“If someone is very abusive, or very aggressive, I always try to think, why is this person so aggressive? And sometimes by even making a joke, or by trying to get more information about the person…you break the ice. And sometimes you have some surprising results”
Boris Dittrich, Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, spoke on collaboration at Cisco’s San Jose campus recently. He told a story about his time as an openly gay Dutch parliament member:
I was still a member of the national parliament and a leader of my political party. We had created a new government and I was on television every night. So people usually said something when I walked down the street. Usually friendly.
Dittrich then recounted a less friendly encounter he had with a man as he walked from the train station to parliament:
He was following me and shouting,”You faggot! We don’t want gays” and things like that. So I thought: How do I deal with this situation? And people are watching. I saw that he had on his t-shirt the name of a soccer team in the Netherlands
So I said “Oh, are you a fan of Ajax? (Amsterdam soccer team.) I am too. Did you see the game?”
He was just flabbergasted, perhaps that I didn’t start shouting or whatever and then he said, “Do you like soccer?” [He had an expression] like gay men don’t like soccer. And then we started talking about soccer, and he was completely unarmed and he left.
Boris Dittrich and Evan Low, Councilman of Campbell, California, spoke as part of Cisco’s LGBT&A (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Advocates) Speaker’s Series, co-sponsored by the Cisco Asian Affinity Network. The subject: Collaboration is Hard: How to Work within Conflicting Points of View.
Boris Dittrich speaking at “Collaboration is Hard”
Connecting with the other party and striving to understand the other viewpoint were among the collaboration components that Dittrich and Low discussed. Dittrich also mentioned how mastering both the history of an issue and the data can help both parties move beyond an emotion-based argument.
On a personal note, this was the first time that I’ve attended a Cisco LGBT&A employee resource group event. At the registration booth, black lanyards were provided to general attendees. Yellow lanyards were given to individuals that did not want to be photographed. A special seating area was provided out of video camera range for these individuals.
To be honest, at first, I felt a stab of jealousy. As a female and as an Asian American, it’s really obvious what sets me apart. The concept that you could hide your difference was very intriguing to me. Being gay is kind of like being Superman, I thought. Wear glasses and be Clark Kent. Wear a yellow lanyard and no one outside the event will know about this aspect of yourself.
Evan Low touched on it briefly when he said “I’m openly gay, and for those who don’t know, I’m openly Asian.” Low, the youngest Asian and Gay Mayor in the US in 2009 spoke about conversations he had with voters:
Constituent: Where are you from?
Low: Born and raised in San Jose.
Constituent: What about your parents?
Low: Oakland and Sacramento.
Constituent: What about your grandparents?
Low: San Francisco.
After being stymied with that line of questioning, the real question came out: “Are you more loyal to China or the United States?” So even though Low is a fourth-generation American, he’s still seen as a foreigner by virtue of his ethnicity. It’s this kind of reaction to visible differences that made the yellow lanyard concept so appealing to me.
Evan Low speaks at “Collaboration is Hard” event
The idea that being gay was a superhero identity faded when I heard more from the speakers. Boris Dittrich noted that of the 192 countries in the world, 85 have criminalized homosexuality. He noted one gay man in Cameroon received a 3 year prison sentence for sending a text message with sexual content to another man.
Even in countries where homosexuality is legal, there is still a LGBT population that remains in the closet. Unfortunately, there is a social and emotional cost in staying hidden.
There’s a scene in the film “X-men: First Class” where Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) finds fellow mutant superhero Mystique working out. She is a shapeshifter and her natural coloring is bright blue. He finds her lifting weights while maintaining a different (more human) appearance. He tells her: ‘”If you’re using half your concentration to look normal, then you’re only half paying attention to whatever else you’re doing.”
There’s a cost to sublimating an aspect of yourself. It may not be the ability to turn blue, but if you’re busy hiding photos of your family when your coworker comes by, then you’re losing time and energy. This isn’t limited to the LGBT community. Women are often coached to “act more like men” in order to move ahead at work. Older people remove graduation dates from their resumes and “act younger” to avoid age discrimination. An inclusive environment allows a re-direction of that energy to productive ends—and from a company standpoint to profitable ends!
An open attitude, continuous learning, and personal connection are ways for each of us to contribute to an inclusive world. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, there will be a stack of unused yellow lanyards at these events.
This event was hosted by Cisco and made open to the public. There were 240 attendees (roughly half in person and half on-line). To learn more and view the event recording, click here.
As with all blog posts, this is my opinion and not that of Cisco’s.