The rainbow flag, the very the symbol of gay pride,
represents both our aspirations and the diversity of our population. Yet the top of the gay community’s
rainbow — the leadership tier of LGBT non-profit organizations — is more awash
in white than any other color.
At the executive director position, LGBT groups have
historically been led almost exclusively by white men. A step down at the board level, gay
non-profits have tried for years to recruit members who better match the racial
diversity of America. After all this time talking about the need for greater
racial inclusion, it’s time LGBT entities did better in finding leaders who
represent the full spectrum of colors.
The figures are troubling, especially at the very top. In 2008, only 4% of executive directors
of LGBT organizations were people of color. That figure comes from The Pipeline
Project, a group formed to develop LGBT leaders who reflect our multicultural,
multiethnic community. It is a far
cry from the 36% of the U.S. population who self-identifies as a racial
minority. And our 4% is one-third
less than non-profit groups in general.
While I have not come across more recent statistics, it’s hard to
imagine racial diversity among executive directors has dramatically improved in
the past few years.
Executive directors act as faces to the public of their
organizations and the overall LGBT movement; it is critical that those faces be
as diverse as possible. Because the LGBT population is itself a minority group,
it is sadly ironic that our organizations need their own diversity initiatives.
In the boardroom, the picture is better but still
lacking. At the major LGBT
non-profit entities, only 25% of board members are racial minorities, according
to the 2011 annual National LGBT Movement Report released by the Movement
Advancement Project, which studies the health of LGBT organizations. Despite efforts to improve board
diversity, the 25% figure has not materially changed from the prior year. While the MAP study does not capture
data from all gay non-profit entities, it represents a good cross-section. The
2011 report (summarizing 2010 data) covered 40 of the most prominent groups
that collectively control 71% of the budgets from known gay organizations.
Luckily, LGBT non-profit entities are doing well at the
staff level. MAP found that 32% of
staff members at participating organizations identify themselves as people of
color. This more closely tracks
with the 36% figure for the U.S. population.
Why is the leadership of our LGBT organizations so awash in
white? Let’s begin with the
elephant in the room. The gay
community needs to be more racially inclusive – not just in its organizational
structures and political strategies, but in its social fabric.
Ethnic minority groups still are not as integrated into the
gay world as they should be. That
isn’t to say Caucasian people have no racial minority friends, but it is a fair
observation that their social circles tend to be less racially diverse. This spills over into the milieu of “A-gay”
charity events, where the people who historically run the show (often gay white
men) invite people they know (usually more gay white men than racial
minorities) to attend, contribute money or support in other ways. Trust me, I’ve showed up at many gay
fundraisers to find myself as an Asian man just one amongst a limited number of
racial minority people in the ballroom.
That results in fewer people of color getting exposure to the good work
of LGBT organizations.
In turn, this affects boardroom composition. With leaders of
LGBT entities being less diverse, so too are their social circles, which they
reach out to for recruiting prospective board members. This leads to a spiraling cycle that
makes it difficult for non-profit groups to improve their ethnic
Adding to the challenge is the money factor. For executive directors and board
members, a big part of their job is to solicit donations from people who have
money or strong business relationships to leverage. That immediately starts filtering out some people of color
from the contact list. There are,
of course, many LGBT racial minorities who are professionally successful. But it’s the cold hard truth that an
income disparity still exists in America between whites and racial minorities
(irrespective of sexual orientation) even with the same level of educational
This monetary discrepancy leaves racial minorities less
likely to be invited into LGBT leadership. I’ve experienced this myself during my time on an LGBT
board. I would look through my
contact list to see who amongst my friends had the financial means to make a
significant donation or had business contacts that would be valuable. Fewer of my racial minority friends fit
that bill than my Caucasian colleagues.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having gay, white men
at the top (just as there is nothing inherently wrong with straight, white male
leaders). But we need more color
not just for atmospherics; we need itto help win the gay civil rights
To achieve full equality, we need straight allies,
especially racial minority groups such as the NAACP and the Asian Pacific
American Legal Center that help frame gay issues in the historical context of
other civil rights movements. This
bestows particular resonance to amici curiae briefs from these allied groups in impact litigation, such as briefs
supporting marriage equality in the Ninth Circuit appeal of the Perry
v. Schwarzenegger Proposition 8 case.
Backing from these other minority organizations also makes
it safer for straight politicians and voters to support gay causes. Perhaps most importantly, they can help
overcome antigay prejudices that can be uniquely harsh within African-American,
Hispanic-American and Asian-American cultures. If our own LGBT organizations had more diverse leaders, we
could build stronger partnerships with these straight allies and better appeal
to voters in communities of color.
Within the LGBT populace, we want our own racial minorities
to speak up about gay issues to their family members and friends in diverse
ethnic groups. We need them to
become active in LGBT organizations to show that sexual orientation issues
affect all races. In the gay
boardroom, we learn from their cultural and linguistic backgrounds to improve
our equality messaging to different ethnic groups. And most simply, we benefit from having different life
experiences brought to the table.
Luckily, there are initiatives like The Pipeline Project to
help achieve this vision. The
Pipeline Project was born out of discussions at the 2006 annual retreat of the
New York City LGBT Executive Directors’ Group. That group of leaders identified as critical the need to
increase diversity and inclusion of racial minorities in their organizations. The result was formation of The
Pipeline Project. Now led by
Clarence Patton, it works with LGBT organizations to better understand why they
have had difficulty attracting and retaining staff and board members who are
people of color. The Pipeline
Project also operates a 21st Century Fellows Program, a yearlong
leadership development program for people of color who are already managers at
LGBT non-profit entities. The goal
is to help racially diverse managers move up the ladder to become top leaders.
But it will take more than just The Pipeline Project to
diversify the rainbow. To all my
brothers and sisters from communities of color, I encourage you to become
involved with an LGBT organization, even if it’s just to attend an event or
volunteer a little time. A small
amount of exposure now might intrigue you into pursuing leadership
opportunities in the future.
To the many LGBT non-profit entities out there, by all
means, continue with the diversity initiatives but please make it more than an agenda
item to discuss at your board meetings.
Set measurable goals and implement action items. But do not depend solely on your
existing racial minority board members to solve the problem for you. From the very top down, everyone in an
LGBT organization should stretch beyond their comfort zones to find and
cultivate greater diversity among board members and staff. When the executive director or other
top manager positions are open, the search committee appointed by a non-profit
entity needs to be as diverse as possible. The search process should also ensure that ethnically
diverse candidates are included in the recruiting mix for consideration.
As itself a disadvantaged minority group, the LGBT community
should do better when it comes to diversity in all respects. We could, of course, be having this
same conversation about why non-profit groups need more female, transgender, or
straight people in their ranks.
But for this moment, let’s focus on the colors of the rainbow.
Rather than suffering from the same racial constraints that
beset the world we try to improve, our LGBT organizations should set the
example for how inclusive the world should be. In our world, all colors of the rainbow should be given room
JIMMY NGUYEN is an award-winning lawyer, new media expert,
LGBT leader, diversity advocate, commentator and motivational speaker. He formerly served on the board of
directors of Equality California.
In 2008, Lawdragon named Nguyen one of the 500 Leading Lawyers in
America, and in 2010, the National LGBT Bar Association recognized him as one
of the Best LGBT Lawyers under 40.
He also writes for his own website at JimmyWin.com. Follow him on Twitter @JimmyWinMedia.