As Pride Month comes to a close, Anna Musun-Miller and Lori Perkins present examples of zoos and aquariums working to actively embrace the LGBTQ+ community. Whether large or small, these efforts all move us towards a more inclusive future for our field.
Anna: When I started my career, my friends in the LGBTQ+ community gave me very clear advice: in interviews, never talk about your personal life in any way. If you offer even the slightest opening to that conversation, interviewers will inevitably ask you a question that you can’t answer without outing yourself. Once you’re in the job, they said, you can decide whether to be out. It’s a lot harder to get rid of you once you’re there, and much easier to just not hire you in the first place.
It was, sadly, good advice. I got jobs using this tactic.
My approach has changed since then. As an independent consultant, I started “playing the wife card”: casually mentioning my wife every time I was approaching an agreement with a potential client. On the surface, that might look like an improvement – and it’s great to feel I have enough confidence and clout to do it – but this is still a deliberate tactic. I moved from a defensive position (“please don’t discover I’m gay and not hire me”) to an offensive one (“don’t you dare hire me if we’re going to have a problem later”). But the root cause remained the same: potential employers might not hire me because of who I am. This is not a strategy my straight colleagues have to think about, and with as much progress as we’ve made on LGBTQ+ inclusion, it’s probably something they don’t think I still have to think about.
Some of the more impassioned reactions to ZooMontana’s widely reported efforts to promote inclusion illustrate why Anna does indeed need to still think strategically about when and whether to bring her whole self to work. Recently, ZooMontana made the conscious decision to rent a portion of its facility to a local group, 406 Pride, to provide them a space to celebrate Pride Month, and the group decided to offer a “Drag Queen Story Hour.” Executive Director Jeff Ewelt knew that the zoo would receive some pushback, but he’s found the journey to be more difficult than expected. Threats of boycotts and loss of sponsors are concerning, Jeff says, “but what is truly difficult is the hate.” Despite the negativity and national attention, though, support for the event, and the cause, are growing. Jeff and his team are committed to being a community asset, and to welcoming all groups that seek to share a positive message.
Some still question why this topic is relevant to the zoo and aquarium community, and the negative aspects of ZooMontana’s experience reinforce that trepidation. Why is this even in our lane? For Alan Varsik, Director of Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium / Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, it was his experience in AZA’s Executive Leadership Development Program (ELDP) that really brought home the importance of developing a DEAI lens. His ELDP team’s focus was on moving the needle on diversity and demonstrating that what’s good for our communities is good for our businesses, and good for advancing our mission. Broadening and strengthening our connections with all communities is exactly in our lane if we want to succeed in leading a conservation movement.
That awareness doesn’t mean the path is a smooth one. Communication is key, and explaining the “why” behind our actions is critical to gaining staff buy-in on organizational strategies that may be confusing to staff and guests who are at varying points along the journey. At the zoo and wildlife park, flying the Pride flag without explaining the why behind it resulted in a need to explain the importance of the gesture. Subsequently, Alan has been delighted to see the levels to which zoo and park staff have taken their Pride celebrations since the seed was first planted two years ago. Alan’s recommendation: “Don’t be afraid to try things. If your first effort doesn’t work as planned, try something else! Give your teams the freedom to run with it.” There are bumps in the road, but it can be a fun and enlightening journey as you deepen ties with your community.
Different communities require different approaches – there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to community outreach. At the Virginia Aquarium, President & CEO Cynthia Whitbred-Spanoulis’s staff have worked on several larger LGBTQ+ community initiatives and developed partnerships with local Pride organizations. They offered their first Pride Family Night in 2019 in partnership with Hampton Roads Pride to create a safe place for families in the local LGBTQ+ community to experience the Aquarium. This year, the team was excited to host another Pride Family Night as well as add a Pride theme to “Sharks After Dark,” an adults-only offering. Event attendees helped the Aquarium create a rainbow wave banner as a pledge to take action for ocean conservation, which is on display throughout the month – presenting a strong connection between community outreach and the conservation mission. Cynthia’s advice for other organizations looking to take similar steps is to create a safe space for staff and volunteers to provide ideas – they usually have great ideas – and to reach out to community stakeholders and ask what they would like to see.
The definition of “family” is evolving, and our industry’s outreach to this core constituency needs to change along with society. Zoos and aquariums should and must offer a place where families of all types can feel welcome and can take advantage of the opportunities our institutions offer for fun, education, and inspiration. Bryan Amaral, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian National Zoo, explains, “as part of our Smithsonian values, we’re deeply committed to creating a supportive and equitable work environment for our LGBTQ+ staff and offering a fun and welcoming Zoo experience to the LGBTQ+ community. The majority of our guests are families. It was an easy decision to celebrate International Family Equality Day annually, making a clear public statement that we’re a joyful and safe space for all.”
Outreach to LGBTQ+ communities isn’t only limited to more socially liberal parts of the country. Deep in the heart of Texas, the San Antonio Zoo has seen tremendous success and support for its new annual Pride event, “Night Out at the Zoo.” President & CEO Tim Morrow reports that the event saw a six-fold increase in attendance from its inauguration in 2021 to this year’s event, which was chosen to be the official kickoff event for PRIDE week by the City of San Antonio and Pride San Antonio. Among the many events was a competition to “let us hear your best roar.” Tim says he knew the celebration was a success when a same-sex couple with their baby were asked to speak after winning the roar contest; their happy response was, this is our first PRIDE event as a family. Tim says that “the love in the air was palpable.” The zoo has been humbled to receive gratitude for creating a space that welcomes and celebrates diversity and allows people to be unabashedly themselves. The overwhelmingly positive and inspiring community reaction has the zoo already working on making 2023’s Night Out at The Zoo bigger and better.
Lori: I have some of the same hesitancies that Anna shared about outing myself to new people. But hearing stories from allies like those featured in this article and experiencing unexpectedly safe spaces in my own world give me hope and optimism.
When I interviewed for the Deputy Director position at the Birmingham Zoo, the CEO introduced me to a Board member and his wife – a wealthy, white, older couple in suburban Birmingham. At some point during the meet-and-greet, the question came up: what does your husband do? There it is, that uncomfortable question – you have to either out yourself or lie, and nothing about “wealthy, white, older, and Southern” felt especially safe to me. But I’m not going to lie about who I am, so I answered truthfully about my wife and what she does…and then I held my breath. Just as Anna shared, I was afraid that rejection might follow. That’s not something any straight person has to worry about. LGBTQ+ people never know if we’re in a safe space or not.
The relief I felt when the Board member responded by telling me about his own daughter and her wife makes it impossible for me to even remember the rest of the conversation! And it also makes me feel that there IS progress, that our professional community is becoming a more welcoming place for Anna, for me, and for people representing all the vibrant variations of humans.
On this last day of Pride Month, I hope we can all feel the promise of our community and our connection and commit to walking together on this journey of welcoming all voices to the movement. Because that’s how we’ll save the world.