“We Must Do Better”: Fighting for Diversity and Inclusion During Pride Month

LGBT Meeting Professionals Association chair Jim Clapes points to parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pride Rainbow Flags Progress

Race and the Meetings Industry
In this podcast, you'll hear from industry insiders about their own professional experiences and what the Black Lives Matter movement means to meetings.  

This is an unusual Pride Month, agreed Jim Clapes, events manager for the Specialty Food Association and chair of the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association. The rainbow flag that celebrates freedom of sexual expression has perhaps been overshadowed for much of the month by Black Lives Matter flags, signs and banners seen at protests throughout the U.S. and many parts of the world. The pandemic has prevented Gay Pride parades this year, limiting public celebration of the cause.

Yet the Pride movement achieved an historic victory on June 15, with the Supreme Court ruling that people who identify as LGBT+ are protected from job discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While celebrating this victory, Clapes stressed the importance of the fight for equal rights by all oppressed groups. For the meetings and travel business, this is a difficult and important time to assess our progress with diversity and inclusion. And, Clapes added, there’s work to be done. We spoke with Clapes for an upcoming episode of Eventful: The Podcast for Meeting Professionals. Following are highlights from that conversation.

Perspectives on Pride Month from the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association Chair

Jim Clapes chair LGBT MPA
Jim Clapes, chair, LGBT MPA

This is an unusual year for Pride Month. How are you feeling about current events and their impact on the meetings industry?
I'm appreciative that you're talking about these issues and specifically highlighting what's happening in the world, which is both inspiring and also a bit devastating for all of us. It has been a very, very challenging few months and it's going to continue to be a challenging time in the meetings and events industry.

We really have to do better as a community and as an industry. I think about everything that's happening with the Black Lives Matter movement and there’s this weird kind of dichotomy -- because it's very inspiring to me, but it's also just maddening that we're even having to discuss these things in 2020. It just seems like we should be so far beyond this, but the reality is we're not.

As chair of LGBT MPA, you’re already focused on inclusion. In what ways does that overlap with meetings-industry concerns around racial inequality?
There are a lot of issues we need to talk about and address in the meetings industry. This is just one of them, and it affects pretty much everybody. We really need to talk about policing and talk about the presence of law enforcement and how it affects not only people of color but organizations that are very progressive.

I'll give you an example: When I was with the Drug Policy Alliance, our 2019 conference was held at a beautiful four-star, downtown hotel. For the entire five days, we had a tremendous amount of law enforcement presence at the hotel.

A lot of our attendees have had very traumatic experiences with law enforcement in the past, and every day I had to work with the hotel and the city to try to get them to explain to me why so many police were there. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that the majority of our attendees are people of color, and also the work that our organization does. We are advocates for the legalization of drugs, so we are very pro marijuana. And, in our conferences we talk a lot about criminal justice, a lot about social equity and racial equity.

I think the cops there got wind of what the organization does and were just making themselves known. It was really, really problematic. A lot of attendees were tweeting about it, saying: "Why are there so many police at the DPA conference? How do we get rid of them? Why are they here?"

Do you see a lot of parallels between racial issues and the concerns of the LGBT+ community?
Yes, and the town hall that we're having for LGBT MPA at the end of the month is really going to address some of those. Some outside speakers — people of color — will be talking about experiences that they have had not only in their personal lives, but also in their professional lives, and how we all need this industry to do a better job.

Tell me more about the town hall.
It’s going to be an hourlong panel discussion on June 24. I'm going to give a little history of the organization, and David Jefferys, our executive director, will talk about our membership, which is now about 1,700.

Initially, we were going to be talking about pride and how we, as LGBT+ meeting professionals, can make sure that our voices are being heard. But now it's really pivoted to discussing the realities of what the black community is facing and how we can make sure we're putting everything that we can behind the Black Lives Matter movement. We came out with a statement, of course, denouncing the murder of George Floyd and denouncing police brutality against people of color. It’s not just George Floyd, obviously; this is happening all the time.

As meeting organizers, what are some things we can do, logistically, to provide an inclusive environment?
As a planner who identifies as gay, I want to ensure that I am planning every meeting or event with inclusion at the forefront of my mind. That means, of course, that there are gender-neutral restroom options, but there’s so much more. At DPA, for instance, I knew a lot of our attendees were in recovery for alcohol or substance abuse, and we served alcohol at a lot of our events. So, we set up separate areas that were alcohol-free for those folks. They didn't have to go to a bar and order a nonalcoholic beverage and see a whole bunch of liquor in front of them. (See "8 Easy Ways to Welcome LGBT+ Meeting Attendees" for more suggestions.)

Inclusion goes so far beyond what we initially think of as inclusion, which is making sure that LGBT folks, people of color, women, etc., are included. We are trying to dig as deeply as we can when we talk about inclusivity.

Do you see any improvement in how LGBT+ people are treated in meetings and hospitality?
It’s a gradual process, but I do, absolutely. More hotels and venues are getting requests for gender-neutral restrooms, which I think is great. That is one of the first conversations I have with every venue contact, and now they’re telling me it’s not the first time they’ve had that request.

You’re also seeing more LGBT+ mixers at conferences and events. I'm seeing on conference agendas more female speakers and people of color. I think that has come a long way -- probably a longer way than LGBT inclusion at meetings.

But I've been in this industry for about 15 years, and I'm having conversations with other meeting professionals that I would never have dreamt of having 15 years ago.

I think attendees must be even more committed to the organization if they feel their needs are recognized in a very overt way.
That's exactly right. I mean, that's what we're hoping for. We’re not doing it just because we know we have a large contingent of LGBT+ folks; we're doing it because we want to do it, and we know it's the right thing to do.