COMMENTARY: Our groups need more color in their rainbow

LGBT organizations need more racially diverse leaders

The rainbow flag, the very the symbol of gay pride, represents both our aspirations and the diversity of our population. Yet the top of the gay community’s rainbow — the leadership tier of LGBT non-profit organizations — is more awash in white than any other color.

At the executive director position, LGBT groups have historically been led almost exclusively by white men. A step down at the board level, gay non-profits have tried for years to recruit members who better match the racial diversity of America. After all this time talking about the need for greater racial inclusion, it’s time LGBT entities did better in finding leaders who represent the full spectrum of colors.

The figures are troubling, especially at the very top.

In 2008, only 4% of executive directors of LGBT organizations were people of color. That figure comes from The Pipeline Project, a group formed to develop LGBT leaders who reflect our multicultural, multiethnic community. It is a far cry from the 36% of the U.S. population who self-identifies as a racial minority. And our 4% is one-third less than non-profit groups in general.

While I have not come across more recent statistics, it’s hard to imagine racial diversity among executive directors has dramatically improved in the past few years.

Executive directors act as faces to the public of their organizations and the overall LGBT movement; it is critical that those faces be as diverse as possible. Because the LGBT population is itself a minority group, it is sadly ironic that our organizations need their own diversity initiatives.

In the boardroom, the picture is better but still lacking. At the major LGBT non-profit entities, only 25% of board members are racial minorities, according to the 2011 annual National LGBT Movement Report released by the Movement Advancement Project, which studies the health of LGBT organizations.

Despite efforts to improve board diversity, the 25% figure has not materially changed from the prior year. While the MAP study does not capture data from all gay non-profit entities, it represents a good cross-section. The 2011 report (summarizing 2010 data) covered 40 of the most prominent groups that collectively control 71% of the budgets from known gay organizations.

Luckily, LGBT non-profit entities are doing well at the staff level.

MAP found that 32% of staff members at participating organizations identify themselves as people of color. This more closely tracks with the 36% figure for the U.S. population.

Why is the leadership of our LGBT organizations so awash in white?

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room. The gay community needs to be more racially inclusive – not just in its organizational structures and political strategies, but in its social fabric.

Ethnic minority groups still are not as integrated into the gay world as they should be. That isn’t to say Caucasian people have no racial minority friends, but it is a fair observation that their social circles tend to be less racially diverse. This spills over into the milieu of “A-gay” charity events, where the people who historically run the show (often gay white men) invite people they know (usually more gay white men than racial minorities) to attend, contribute money or support in other ways.

Trust me, I’ve showed up at many gay fundraisers to find myself as an Asian man just one amongst a limited number of racial minority people in the ballroom. That results in fewer people of color getting exposure to the good work of LGBT organizations.

In turn, this affects boardroom composition. With leaders of LGBT entities being less diverse, so too are their social circles, which they reach out to for recruiting prospective board members. This leads to a spiraling cycle that makes it difficult for non-profit groups to improve their ethnic diversity.

Adding to the challenge is the money factor. For executive directors and board members, a big part of their job is to solicit donations from people who have money or strong business relationships to leverage. That immediately starts filtering out some people of color from the contact list.

There are, of course, many LGBT racial minorities who are professionally successful but it’s the cold hard truth that an income disparity still exists in America between whites and racial minorities (irrespective of sexual orientation) even with the same level of educational attainment. This monetary discrepancy leaves racial minorities less likely to be invited into LGBT leadership.

I’ve experienced this myself during my time on an LGBT board. I would look through my contact list to see who amongst my friends had the financial means to make a significant donation or had business contacts that would be valuable. Fewer of my racial minority friends fit that bill than my Caucasian colleagues.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having gay, white men at the top (just as there is nothing inherently wrong with straight, white male leaders). But we need more color not just for atmospherics; we need it to help win the gay civil rights movement.

To achieve full equality, we need straight allies, especially racial minority groups such as the NAACP and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center that help frame gay issues in the historical context of other civil rights movements. This bestows particular resonance to amici curiae briefs from these allied groups in impact litigation, such as briefs supporting marriage equality in the Ninth Circuit appeal of the Perry v. Schwarzenegger Proposition 8 case.

Backing from these other minority organizations also makes it safer for straight politicians and voters to support gay causes. Perhaps most importantly, they can help overcome anti-gay prejudices that can be uniquely harsh within African-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-American cultures. If our own LGBT organizations had more diverse leaders, we could build stronger partnerships with these straight allies and better appeal to voters in communities of color.

Within the LGBT populace, we want our own racial minorities to speak up about gay issues to their family members and friends in diverse ethnic groups. We need them to become active in LGBT organizations to show that sexual orientation issues affect all races. In the gay boardroom, we learn from their cultural and linguistic backgrounds to improve our equality messaging to different ethnic groups. And most simply, we benefit from having different life experiences brought to the table.

Luckily, there are initiatives like The Pipeline Project to help achieve this vision. The Pipeline Project was born out of discussions at the 2006 annual retreat of the New York City LGBT Executive Directors’ Group. That group of leaders identified as critical the need to increase diversity and inclusion of racial minorities in their organizations. The result was formation of The Pipeline Project.

Now led by Clarence Patton, The Pipeline Project works with LGBT organizations to better understand why they have had difficulty attracting and retaining staff and board members who are people of color. The project also operates a 21st Century Fellows Program, a yearlong leadership development program for people of color who are already managers at LGBT non-profit entities. The goal is to help racially diverse managers move up the ladder to become top leaders.

But it will take more than just The Pipeline Project to diversify the rainbow. To all my brothers and sisters from communities of color, I encourage you to become involved with an LGBT organization, even if it’s just to attend an event or volunteer a little time. A small amount of exposure now might intrigue you into pursuing leadership opportunities in the future.

To the many LGBT non-profit entities out there, by all means, continue with the diversity initiatives but please make it more than an agenda item to discuss at your board meetings. Set measurable goals and implement action items but do not depend solely on your existing racial minority board members to solve the problem for you. From the very top down, everyone in an LGBT organization should stretch beyond their comfort zones to find and cultivate greater diversity among board members and staff. When the executive director or other top manager positions are open, the search committee appointed by a non-profit entity needs to be as diverse as possible. The search process should also ensure that ethnically diverse candidates are included in the recruiting mix for consideration.

As itself a disadvantaged minority group, the LGBT community should do better when it comes to diversity in all respects. We could, of course, be having this same conversation about why non-profit groups need more female, transgender, or straight people in their ranks. But for this moment, let’s focus on the colors of the rainbow.

Rather than suffering from the same racial constraints that beset the world we try to improve, our LGBT organizations should set the example for how inclusive the world should be. In our world, all colors of the rainbow should be given room to shine.

Jimmy Nguyen is nationally recognized as an award-winning lawyer, new media expert, LGBT leader, diversity advocate, commentator and motivational speaker. He formerly served on the board of directors of Equality California. In 2008, Lawdragon named Nguyen one of the 500 Leading Lawyers in America, and in 2010, the National LGBT Bar Association recognized him as one of the Best LGBT Lawyers under 40. He also writes for his own website at JimmyWin.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JimmyWinMedia.

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