault on our rights are more aggressive than we’ve seen in decades. This is becoming the new normal again and requires vigilance to resist. Working in tech means that we’re creating the platforms for the future and with that comes a responsibility. If there is humanity and an adherence to principles in the room it will translate into the products we create.
Originally published at www.forbes.com