Nancy Mendez was in between virtual meetings in her Kamm’s Corner living room-turned-office in late June when the phone rang. The Vice President of Community Impact for the United Way of Greater Cleveland was greeted with an unexpected honor: she had been nominated to be included on the Crain’s Cleveland Business “Notable LGBTQ Executives,” an inaugural list for the Northeast Ohio source of business news, analysis and commentary. Mendez immediately saw the importance of being included.
“Role models are still very much needed for our LGBTQ youth, and they need to see the message that you don’t have to be closeted, you don’t have to be ashamed, and you don’t have to leave part of yourself at home,” says Mendez.
The call also served as a check-in, with Crain’s making sure that Mendez was comfortable being included on such a public list. Although she is an out lesbian, she appreciated that the publication was expressing this sensitivity, even as the call also served as a reminder of how far society still has to traverse to achieve full LGBTQ visibility.
“Five years from now, I want it to be a no-brainer whether someone would accept being on this list,” says Mendez. “For this year, I knew that I had to have my name on this list to represent the LGBTQ community to hopefully inspire more people to be on the list in the future.”
Although the Crain’s publications in New York and Chicago have previously published a “Notable LGBTQ Executives” list, this is the first year compiling a group of names in this category for both Cleveland and Detroit.
“We saw our sister publications’ efforts and thought, This is a great idea!” says Elizabeth McIntyre, Publisher and Editor of Crain’s Business Cleveland. “It’s our job as media to hold up a mirror to our community and if we’re not showing all aspects of it, then we’re not doing our jobs.”
The nomination process was advertised online, with the specified criteria of celebrating “LGBTQ business professionals who have had an impact on Northeast Ohio in major ways.” Although the lists from other Crain’s cities more specifically sought nominations of c-suite, executive-level managers, Crain’s Cleveland broadened the criteria.
“I think of it more as being about leadership than being an executive,” says McIntyre. “Civic leaders, nonprofit leaders, and philanthropic leaders are all on the same footing as a CEO of a company.”
McIntyre was initially concerned about pushback from Crain’s readers—who she says tend to skew older and more conservative—but she relays that the response to the call for nominations was positive.
“People responded saying, This is fabulous and thank you for highlighting us in this way,” McIntyre recalls.
That sentiment is echoed by others working at that intersection of LGBTQ identity and business.
“A list like this is really great,” observes Amanda Cole, the Executive Director of Plexus LGBT & Allied Chamber of Commerce. “It specifically focuses on executive leadership and helps to bring LGBTQ identity and diversity and inclusion conversations into the mainstream.
Lack of Representation
With 21 individuals ultimately featured, the list presented an opportunity to showcase LGBTQ voices across the Cleveland spectrum. When it was unveiled last Saturday, the conversation became something quite different.
“I started scrolling through looking for other people that I know and I suddenly realized I was the only person of color,” says Mendez. “Were others asked? Were others nominated? Did some decline? I really didn’t know.”
In addition to Mendez being the only person of color on the list, the “Notable LGBTQ Executives” also was missing one of the letters in that LGBTQ spectrum: there were no individuals of transgender identity represented. Mendez was not the only one who noticed the homogeneity of individuals.
“I had calls and texts over the weekend from other Notables and nominators about the lack of diversity on the list and confusion over the inclusion of allies,” says Michelle Tomallo, one of the “Notable LGBTQ Executive” honorees.
For their part, Crain’s readily admits the error, one that was not apparent until after the list was published.
“We just completely dropped the ball on this,” says McIntyre.
She cites two areas that contributed to this almost-exclusively white and exclusively cisgender outcome. On the production side, COVID-19 has shifted the process so that where McIntyre used to proof physical sheets of paper in which she would look at pages, now she is looking at individual sections and didn’t see the totality of the 21 faces. She also highlighted that Crain’s Cleveland has a Diversity Council that assists them with such endeavors, but notes that the consulting body was missing representation.
“It immediately become clear that we don’t have anyone from the LGBTQ community on our Diversity Council,” says McIntyre.
Crain’s has expressed commitment to continue highlighting LGBTQ voices, even as they outline changes to their process, including engaging with LGBTQ community partners in the nominations process and adding LGBTQ representation to their Diversity Council. They also note that there is a reflective attitude that comes along with bouncing back from the 2020 list.
“We have to take a step back, be humble, and realize that we don’t have roots in every single community,” says McIntyre. “We have to do a better job at reaching out to the people who have the knowledge and know people who can bring more complete representation to the pages.”
Other LGBTQ leaders are quick to affirm their willingness to participate in the future.
“I want to be a resource so that in the future this kind of recognition could be even more reflective of the depth and breadth of the diversity of our community,” says Ohio State Senator Nickie Antonio, another honoree on the list.
Plexus has stepped up to express a similar sentiment, pledging to push next year’s nominations out more broadly on social media so that they too can help yield diverse crop of nominees. This more comprehensive approach will also help address the core question of where this representation exists in Cleveland, and even if it exists at all.
“As an LGBTQ community, we have to have a real honest conversation with ourselves questioning whether we have out trans and out people of color in these leadership roles,” notes Cole. “If we don’t, then we have to invest in that executive pipeline development for which we are all responsible.”
Nancy Mendez knows all too well what she calls the “risk-taking” in holding these multiple identities. She has lost count of how many times she has walked into a meeting with white subordinates only to have those already in the room first address the white men who she supervises. She has repeatedly encountered assumptions and questioning as to whether her sexual orientation led to funding decisions or participation in projects, something that would never be assumed of her heterosexual counterparts. Still, she remains hopeful that such lists like Crain’s “Notable LGBTQ Executives,” will make a difference in the future, particularly if the representation is more diverse.
“I want [a person of color]to join me on the list next year, and two more in the next year, and three more after that,” says Mendez. “We have to keep pushing, keep stepping out, and keep being recognized. That’s what will make it easier for the 20-year-old coming up to see that they can be 100% authentic at work.”
- When call-for-nominations emerge in the future—for this or other lists—nominate a diverse array of voices.
- If you are nominated for an award or asked to speak on a panel, directly ask who else will be participating. If it is only white, cisgender voices, push back and suggest others. If you are white and/or cisgender, consider stepping back from receiving the recognition. Timothy Goodman—a ridiculously talented, NEO-native graphic designer—provides a great example of an inclusion rider.
- From Ryan Clopton-Zymler, activist and educator: You have to actually reach out to the communities you want represented and ask for nominations – you can’t sit back and assume that you are reaching them. Moreover, using weighted rubrics with flex points for diverse representation allows for a more transparent process.