There were many long years when I freely admitted all of my friends were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer people; now I think that was a sign of my weakness. In fairness, I had been fired from several jobs for being openly queer and my friends could not always run fast enough to escape their tormentors. Surrounding myself with LGBTQ people was an act of safety. But we all tend to pick both friends and partners that look like ourselves. The phenomenon is called homogamy and at some point in our history it may have had a role in survival.
We see this tendency play itself out in our national news stories. As the Black Lives Matter movement arose to counter the new spotlight on police killings of Black people, one of the most compelling data points to emerge was the fact that three quarters of white Americans have only white friends. Likewise researchers have shown a solid relationship between whether Americans know any gays or lesbians and tolerance. In 2015, Pew Research found that 73% of people who had many gay and lesbian friends favored gay marriage while only 32% of people who had no gay or lesbian friends did so. Nicely 88% of Americans report knowing someone who is gay or lesbian (we need matching data for the bisexual community). In contrast, only 16% know a trans person; could this be part of the reason there is a spike in anti-trans legislation nationwide?
Today I am spending my day with my fellow members of an advisory group on workforce diversity at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We provide input on the hundred million dollar investment NIH is making into diversifying their researcher pipeline. This investment has already paid rich dividends, because of it a National Research Mentoring Network has been built and ten institutions are testing training programs for underrepresented minorities.
As you can imagine, the recent election was a big topic as this group of diversity professionals gathered this morning. I was talking about it with Dr. Renee Chapman Navarro, the Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Outreach at University of California San Francisco. I asked her what she was doing in response and I found her answer profound: “I need to make friends with more people who voted for our new President; I need to understand where they are coming from.”
As a trans man who has spent his life working for diversity in its many forms, it is easy for me to think the people who voted for our new President are living on the far side of an ideological chasm that is too wide to bridge. But she is right. One of the boldest things all of us can do right now is enhance the diversity of our friend pool. In whatever type of diversity it lacks. This act will build the tolerance so many of us are passionate about, it will enrich our lives, it will make us stronger and healthier.
So whether it is a new friend of a different race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, immigration status, or political party: I invite you to join me in showing that diversity and inclusion really does start at home.