Equality Forward: Eric Peterson
August 13, 2009
A National Conversation about Race, Sexuality and Gender The Equality Forward essays are a collection of stories about race, sexuality and gender from some of today’s most distinct voices in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-rights movement.
. This essay in the series is submitted by Eric C. Peterson, Manager of Diversity & Inclusion at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). I realized that I was gay when I was twenty-five years old. It seems late, and compared to most of my gay friends, I am something of a “late bloomer.” I have no explanation, other than the fact that “gay” simply wasn’t an option to me during my youth. As the son of a Naval officer who grew up on a series of overseas military bases and stateside locations strategically located in the middle of nowhere, I had absolutely no gay role models – and, as anyone who was raised in the 70’s and came of age in the 80’s knows, media representations of gay folks were deplorable. If that’s what it meant to be gay, then I knew it couldn’t apply to me. Reflecting on my own life, it’s clear to me now that I was gay my entire life. I can recall boys I had crushes on in high school; I even recall the arrival of the annual JCPenney Christmas catalog each year and how taken I was with the pages and pages of muscular men in their boxers and briefs. But, while I was clearly oriented romantically and sexually to boys and men, “gay” was not an identity I found comfortable, or even possible – until the age of twenty-five.
Wearing “gay” as an identity was an enormous shock to my system. I had never really thought of it before, but until that moment, I had lived on the comfortable side of the privilege divide my entire life. I am male. I am white. I came from a comfortably middle-class background (and as an officer’s child, was extremely well-off in comparison to most of my friends). I was raised in a Christian household. Other than a pair of orthopedic shoes I wore as a very young child, I had no disabilities that required accommodation. I had privilege coming out of my ears. And, of course, the biggest privilege that comes with privilege is the ability to remain clueless about one’s own privilege. Prior to coming out, I lived in a fantasy world wherein oppression and discrimination were remnants of the bad old days, before everyone learned to get along. And not only was I raised to believe that racism, sexism, classism, etc. no longer existed in society; I was raised to believe that these “isms” did not exist within myself. When I began my career as a diversity & inclusion practitioner, I did so primarily with an agenda to make the world more accepting of gay people – my tribe. When I first took advantage of opportunities to learn more about systems of oppression, I wasn’t at all nervous about topics such as race, class, or gender. After all, I had none of those biases living within me – right? Needless to say, I experienced a very rude awakening. Discovering the insidious and stealthy prejudices that I harbored without knowing it was painful work – but revelatory. And since that time, I’ve made a conscious decision to practice diversity work on the broadest scale possible – including, but by no means limited to, discussions of sexual orientation. For too long, the LGBT community has been asked to speak with one voice. And – our society being what it is – that voice often resembles my twenty-five year old self: white, male, affluent, able-bodied, privileged in every way – but gay. That’s why I was so thrilled when Allyson Robinson, the Human Rights Campaign’s Associate Director of Diversity, handed me a copy of the new HRC report, “At the Intersection: Race, Sexuality, and Gender.” I commend the HRC for beginning a vital and important conversation with enormous potential. And I hope to be a part of that conversation for a long time to come. Eric C. Peterson is Manager of Diversity & Inclusion at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).