In this special episode, educator, mentor, and business leader Elizabeth “Liz” Sweigart interviews Brendon to explore the intersect of sexual orientation, gender and race. They also discuss the difference between the feeling of fitting in and the feeling of belonging and so much more.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and wow, we have a really special episode for y’all today. So typically you hear myself or Ade interview a guest, and we ask them a series of questions, and, you know, then we do, like, a wrap-up thing, or it’ll be, like, a 1-on-1 and then we wrap up right after the interview. This episode’s a little bit different. I have a mentor, a friend, and a colleague named Liz Sweigart, and she is a member of the LGBT community, and she’s agreed to have her own guest come on and really talk about queer identity. And so it’s really exciting that I’m able to introduce you all to her in this short series that we have in June, and I’m just excited for y’all to hear her. So we’re gonna go into break. The next thing you’re gonna hear is the interview with Liz Sweigart, and then we’re gonna wrap from there, okay? All right. See y’all next time.
Liz: Hi, Brendon. Thank you so much for taking the time to visit with me today. How are you doing?
Brendon: [?]. Good, how are you?
Liz: Very well. Happy Pride.
Brendon: Yeah, same to you.
Liz: Thanks so much. Well, one of the great things that we’ve talked about and we have the chance now to talk about a little bit together is identity and experience and how that’s translated, particularly for you and your career in Corporate America.
Liz: And, you know, as you and I talked in our general conversation about maturity and growth and development, it was so–it was so wonderful for me to hear from you, and it resonated with me so much how, in your experience, you have–you’ve seen yourself grow over time and seen how not only you identify but also how you present that identity, and then how you respond to the way that others view your identity, and as a–as a queer woman myself, who is in a heterosexual marriage and has negotiated, you know, the spectrum of identity and how that’s received, it is–it’s so refreshing to be able to feel at home and feel belonging with someone who also recognizes their experience as growth over time.
Liz: So I was wondering if maybe, for our listeners, you could recap a bit about, you know, how you’ve come to identify and know yourself and express that.
Brendon: Sure, thank you. So just for the listeners’ sake, I’m 40 years old. I am a bisexual African-American male. I am currently unmarried, single, and I’m not currently in a relationship. I guess definitely male. My gender has kind of always been known to me, but from a very young age, I would even say probably around the age of 5 or 6, I always knew that I liked boys as well as girls, but I grew up in an environment–come from a Jamaican family living in the Houston, Texas, area. Extremely conservative, Christian upbringing. I found myself in a lot of spaces where just, you know, expressing a sexual identity that was anything other than straight and hetero-normative was, you know, just unheard of. There were really no examples–in my personal life, no examples of “Hey, here is someone that I personally know, someone [?] who identifies as homosexual and expresses themselves in that way.” For me growing up, anything other than that was something you saw on TV. Being gay in particular was something largely associated with white people. I didn’t–I didn’t know anybody in my personal life or–even in the media there wasn’t anybody who you could look at and say, “This is an example of a black gay person,” and outside of maybe certain entertainers–who I won’t really go on to name because I don’t think that’s necessary–that may have expressed, presented themselves in a way that people may have, you know, tacitly or openly acknowledged was not the typical, you know, straight, red-blooded, you know, heterosexual male. That just wasn’t something that, you know, was a part of my everyday experience.
Liz: Yeah, and the way you described that, it’s–it really resonates with me, looking–growing up and seeing so few representations of any people of color in the queer sphere, and having grown up in New York City and being raised during the height of the AIDS crisis, and seeing just the depths of inhumanity that people are capable of, it was particularly powerful for me to see how few females were being represented, and there were–there were almost no fem-queers, and so for me, in a way–you know, you were describing your experience as a young child. I remember–I remember similarly being young and realizing that I too liked boys and girls and thinking at a certain point that I only had a choice between the binary, that it was a light switch. It was one or the other. It was on or off. And that–having that kind of awakening that I could define my identity and that I could start to seek out and find role models, that was something that was really powerful for me. So how in your life did that happen for you? Who were–you know, were the people who were early role models for you or early supporters? How did you kind of bridge that point from your adolescence into your adulthood?
Brendon: So, you know, I would actually say, you know, from being–some of those internal conversations about, you know, coming to grips with my identity, probably didn’t happen for me ’til I would say my 20s. Certainly when I was looking to go to college, I had always told myself I wanted to go somewhere where I was, you know, surrounded by people who didn’t look like me, didn’t think like me. You know, I wanted to be an engineer. I wanted to work in a space where–well, I knew that I wanted to work in a space where I was likely going to be surrounded by people who didn’t think like me, didn’t have the same upbringing as me, and I didn’t want to–I didn’t want to, you know, experience some type of culture shock when I joined the workplace, so I wanted my college experience to kind of prepare me for that. But interestingly enough, in college, while I may have definitely, you know, internally kind of accepted kind of who I was, I certainly wasn’t, you know, “open” and “out,” as people describe. So in my 20s, you know, I moved–I grew up in the Houston area. In my 20s I moved to Dallas after college. That’s where I got my best job offer with a company that I had interned with before graduation, and so I moved up there, and that was kind of probably where I slowly started to accept who I was. I work in the [?] construction industry, on the infrastructure side of the business, and it’s very much a conservative [?]–a conservative industry, despite, you know, some of the usual–I guess I would say some of the usual ideals or cultures or values, I should say, that tend to be associated with, you know, conservative people or conservative ideologies. I worked in a larger conservative industry, but the guy who hired me I came to discover was actually a gay man, and he was a vice president in our company, and he was definitely out because everybody at the company knew, and he had actually, you know, hosted, you know, events at his house where people, you know, met his partner, and despite–you know, he was a–he was a Caucasian man, but despite all of that, I still never necessarily felt comfortable to kind of share that with people because, you know, being a black man I think you kind of learn–you know, there’s certain sensibilities that you’ll develop, especially when you find yourself surrounded by people who don’t look like you and think like you in particular, in navigating the Corporate America space. As a large, you know, black man, you kind of learn–you know, you kind of might err on the side of “Hey, I won’t reveal too much about my personal life because, you know, you never know what might be used against you,” especially if you work in an environment that’s cutthroat or, you know, one where you’ve constantly got people jockeying for position or currying favor, and that was definitely the environment that I worked in, and so I would say in Dallas, while I was also kind of, you know, starting off my career and kind of, you know, being an adult if you will, I also wasn’t going to church regularly, and so during that time I really kind of wrestled with some of the things I was brought up to believe as a Christian versus, you know, this identity of mine, this fact that, “Hey, I like men, and that’s not going away,” and I even went to the trouble of just, you know, not really being unlike myself, but just really not even entertaining conversations about who I’m dating and who I’m interested in or, you know, what the dating scene was like, in an effort to kind of just, you know, keep that under wraps, and despite all that, you know, a rumor developed in the office that I was gay because I didn’t openly talk about who I was dating. You know, you wouldn’t go to my office or my cubicle and see pictures of, you know, a family or anything like that, and, you know, despite not really–you know, despite not really opening myself up to those conversations, people assumed that I was anyway, and so I think just over time I really just kind of came to realize that “Hey, regardless of what you do, you’re kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, so you might as well just kind of accept who you are.” And so recently–you know, I just turned 40 at the top of the year. I guess last year I kind of felt like “Hey, you know, there are people, close friends and family, who probably suspect, just because, you know, [?] it is, still single, no children. Really haven’t–you know, haven’t really been dating any woman. Certainly never brought any woman around as a girlfriend or, you know, possible marriage material, and it just really didn’t feel like–I didn’t want to go into my 40s with this being unclear, especially, you know, you have people who are–who are trying to set me up with someone, and, you know, it was just kind of like, “Well, I think I need to let people know, because I need you guys to stop setting me up with, you know, people that I’m not interested in,” and so I just said “Hey,” you know, “I’ve gone through this, I’ve wrestled with this on a personal level, wrestled with this on a spiritual level,” because I did find myself back to the church, but I found myself back in communities where it was just kind of like, “Hey, your sexuality is something that you’re created with and not something that needs to be repressed, hidden, or kept under wraps for the sake of other people’s comfort, and certainly not for the sake of–for being accepted by the Creator.” And so I just said, “You know what? I live–the people that know me, anyone who’s friends with me knows that, you know, I don’t live–I do tend to live out loud. I’m very, you know, forefront with my opinions. I’m not a shrinking daisy when it comes to politics or culture or that type of thing, and I just said, “Hey, you know, it’s out there. Just so you know, just so we’re clear,” and so that’s kind of been what the past I guess year and a half has been for me, just kind of saying “Hey, this is who I am,” and most people that I talk to are kind of like, “Yeah, we kind of suspected,” you know, stereotypes kind of being what they are. You know, I’ve always been someone who’s been creative, someone that’s been artistic, someone who’s very passionate about certain things and passionate to people of the LGBT community, whereas I guess people thought that I was maybe sympathetic or empathetic with the community, not realizing that I’m actually a part of that community, and when I speak in defense of those people, I’m speaking in defense of myself.
Liz: And thank you–you know, thank you for the way, especially, that you put that, especially around how you talk about coming to a feeling of belonging. Something that has always sapped so much of my energy has been trying to fit in and the sense of fitting in versus belonging, and essentially what I heard in your description is many years of fitting in and squeezing yourself into the form and the shape and the space that others wanted to give you, and perhaps as your Happy Birthday 40th present to yourself, it’s now belonging and creating that space for yourself.
Brendon: Absolutely, absolutely.
Liz: So when I think about–you know, you touched on several–first… there’s so much there. You touched on the topic early of black masculinity, and again, I clearly–as a cisgender queer white woman, I do not have lived experience. I have–you know, from my observation and what has been shared with me, you know, I recognize that there are–there are stereotypes within the black community, as well as the stereotypes and biases that are forced upon black men from the majority, from white culture, and I’m curious, how have you, as you’ve come into this identity–in one sense, you and I have both in a way benefited from being able to pass in certain social situations and not be immediately identifiable as queer. I am able to pass in all social situations as white because I clearly am. How have you experienced that difference between–in all spaces clearly being identified, identifying, as black, and then in other spaces not having your identity seen? And how has that dichotomy, how has that tension been for you? How have you experienced that?
Brendon: That’s a really good question. You know, it kind of hits me in a bunch of different ways. I think, you know, you certainly talked about, you know, black masculinity, and certainly my experience has not only been–you know, not only been informed by the fact that, you know, obviously anybody looking at me is not gonna think that I’m anything other than black, but also there’s the additional rub of being an immigrant. My parents, you know, were both born in Jamaica. I was born in Jamaica, and I came over as a baby, and so kind of getting back to what I said, you know, you’ve got a couple of things working with you. As an immigrant, you know, there’s this–there’s this desire or this goal or this drive to make it, if you will, to be an American success story, so you come over here and you’re presented with images from the culture, white, you know, American culture and say, “Hey, this is what successful people do. This is what immigrants should aspire to.” So you’ve got that playing into, you know, my development, and then you’ve also got, you know, the unique challenges of being black in the United States. I mean, you know, we can talk all day about, you know, the lived experiences of African-Americans in this country. You know, there’s external pressure for, you know, you to not–you know, to live above or to prove the stereotypes that prevail and exist about black people wrong by, you know, being someone who, you know, stays in school and makes good grades and goes to a good school and gets good money and, you know, be this citizen and prove to people that, “Hey, you know, the negative stereotypes of black men on TV are not real,” or they don’t apply to everyone, and, you know, this idea that “Oh, I’m one of the good ones.” You know, “I’m one of the ones who did things the right way and, you know, you can feel safe around me. You can feel comfortable around me, and that’s okay,” and then of course there’s also the Christian, the religious factor. I mean, you’ve got, you know, pretty much–American Christianity in particular, it’s definitely informed by whiteness and white supremacy, and even in religious communities that are mostly black, that’s such–white supremacy is so pervasive that even in those spaces presenting as anything other than, you know, a straight, you know, masculine black male, you know, you’ve got pressure to live up to those stereotypes. And I think, you know, coming up, you know, people would make jokes about “Oh, well, you know, these things men don’t do, and, you know, that’s a man law violation,” and it could be something as innocent as, you know, being the only male clarinet player in a 300-piece band, and just kind of this idea that “Oh, you know, there’s a masculine way to do things” that really should not necessarily be masculine or feminine. They’re just things that people do, but in this society, you know, any way that we can categorize people and put ’em in boxes and exclude them and feel superior to them, those are the things that, you know, will–whether it’s a small group or a large group, we just as, you know, human beings seem to just really have a gift for doing, and so I think one of the–one of the things I kind of realized, especially as I began to find my internal voice and my external voice is that, you know, you really have to live this life on your own terms. You have to be okay with yourself. You have to accept yourself, and you have to be–you know, you have to be comfortable with, you know, the way that you’re oriented, and I think, you know, as I’ve gotten older it’s just kind of like, you know, “Hey, I don’t–this is my personality. I’m not going to try to appear more butch or try to appear, you know, more or less butch or whatever it is to fit in what people’s expectations of me are.” I mean, “This is the man that I was created to be.” I feel like, the way that I was created, there’s a purpose in that. There’s significance to that, and in order to realize whatever that significance is, I’ve got to be my authentic self. And so, you know, whatever that looks like, whatever that presents like, as long as this is 100% authentic me. This is what it is, and you can–you know, you can take it or leave it.
Liz: And I love the–I love the authenticity focus of that and how you also expressed, you know, the sentiment I know that you and I have shared in prior conversation, that, you know, we are purposefully and intentionally made, and we are–we’re certainly–we’re good enough for our Creator and our mom, and everybody else can–everybody else can get in line.
Brendon: Sure, sure.
Liz: So when you think about how far–you know, in a sense, how far you’ve come, and listening to–listening to your story–and again, I can’t thank you enough for sharing it, trusting me to share it with me and then trusting our, you know, platform and our listeners to share it. I hear–I hear this incredible growth and maturity, and in a sense I also hear a weight being lifted. I hear a liberation coming from–
Brendon: Oh, absolutely.
Liz: Letting go, in a sense, of the expectations that you can’t control, and letting of the stereotypes and the boxes and the labels that others are trying to force on you.
Liz: And so I wonder, what–you know, as you look to–as you look to your future, as you look now, you know, to–I mean, a strong, you know, nearly 20-year corporate career, and you look toward your legacy and making your mark, what do you–what is your hope for the future, and what–you know, what–in terms of your own personal growth, where do you want to see yourself get to? And what is the–what is the legacy? What is it that you want to create in the space that you’re in?
Brendon: That’s a good question. I just–you know, I think kind of just keeping–you know, this probably sounds cliche, but I–you know, Corporate America has these–you know, these unwritten rules, these unwritten expectations of people, and I’ve seen so many people kind of not–kind of come into this area not realizing, you know, the inherent politics, the positioning, the jockeying for position and all those things that people do, that some people, certainly people who are privileged to kind of grow–I guess grow up under people who are familiar with the Corporate America space. You know, I’m talking about people who aren’t necessarily immigrants. You know, their families have been here for years, and, you know, they’ve experienced success, and they kind of understand, you know, kind of how the game goes and are able to create more access for their own through, you know, their privilege and then whatever else they’re able to accomplish themselves and the opportunities that they’re able to create for the people–their loved ones and the people that are coming up behind them. I just–I just want to keep it real, you know? You know, I still work in–I mean, I work in an environment where, you know, I’m kind of–I’m kind of a guarded person just because, you know, I know–I’ve seen what happens when people kind of get I guess a little too familiar, a little too comfortable, and kind of assume that everyone working with them has their best interest, and, you know, I know that that’s really not the case. But, you know, if it were to come up in my, you know, conversations, you know, about who I am and even what I believe and what are these things, you know, I’m at a point to where I don’t feel like I need to–I don’t need to mince words. I don’t need to repress something. I don’t need to bite my tongue. Now, do I wear my sexual orientation or my politics or my beliefs on my sleeve? No, I don’t, but, you know, I think there’s still a tendency to believe that “Hey, in this business everybody thinks the same,” and even if, you know, we don’t all look the same, this is the general culture,” and I think what I’d like my legacy to be is just “Hey, you know, the person that you’re created to be shouldn’t have to–you shouldn’t have to diminish any part of yourself for, you know, professional accomplishment.” I think some people might hear that and think, “Oh, well, you know, that means you can come to work and dress any type of way, and you can, you know, say anything you want and do anything you want.” That’s not what I’m saying, but I still think that even kind of respecting, you know, the rules of Corporate America for your sake and maybe for the sake of the people whose lives you’re there to impact, you can still show them that “Hey, you can still be your authentic self and still live in your truth. You can still be excellent,” at your craft or whatever gifts you have or whatever your particular calling is. You know, you can still be 100% yourself and still, you know, be a success. You know, you don’t have to compromise–you shouldn’t have to diminish yourself in any respect just to–just to get ahead. So I hope that, you know, whatever the next 20 years brings for my professional life, whether I, you know, stay in this business or get out of it all together or keep one foot in and one foot out, I would hope that, you know, anybody who’s anybody that I mentor, anybody who, you know, in our professional paths I’ve, you know, been in–we’ve crossed paths and I’ve had an effect on them, I hope they think “You know what? Rain or shine, whether things are great or things are bad, you know, you got 100% Brendon. He had his convictions. He had, you know, the things that he believed. He wasn’t–he was a rock, but he wasn’t also just, you know, stubborn and couldn’t, you know, be presented with new information and have his views evolved based on, you know, those things.” I just–you know, I think–I think I bring a–professionally I think I bring kind of, like, a quiet strength and, “Hey, you know, Brendon’s always kind of there just doing his thing and getting it done and, you know, finding new ways to persevere, but I never thought that he was, you know, fake,” or “I never thought that he, you know, pretended that he wasn’t who he was or found that he had to act differently around certain people to get where he needed to be.” I’m a complex, multi-faceted person, and, you know, while I don’t necessarily show all my cards all the time, you know, I want you to feel like, “Hey,” you know, “I knew who Brendon was, and what I got was real Brendon, and whether I liked it or not, this is who he was. This is what I got, and, you know, he was always real with it,” and I think those that just be yourself, you know, whether it’s, you know, loudly or quietly, I think people connect to that, you know? I think we’re a bunch of souls, and, you know, whatever light is in each of us knows the light that’s in other people–we’ll connect to that if you’re being–if you’re being your authentic self, and so I think that–I hope that’s what my legacy is.
Liz: I can’t think of a better legacy, and frankly, I can’t think of more inspiring or encouraging words, not just for underrepresented queers, but for all of those who are feeling marginalized or that they cannot bring their full, true, genuine, and authentic selves to the spaces that they inhabit. So Brendon, I can’t–again, I can’t thank you enough for sharing your story and for blessing me, certainly, and blessing this audience, just with the accumulated wisdom and also hope, because that’s something that we are in short supply of. And, you know, this is Pride Month, and when I think about, you know, what does it mean to be–what does it mean to be proud? What does it mean to be out? You know, something that you said really struck me, and that’s that it means to be authentic in all spaces, and so thank you for being that here, and, well, being that every day.
Brendon: Oh, no, thank you for the opportunity just to kind of share. I mean, you know, I don’t–you know, you never know what a person might hear or might resonate–what might resonate with a person that’s listening to your story, so thanks to you for the opportunity to kind of share, and also to–I guess this would probably would be my first Pride Month where, you know, I’m acknowledging it as a part of the community. I can’t think of–other than, you know, the typical pride activities that, you know, a lot of people engage in. This is definitely something special, and I’m glad for the opportunity.
Liz: Awesome. Thank you again so much, Brendon.
Brendon: Thank you, Lizzy.