Brace for Impact

By November 13, 2020 architecture, LGBT

I spent last Friday talking with queer (and not) architecture students as part of a conference series sponsored by the American Institute of Architecture Students. I shared some of my experiences about being out and open in architecture, something I’ve made no bones about since my first job. Why else would you be reading this on The Big Gay Architect blog?

Unfortunately, we were not able to do this as an in-person event. (Thanks Covid!) However, at the end of the day (and quite literally – 4:00 on a Friday afternoon), the session went well. Good turnout and lots of good questions.

When interviewing for a job, how do you address how you identify with the interviewers? Do you out yourself?

Is there a trend towards LGBTQ acceptance in architecture?

Do you go to work for a firm that doesn’t share the same values and hope to change it from within?

For my part, I tried not to talk too much up front so we had plenty of time for dialogue. And I was able to share some fun perspectives. Like if you wanted to come out at work, you only needed to tell one person. Because architects are the biggest bunch of gossipy queens, and if one of us knows, everyone else knowing won’t take long.

Or that I had no idea about how universities could recruit more LGBTQ professors. An excellent question, given that seeing queer representation at that level would be beneficial to students. But definitely no idea how to answer it.

However, one question overall has stuck with me, and probably for the obvious reason.

How do you think being queer impacts architecture?

My thoughts immediately go to the architects who’ve told me: “I’m an architect first.” And everything else is second, including being queer. When I hear this, I try not to roll my eyes, because is there a woman or a minority architect who would make the same statement? Especially in a profession that has been less than receptive to their participation.

As architects, we bring every part of who we are to architecture. We’re not architects first. We are human beings first. Every experience, good or bad, and whether you are queer, straight, black, white, etc. plays into what we contribute.

For some, past experiences are what has brought us to architecture. Or tried to steer us away. My stepmother never completed architecture school despite doing well in studio. One professor made it clear that women had no place in architecture (this was the 70s) and proceeded to flunk her out of the studio. Imagine her trepidation when I decided to attend the same school and had the same professor.

Being queer also impacts how we interact with architecture and what we contribute to the built environment, including the clients and projects with whom we’re willing to engage. As a queer architect, am I willing to work with someone who actively works against my interests because they think I’m the best fit for their project? Do I let that go to someone else or just keep my mouth shut and sacrifice part of who I am? Will I give my best to that project?

Do I tell my boss no when assigned a project that involves travel to a country that treats queer individuals poorly? I have to consider my personal safety and whether or not I’m willing to walk away if others do not.

Or do I take the approach of closeted architects throughout the history of architecture? If I overachieve and am the best at what I do, perhaps clients and firm owners will overlook my queerness. If I work hard, keep my head down, and play along with the office culture, maybe no one will ask. Except you have to ask what toll that takes. Architecture as a profession can be challenging without the added pressure of hiding who you are.

One session attendee three years ago shared how he had been at the same office for 18 years and was still not out. As a consequence, he had never participated in social events with other employees. To do so risked someone finding out he was queer, and he wasn’t convinced that would end well. Again, what toll does that take on his performance and his contribution to architecture?

From a personal perspective, being queer impacts how I connect with clients. My focus, with few exceptions, has been residential architecture. Anyone who has built or remodeled a home can tell you this is one of the most personal experiences. As a queer architect, I have to look for shared experiences to create a connection with each client. But what is that? With some clients, the queer aspect is the shared experience. However, those instances are rare.

Do I think being queer impacts architecture? Yes. Is there an easy answer to that question? No.

Yet I know that discussion needs to be had, and we need to move past the idea that who we are doesn’t have any influence. As someone told me the other day, architecture is the backdrop to our lives, whether we realize that or not.

And every day, no matter who we are, we have an impact.

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