You never know when or where you might meet someone who is going to inspire or help you. It could be at work, in the grocery store, at church or at the hunting camp. This time it was at work. An amazing new friend inspired me to reach out beyond my comfort zone.
Of all places, this chance opportunity happened at the Campus Safety, Health and Environmental Management Association Conference (CSHEMA) in Portland, Oregon. The theme was "Connecting the EHS Community," and I connected in a very big way. Throughout the conference we shared policies, programs, management systems and new ideas.
That is not all we shared. After the day's technical sessions were done, we visited and made new friends while strengthening existing relationships and partnerships. Safety professionals are an interesting family. We innately want to protect others from harm. We work with employees and employers to develop safety programs to help keep them safe and our institutions productive. In some ways, we are guardian angels that use federal and state regulations and institutional policies to guide us.
My family, friends and numerous organizations are Nicole's guardian angels. Unfortunately, we have few federal or state regulations to guide us. We do not have all of the tools we need to make sure Nicole has the same educational opportunities as her classmates. To prevent this from happening to other children we need to pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act as soon as possible.
I have been cautious and slow to tell our story near home, choosing to be selective and purposely maintaining a safe distance has been the norm. But I think it is time to start changing this approach, and it is time to reach out beyond my current comfort zone.
On the last day of the Safety Conference I was visiting with a couple of colleagues and they asked me if I had kids. When asked this question, I say I have identical twins, and one is a boy and one is a girl and wait for the reaction. Just as I started to tell them our story, Cheri Hildreth joined us to say hello. Cheri is a tiny but powerful woman from the University of Louisville. She is a well-respected leader in our professional community, who has a passion for helping others. She moved in closer as I told them that Nicole is transgender, and that she experienced severe bullying, harassment and discrimination in elementary and middle school.
We were now in a bubble of emotion, unaware of our professional colleagues mingling around us. As I described in detail how much pain my little girl has endured, their faces saddened. I shared the many disappointments that she has experienced at school. As I tried to explain further, I stumbled to find the right words.
At some point I stopped trying, figuring it was best to quit while I was ahead and not to make a fool of myself. Crying among my professional peers did not seem like a good networking strategy. As I looked for a way out, Cheri saved me from further discomfort. She hugged me and said she had to go to a meeting but that she wanted to learn more.
While sitting in the hospitality room later that evening, I ran into Cheri and she said, "You are coming to Louisville to tell your story." I tried to slow her down, explaining that I might not be ready to head "South." She took my hands and said, "Wayne, life and business are about building partnerships and relationships, and that is what I do best. Your story must be told at our institution and so many others."
She was right. Institutions of higher learning are a great place to tell this story. The same networks and partnerships we use as safety professionals may open doors that have never been opened before. Safety professionals work hard to protect people, to keep their institutions whole, to promote learning, fairness and good play. Maybe they can help me build new partnerships and relationships to protect transgender youth.
At work, the OSHA injury/illness rates are one of the many metrics used to monitor safety efforts. There are very few metrics that exist to measure the needs of transgender youth. According to a report by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, "In U.S. surveys, lesbian, gay and bi adolescents and adults have two to six times higher rates of reported suicide attempts compared to comparable straight people, and transgender people consistently report markedly high rates of suicide attempts." These metrics continue to haunt me as I struggle with findings ways to prevent transgender children from becoming a statistic.
University presidents use metrics to help develop systems to protect their institution's faculty, staff and students. They also have national and state laws to guide them. This is seldom true for Nicole and her friends. There are very few formal protections for these children. Every day transgender children, adolescents and adults are cast aside at school, at work and some are even thrown out of their homes. This is not a fate that any parent, young person or adult should fear, but we do.
The role of institutions of higher education in society is to challenge our minds, to promote new ideas, develop new tools and advance our nation's culture for the better. What nobler place to share our story, so the leaders of tomorrow can demand protections for Nicole and her friends.
I hope to have the opportunity to speak at the University of Louisville, but if I do not, I will find other venues. Thanks to my new ally, I will proudly tell our story to whoever is in the crowded room.
As allies we can open doors that seem closed. You can start by talking to a neighbor or someone at church. Tell them you know a family that has a transgender child. Explain that our children are suffering because they cannot be who they need to be. Reach out to a LGBT organization in your state and ask them to provide training for your school or organization.
I have learned that reaching out just a little bit past my comfort zone can open some of these doors. I am hopeful that you might be willing to do the same.