Women in Green Breakfast: LGBTQ Discussion

“Don’t let my pretty eyes fool you.”

This was said by Jackie Defede, Facilities Director at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. After transitioning to a woman, it is a phrase she’s used with male contractors who have vastly underestimated her technical experience. She described how, using a firm tone, she would have to remind them of her lengthy industry experience when returning inaccurate invoices. Jackie Defede was one of three greatly accomplished LGBTQ panelists who participated in the latest edition of Women in Green Breakfast, which I had the honor to moderate.

The panel discussion highlighted our LGBTQ colleagues who have made significant contributions not only in green building, but also in creating inclusive spaces in our cities, fostering progressive cultures within their offices and for their clients, and exemplifying models of pride for future sustainability champions. In addition to Jackie, the panel included the strong voices of Katherine Perez-Estolano, Associate Principal and Cities Leader with Arup, and Dganit Schtorch, AIA Associate with Killefer Flammang Architects.

This discussion was equal parts a celebration of progress and a call to action. As an industry, we are not there yet in terms of offering a work culture where people across the board can feel comfortable and, rather than spend time, energy, and anxiety hiding who they are, perform to the best of their abilities. As Jackie put it, when it comes to LGBT inclusion, “T” has felt like the caboose on the train – that final car. “We really thought we were going to be protected too – but now we’re not.”

As Out and Equal summarizes, in 28 states, individuals can get fired for just being lesbian, bisexual, or gay. In 30 states, you can get fired just for being transgender.

“I’ve walked a few more steps ahead of you – if I can help you, I will.” – Katherine.

The panelists spoke with candor as they traced their careers through male-dominated fields. Part of what was striking about this conversation was the picture these women illustrated of what it had meant to enter this space without a precedent. Being one of, if not the only, woman in a room already translated to being an “other.” Identifying as LGBT at a time when those letter were very much taboo or having feelings there was not even language firmly in place to describe, added another dimension to this. With the anxieties and realities of being perceived and treated differently comes the real cost of hiding who you are to protect professional and personal relationships.

All three panelists used their personal experiences to share the cascading impacts of authenticity. Katherine had run as an out candidate for a California senate seat– unapologetically in the face of recommendations to the contrary – and underscored the importance of civic engagement. The speakers stressed to the audience the importance of being involved in some capacity and being at the table where decisions are being made – a concept that requires urgent action in the current political climate.

Part of why the contrast between what it meant to be a queer woman twenty years ago in this industry versus today stood out to me is that I have felt exceptionally grateful to have Katherine in my office. She is this outspoken and strong leader who will casually reference her wife in conversation like any of her male counterparts would. She has set the precedent that she did not have. I think if you asked any young woman in our field who the female leaders of their offices were, those names would be at the tip of their tongues. Part of that is that the numbers of women, especially queer women and women of color are just so few in management positions. But the other piece is that those rare examples are ones we cherish to see. That visibility is so critical.

Bathroom Policy and Design

Among topics of visibility and authenticity, the panel discussed one very tangible intersection of identity and our built environment: the design of restrooms and the policies that drive it. Jackie is leading the LA LGBT Center’s construction of a new facility that is pursuing all-gender restrooms. This new campus promises to be the largest of its kind in the world, so the design decisions will serve as a precedent at what inclusive design looks like.

Jackie did something very powerful when she spoke: she paired her outline of the logistics of all-gender restrooms with personal anecdotes that colored in the significance for the audience. Using a public restroom is such a basic need – a prerequisite to participating in society. But what if you couldn’t count on it being safe? Or had to fear that stepping through a door with a particular stick figure on the front could risk making the people inside feel uncomfortable? Jackie graciously shared one story of entering the ladies’ room of a fast food restaurant and having an older woman respond by jerking her granddaughter away from Jackie’s direction. As if Jackie – this charming and thoughtful woman who had immediately captivated our audience – was a predator.

Jackie continued, “We thought we were right there – maybe we’re back 10, 15, 20 years to have to start this conversation all over again to say ‘get past the window dressing; people are people.’”

Kudos to USGBC-LA for hosting this discussion and to Annie Argento, Melissa Gutierrez-Sullivan, Dominique Hargreaves, and Russell Fortmeyer for the effort of organizing this well-attended event and the tireless support of raising these issues.

Work Place Resources

As Dganit brought up during the panel, part of making an inclusive work culture is building relationships and employee networks within our firms. There are also opportunities to engage external resources, like Out & Equal, and offer educational lunches or workshops to delve into complex topics like preferred pronouns. A few relevant articles include:

All-Gender Restroom Design

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