And how living a more truthful life can lead to disruption
Growing up gay made the wires in my brain connect a little different. This went beyond just being a creative kid and allowing myself to use all the colors in the crayon box.
There was something about starting life as an outsider that taught me to always raise questions like: is everyone comfortable with this situation? Are these words or actions harming anyone around me? Isn’t it cruel to exclude others for being different?
Back then I was too busy being terrible at ball sports. But as a grown man, I can fully see it as life putting me through a bootcamp to learn something that’s key to any design professional.
“Everybody’s journey is individual.” — James Baldwin
The first time I heard the word “empathy” I was thirteen. Although it might sound like this is gonna be a cute junior high story, it was in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. He mentions empathy four times, while explaining that loving people too much made him feel too sad.
Needless to say, the freak and the geek in me identified with that. Real hard.
It took time, education and role models, but in my late teens what was once sorrow and shame turned into pride and confidence. Throughout my adulthood, as I work hard to become a better human (welcome to your thirties!) and a better professional, it hit me. I can use all that to my advantage.
Now if you look at the design community and at the industry at large, empathy has never been more crucial in order to achieve relevance and value.
To this day, though, we see professionals from all fields struggling to understand basic human emotions and to connect with their customers and users. There are tutorials and endless articles about it. But how do you teach empathy?
And how can LGBTQ+ designers help folks and industries who weren’t blessed with these superpowers?
In a few days, we’ll celebrate 50 years of the Stonewall riots, a major milestone in LGBTQ+ history. So I sent myself on a little quest and spoke to Abbie Walsh (London), Carlos Ignacio Hernández (São Paulo), Gene Chambliss (Atlanta) and Jianjia Chan (Singapore) about what it means to be an LGBTQ+ designer. Here’s what I learned:
• Empathy is a muscle
And the reason why it can be stronger in LGBTQ+ people is because we’ve been exercising it for longer. “We’ve always had to navigate the world more aware of others”, Hernández tells me. We also know better than most what it’s like to live without empathy.
That eventually turns into special lenses through which we get to see the world. “The muscles we use to get our jobs done are definitely stronger. Not just towards LGBTQ+, but towards a broad spectrum of users”, says Chambliss. This goes for interviews, understanding needs and compilating insights too.
• Pride leads to disruption
Challenging the norm and taking risks are right up our alley. Naturally this tends to get more evident in artistic, creative spaces. “We choose not to conform because you’ve always felt different”, Walsh explains.
From Keith Haring and Pedro Almodóvar, to Pabllo Vittar and Lena Waithe: it’s no coincidence queer artists have always been in forefront of avant-garde, experimental thinking and doing.
In the workspace, sometimes that means showing up and being visible. “We make better work when we are ourselves. We should always strive to let that inner self shine, and not to get clouded by fear or conventions”, says Chan.
“Queerness is anti-system, anti-violence. It is an escape. It’s an outside-of-the-box redefinition of what it means to navigate the world as a person who is not normative.” — Carlos Ignacio Hernández
- Design can repair damage
“Everybody wants to belong to something. We’re hyper aware of this need of belonging”, Walsh tells me. In this context, design “has an important role in fixing alienation and some of the damage that has been done. We need to go back and reassess what we created”, she adds.
This also means making people aware of unconscious bias, transgender visibility and exclusionary services, to name a few.
• And there’s still so much to be done
The first Pride was definitely a riot, led by the two ultimate transgender legends Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Fifty year after stone #1 was thrown, developed countries and major cities across the world can finally celebrate their legacy.
But there’s so much to look and fight for, both in the corporate ecosystem and specially out there in the world. This is just a few we listed:
- Transgender rights and inclusion
- LGBTQ+ immigrants inclusion
- Unification among LGBTQ+ communities
- Criminalization of homophobia and transphobia in many countries
- LGBTQ+ culture education
- Access to healthcare, HIV/AIDS treatment
- Mental health awareness
- Representation at all industries and career levels
- And many more
If you’re lucky to live in a city with a Pride event, do not hesitate. Show up. Celebrate. Fight. Make it uncomfortable for those who need to feel uncomfortable. It’s our job.
If you don’t know where to start, reach out. The empathy superpowers are here to serve you.
Thanks to Abbie Walsh, Carlos Ignacio Hernández, Gene Chambliss, Jianjia Chan, Thales Molina and Lori Muszynski.