A conversation with Brad Sensabaugh, Senior Advisor, Diversity and Inclusion, BDC.
When you go to work, are you showing up as you, as in your true, authentic self?
Many of us can say yes — without realizing how much of a privilege it is. For the LGBTQ2S+ community, and transgender and non-binary people in particular, it’s simply not that easy. There are still practices, beliefs, and systemic barriers that make the workplace a challenging or even unsafe place for expressing who they really are.
And these challenges can be present whether you’re an employee or an entrepreneur. According to a survey conducted by CGLCC (Canada’s LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce) and Deloitte Institute, of the approximately 28,000 LGBTQ+ -owned companies in Canada — who have total revenues of more than $ 22 billion and employ more than 435,000 Canadians — one in two had purposely hidden the fact that their company has LGBTQ+ ownership, and three in 10 had faced discrimination.
To further explore these issues and uncover potential solutions I sat down with BDC’s own Senior Advisor, Diversity and Inclusion, Brad Sensabaugh. Brad only joined BDC a few months ago, yet in a short time he’s had a big impact on our diversity and inclusion strategy. A transgender man who is committed to raising awareness around the challenges his community faces, he’s spent nearly a decade making the workplace more inclusive for all marginalized groups as a Diversity and Inclusion specialist.
Brad shared his insights on why showing up as your authentic self can be more challenging for some, how storytelling can play a role in changing that paradigm, and how we all can be better allies going forward.
Laura: I’m sure for some people, it’s difficult to understand the concept of not being able to bring your true self to work. Can we start by exploring why some individuals, such as members of the transgender community, face barriers just being their authentic self in the workplace?
Brad: I think for trans, non-binary and other gender diverse people, the concept of coming out is really big. You can imagine how, in the workplace, this presents challenges. In many ways, we can be outed without our choice.
For example, our ID might not match our gender presentation — as in a transgender man might still have an ID that lists him as female. The extremely mundane and simple act of legally identifying oneself can be an intimidating process, sometimes with consequences such as loss of business or opportunity, and sometimes compromised safety as well.
And sometimes it can manifest in really simple ways — such as not being included. For Non-Binary people, there is a sense of literally being non-existent when we hear people talk about gender parity meaning 50% representation of women and 50% men.
“Imagine trying to provide a reference, and having to explain why that reference would not know you under your present name or gender. There can be the same difficulty providing transcripts or diplomas. All of this can culminate in a sense of not being forthcoming with someone, which can further enhance the scrutiny being placed on a trans person.”
Laura: What about for entrepreneurs? According to one Canadian study, about half of LGBTQ+ business owners choose not to disclose this part of their identity.
Brad: To begin with, it’s often about feeling safe. While there are many rights and protections offered here in Canada, many still fear transphobia and homophobia and choose not to be completely honest or transparent for that reason — worrying that it will impact the success of their business, or worse. Other entrepreneurs have to worry about doing business in countries or jurisdictions — even parts of the US — where those rights and protections do not exist at all. That reality can be even more concerning.
For people within the transgender community, they may have to navigate around gaps in their employment, credit, or housing history. Imagine trying to provide a reference, and having to explain why that reference would not know you under your present name or gender. There can be the same difficulty providing transcripts or diplomas. All of this can culminate in a sense of not being forthcoming with someone, which can further enhance the scrutiny being placed on a trans person.
Those are just a few examples. Everyone within the community has their own lived experiences which contributes to their comfort around sharing their story.
Laura: I know you’re comfortable sharing your own story, and I’d love to hear more about it. How did you get started down a career path of Diversity and Inclusion?
Brad: Advocacy for others and a strong sense of justice have always been part of my life — they’re values my parents instilled in me at a young age. And then, with my own journey as a trans identified man, I experienced firsthand some of the challenges, barriers and issues that can confront trans people in professional work environments. Still, I saw it as the truth of my life; it wasn’t something I was going to try to hide. I welcomed the opportunity to open the discussion around what it means to be a transgender man.
I supported the trans community for a long time from the side of my desk. Then about 10 years ago I moved into the diversity and inclusion space professionally, and learned a great deal about other communities as well. My focus turned toward becoming a Diversity and Inclusion subject matter expert, with a focus on inclusion. Because while diversity is measurement, inclusion is impact — and that’s where I think we can really make the greatest difference across organizations. These beliefs and values align really well with working for a purpose-driven organization like BDC, and I’ve felt extremely welcome since I arrived a few months ago.
Laura: That’s great to hear. How would you say your own experience has shaped your approach to helping other marginalized communities?
Brad: What I’ve learned throughout my transition relates to the concepts of privilege and stereotypes. Many trans people are visibly trans, a term which I would say no longer applies to myself. By that I mean, if we met randomly, you wouldn’t likely perceive me as trans, you would likely perceive me as a cisgender man. This is a privilege I carry, which others in my community — and in many other visible minorities as well — do not. I am not stared at or mocked or threatened because of my visual appearance.
This wasn’t always the case for me and not the case for many trans people. It is for this very reason that I feel compelled to be out and to remind everyone that you don’t always know when someone is trans just by looking at them. Sharing my personal story is one small way to contribute to changing the narrative on this, and so many other misconceptions.
“There’s a huge educational component to storytelling; that’s how we broaden horizons and open minds. The growth and understanding we experience as a result can be very powerful.”
Laura: As you know, we’ve added a storytelling component to our Diversity and Inclusion strategy at BDC, featuring employees’ and clients’ stories during Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Indigenous History month, and many others. How do you see storytelling playing a role in inclusion?
Brad: There’s a huge educational component to storytelling; that’s how we broaden horizons and open minds. The growth and understanding we experience as a result can be very powerful. The more we listen and become comfortable asking questions and the more we can honestly admit the things we do not know and request more information, the better informed we all will be.
Every entrepreneur has a story and that contributes to their business in some way, as does every employee. And no one is on their journey in isolation. When I began my transition, what I realized was that my story wasn’t just mine. My parents had their own journey, becoming the parents of a trans son, and my brother who once had a sister, now had a brother. So, while I knew my experience, my story, and my truth, they had their own journey as well. You can never expect to know anyone else’s experience absolutely.
What increases acceptance and understanding is when we give others the benefit of the doubt, allow them to experience their own journey, and look to find ways to be better colleagues, friends, and allies along the way.
Laura: For those who are not non-binary or transgender, are there any resources you can recommend that can help with increasing our understanding, so we can become better allies?
Brad: There are some great organizations that not only offer support to non-binary and transgender individuals, they also have resources — from FAQs to shared stories to specific guidance — to help individuals and organizations increase their knowledge and understanding.
I’d start with The 519, which is a Toronto-based community centre with lots of corporate resources. Pride at Work Canada is great for entrepreneurs to tap into, and Pflag Canada is helpful for individuals and families. Finally, there is a great French language resource based out of Quebec called Gender Creative Kids.
“True allyship requires action, not just empathy or sympathy. Sometimes this may make you uncomfortable, but it’s better to act and learn from it, then to not act at all.”
Laura: That knowledge and understanding is so important. What about taking action? Do you have advice on how an ally can offer support?
Brad: I like the idea of asking yourself “Why?” five times before you start asking the community questions. What I mean is, you say you want to be an ally for this community: Why is that? The answer you come up with may give you some actions you can take. Then ask “Why?” again and again and you’ll hone in on specific things you can do or focus on. Often asking others, “what can I do?” without giving it any thought on your own can come across as lazy. Instead begin with an idea, “Here is what I would like to do,” and then ask, “How would you feel about that?”
True allyship requires action, not just empathy or sympathy. Sometimes this may make you uncomfortable, but it’s better to act and learn from it, then to not act at all. Often it just takes one person to break the ice, to stand up for someone, to take action — and that’s enough to get everyone talking about it. We want to get to that open dialogue, that conversation, in order to see change come about.
Laura: What’s one change you would like to see, when it comes to gender?
Brad: I want us to start thinking about gender parity by understanding that women and men don’t always look or sound or behave in “typical” ways. Trans women are mis-gendered a lot, over the phone, and in person. But to be honest, so are cisgender women. I think as a society we have a lot of expectations for how a woman should look, sound, and behave, and any variation is a trigger for us.
I would like us to think more about the diversity within women, men, and non-binary people. Gender isn’t the only thing that defines us, or makes us who we are. But no matter what intersecting experiences and identities shape us — we all deserve to live and work as our true selves.