As an openly active trans person in the community, I want to talk about something that really needs to be addressed, and that is “Role Models”. I’m sure you have seen them, and it would seem that there are many people now currently touring the country under this banner. I’ve had the pleasure in my time working within community groups and organisations to meet some of these people and to me it seems very clear that there are two types of role model.
Firstly let’s look at the definition of a role model: A role model by definition is “a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated.’’ With that in mind, we can move on to the two very distinct types that I have met.
First of all, the silent role models: those who have the title, but – excluding a little line in their online bios or c.v’s – don’t announce to the world that they are one.
To me this is the perfect role model, because from my experience these are the ones who, whilst still touring schools, businesses, conferences amongst many of the places where role models pop up, they do so because there is more to them than their story of coming out. They may be anything from writers, business owners, activists, to community youth workers, and from what I have seen in my time within these spaces, they are active in helping make lives better. Some of them do this on a voluntary basis which means they are usually out of pocket for their travels and time.
These people are, in this writer’s opinion, the best type of role model. They don’t walk around calling themselves a role model, they are one, because people look up to them for what they do and for being authentic to themselves. This point is the only thing I can see being a linking factor between both types of role model: that they are being authentic to themselves.
What makes these silent role models amazing is that they are very humble about the fact, and for many it’s not about whether they identify as LGBT, but rather, it’s for what they do. Something that a young or old LGBT person can look at and go “Well if they can do it so can I”. Someone who inspires them to feel more confident about their own sexuality or gender expression.
These silent role models market themselves as their career, not as a role model; which brings me neatly on to the other type.
The others are the egotistical ones who are more than happy to actually sell themselves as a role model: many of them have business cards which read as such. In my times as an active member of many different LGBT environments and conferences, I have had the great displeasure of meeting some of these people. This, combined with the fact that they are always happy to shove it into the most mundane of social media information (“I just went for a shit #rolemodel”).
I would love to say at this point that there is just one such person who markets themselves this way … but alas this is not the case. As an example, recently I met a trans role model and diversity expert who was hosting a session to a frankly empty room of people. On starting the session she was patronising, poor at articulating her message, and seemed to have the longest PowerPoint presentation I have ever seen; she focuses on her coming out story, and only on trans women; her talked focused on surgery with very little pertinent to workplace issues, bar the exception of how her colleagues reacted to her coming out.
It seems that the transgender community especially feels it can make a living out of mediocre training which is misleading or wrong. What’s worse is that these people have more than likely paid money to be such a role model. Currently a one day programme for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender staff to think about authenticity and being a role model in the workplace could cost upwards of £300
Let’s just think about that then, shall we? To be a role model, first of all you need money, or an employer willing to spend that money. Unless they have been sponsored to attend we can see that many of those who are on role model programmes often already come from a very privileged position that many do not – especially the groups they claim to represent. What angers me more is that these models are often too busy selling their coming out story. This gives those who attend these sessions with the role models very little insight to what the real issues are for many LGBT people in the real world. There is also a very large amount to be said about how little these people actually interact in the real world with those for whom they claim to be a role model.
Recently I happened to observe a conversation between a role model and an activist who quite rightly called out issues that were relevant to the community that they were from. This person was then attacked for their views to which a pile on by the role models started. This was not because in this writer’s opinion the activist was wrong, but for the fact that it would score brownie points with the other role models helping boost their credibility, and ultimately gain them that golden crown that all egotistical role models want: an award.
These diversity champion awards recognise contributions that benefit and highlight the issues faced by those they are supposed to be representing, but in reality they are just doing so for an ego boost and misplaced praise and validation, which I can assure you is a very addictive thing. It snowballs, it’s like a drug, and the constant need for that rush can consume you to always be wanting more and bigger accolades under your belt.
Now if I sound bitter you could be mistaken for thinking this writer would like an award for the work that they do, and I will happily admit recognition would be nice; but personally my reward comes from the thanks and hugs I receive after sitting with a person who just needs an ear that will not judge them for their LGBT status, and I for one wouldn’t want to spend money going to receive an award at a fancy ceremony for the sake of some selfies with other ego-inflated LGBT people. Still, it annoys me when I know people who do deserve recognition, who are saddened and disheartened by these people gaining awards for nothing, forcing them to reassess what they are doing. I know many who have chosen to cut back on the amazing unseen tangible life changing work because they ask themselves “What is the point?”
Others though continue, undervalued and under-appreciated because for them it’s not about praise and ego. For them it is about trying to make the world a better place by action, not regurgitation. So next time you see someone advertising themselves as a role model ask yourself one question: What have they done to deserve it?