Raising LGBTQ+ voices in architecture

LGBTQSession

Spencer Lepler, AIA, A.L. Hu, Assoc. AIA, Larry Paschall, AIA, and Ila Berman, Assoc. AIA, swap stories before their panel session at the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019.

To strike a path toward greater equity and inclusion in architecture, queer architects encourage others to identify themselves and come together.

Every June, cities around the world celebrate Pride month to honor and support the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community. This month marks a special occasion for the US, as the WorldPride festival takes place in New York City to honor the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, the watershed event many believe sparked the modern equal rights movement for LGBTQ+ individuals.

On the other side of the country, LGBTQ+ architects gathered with allies in Las Vegas at A'19 to discuss representation and the issues that affect them both in and out of the workplace. At a panel session titled The Silent Minority: LGBTQ+ Voices in Architecture, four design professionals who identify as queer joined about 50 attendees in sharing their experiences, starting with the concept of visibility.

Larry Paschall, AIA, the session’s organizer who identifies as gay and cisgender, finds that because queerness isn’t a trait that’s visible to the eye, the community isn’t being recognized in national research and conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion in architecture in the same way as other minority groups. “What if we were visible enough?” he asked the crowd, adding that more visibility for LGBTQ+ people in architecture would increase the likelihood that they would receive support at work and in the profession at large.

Challenges of visibility

“If we ask ourselves why we don’t speak about those important things that may not be visible, there’s a reason we’re hiding it,” says Ila Berman, Assoc. AIA, Dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, who identifies as a cisgender woman, lesbian, and an “unapologetic feminist.”  “It’s because we know there are implicit biases,” she says. Architects representing a variety of generations, sexual orientations, and gender identities in the crowd responded to this by telling stories about the hesitations they felt about coming out at work. Many expressed fears that they would be mistreated or receive little support due to implicit biases held by employers and fellow employees.

Spencer Lepler, AIA, who identifies as homoromantic and gray-asexual (a term used to describe those who fall on the spectrum between asexuality and sexuality), but often refers to himself as gay, personally experienced discrimination at an architecture firm that employed him. “Sometimes you’re not out at work because you can’t be,” he says. When he mentioned his husband in his first week at a new job, a superior told him that the conservative senior management of the firm would not like it if they knew he were married to a man. In the nine months he worked there, he felt forced to remain in the closet while he looked for other jobs. During his search, he realized he had to be open as early as possible during the interview process to ensure he would not wind up working for a firm that didn’t support him again, and he now encourages others to do the same. “I’d rather be rejected for a job than get a job where I’m not free to talk about my personal life,” he says.

“I’d rather be rejected for a job than get a job where I’m not free to talk about my personal life." -Spencer Lepler, AIA

Berman believes that “it’s really important for me to be out in every context”—at work, at home, and in the community. “Those things that are invisible —the onus is on you to make them visible,” she says, urging LGBTQ+ architects to be advocates for themselves. “Assumptions will always be projected on you from the beginning, so it’s up to you.”

Another issue is the degree to which designers feel comfortable being “out” with clients and contractors. A.L. Hu, Assoc. AIA, who identifies as transgender, nonbinary, and uses they/them pronouns, still struggles with navigating coming out to new collaborators, despite being out since graduate school. “It’s always touch and go,” they say, indicating that while they work in a very open and supportive design firm, challenges still arise outside of the office. Hu emphasizes the need for firms to have anti-harassment policies in place to protect their employees in the event of any negative behavior that may come from any project team member.

Transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming individuals face challenges that other segments of the queer community may not. Gender binaries are ever-present in the workplace, from human resources documentation to bathrooms. “A lot of it has to do with changing the structures that exist right now,” Hu says, talking about the need for updates to traditional systems and spaces that don’t reflect inclusive values. “For me, it comes down to respect. In a workplace, you want to be able to do your work and be able to not worry about anything impeding that,” they say.

Equity inside and out

So how can queer architects move forward in the fight for visibility and support? The panelists identified two major means: having conversations within firms and engaging outside of them to raise broader awareness. Becoming active in LGBTQ+ community organizations or representing the community in others is key, but it can be isolating if not pursued in solidarity with other architects, according to Paschall, who talked of being the only architect in the Dallas GLBT Chamber of Commerce. “It makes me feel like I’m the only gay architect in Dallas,” he says. Paschall launched the “Big Gay Architect” blog to help create community, and along with Lepler, is hoping to start a national organization for queer architects.

At the annual reception for LGBTQI+ and allies at A’19, conference attendees continued the conversation by discussing tactics for increasing visibility in firms and in communities. Ryan Gann, Assoc. AIA, who identifies as a gay cisgender male, represents the AIA Associate membership on the Board of Directors. “There is an interest in bringing this conversation more to the forefront,” he says. “This is a moral imperative that we have as an organization, to support the community we’re trying to serve.” In his remarks, Gann highlighted the AIA Guides for Equitable Practice, a resource individuals and firms can use to employ best practices of equity, diversity, and inclusion. “It’s the beginning of a very important and monumental step for our organization and profession,” he says.

“This is a moral imperative that we have as an organization, to support the community we’re trying to serve.” - Ryan Gann, Assoc. AIA

Bradley Fritz, AIA, described AIA Chicago’s new LGBTQI+ Alliance, the first AIA member group of its kind in the country. The Alliance seeks to support diversity in the design community through advocacy and education. AIA Chicago’s executive director Zurich Esposito, Hon. AIA, discussed the Alliance during the earlier panel session, encouraging those in attendance to go to their AIA chapter leaders and explore similar ideas in their home cities. “We are hoping the momentum behind this group will push us a little bit further,” says Fritz, who identifies as a gay cisgender male. Later this month, the chapter will host a Pride month “Out in Architecture” event as part of AIA’s “Embracing Our Differences. Changing the World.” year-long speaker series.

Understanding differences and moving forward

Both Fritz and Gann issued a challenge to architects to take action within AIA and their communities to elevate and protect LGBTQ+ individuals in the profession. They stressed the need for unity and solidarity with all architects, no matter their backgrounds. “We need to understand that LGBTQ diversity is not the only type of diversity we are talking about,” Fritz says, acknowledging that the lack of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity in architecture is problematic. “We need to work with everybody…to make architecture representative of the society that we serve.”

Near the close of the panel, Berman reminded the audience that differences within the queer community should not be ignored. “We all have this form of double consciousness,” she says. “We understand our own issues, but we don’t necessarily understand one another’s.” Starting with an acknowledgement of their own differences will allow the LGBTQ+ community in architecture to move forward as a stronger and more unified force. Then the real work can begin. “This is just the beginning of a conversation that we’re all trying to have in a very strategic and intentional way,” Gann says.

Learn more about AIA’s commitment to broadening equity, diversity, and inclusion to create a stronger profession here.

Kathleen M. O’Donnell is a writer/editor at AIA, specializing in practice and professional development topics and Institute coverage.

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LGBTQSession

Oscar & Associates

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