Aviation ‘Pride’ Takes on a Welcome New Meaning
Each June, since moving to San Francisco 20+ years ago, I witness the city display the rainbow colors and flags in support of “Pride Month.”
And while it’s taken quite a long time for the rest of the world to catch up, I’m inspired to see that more cities—and their employers—are becoming more welcoming of diversity.
After all, the world is changing, and our demographics are changing with it. The LGBT community is a vital thread in our world’s fabric. Nowadays, most of us have a family member, friend, co-worker or acquaintance who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
It is estimated that LGBT individuals comprise anywhere from 5-10 percent of the world’s population. Its members occupy every facet of society—our military, clergy, corporations, educational system, our government and our political system, even at the highest levels.
And that goes as well for the aviation industry.
For several years now, I’ve wanted to highlight our LGBT aviation professionals during Pride Month. And while this particular blog emphasizes the lives of several pilots, I recognize and celebrate all of the LGBT professionals that make our industry great—from pilots, maintenance, schedulers and flight attendants to managers and employees of all of our aircraft manufacturers and support organizations.
LGBT in Business Aviation
It should come as no surprise that there are countless LGBT professionals at every level of our industry. They live their lives and show up to work every day like everybody else does.
In the course of our work, Aviation Personnel International has consulted with several candidates from the LGBT community, and their sexual orientation and/or gender identity has been a non-issue in our experience.
But for many flight departments, recruiting LGBT candidates is very much an issue, despite there being a widespread talent shortage in our industry.
So, as flight departments are looking to attract aviation professionals with the right technical qualifications as well as being a great all-around fit, it’s important to address culture, and the need to be more inclusive of those who are not entirely like us in a variety of ways.
Inclusion is a Business Imperative
As the country becomes more aware and accepting of non-traditional social groups, races and gender identities, many business enterprises are becoming more inclusive.
They’re changing their internal policies to focus on anti-discrimination and diversity issues, and generally becoming more open and accepting. This helps them recruit and retain top talent.
What must be clear to corporate aviation leaders is that there’s a business rationale here as well as a moral one: as companies are facing the increasing challenges of recruiting pilots and maintenance professionals, they must be open to hiring for diversity.
But given these shifts in work culture norms and the long overdue rise in inclusivity, how do they translate into the day-to-day lives of non-traditional professionals in the bizav space?
We were curious about the actual experiences of LGBT aviation pros, so we reached out to several people to share their stories. Additionally, I talked with a representative from the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA). Their stories are as instructive as they are fascinating.
Jason Isreal: “The desire to be my true self.”
Upon graduating from Embry-Riddle, Jason Isreal was referred to a Fortune 100 flight department and landed a job as a first officer. But Jason was different from his colleagues in more ways than one.
He was a 20-something-year-old African American pilot—and he was gay.
But he didn’t share the latter with anyone he worked with during his two years of employment in the department. About his employer, Jason said, “They didn’t know me or know who I really was. There’s no way to be certain, but I think they saw me as their diversity hire.”
It was true: despite all the company’s work toward diversity and inclusion at the corporate level, their flight department didn’t reflect their policies. “As a young African American, I couldn’t hide the age or the race thing, but as a gay man, well that was something I could hide.”
He said that growing up, he was advised to “try to be less different.” “The way I talk among my friends is a lot different than when I talk to my colleagues at work,” he disclosed.
Jason told us about the challenges of being closeted.
“You spend a lot of time with other crew on the road, and it’s natural to want to feel free to share your life with them. You share meals with them. You might go sightseeing in Paris for a week with them. You should be able to talk about your personal life, but I wasn’t comfortable doing that.”
But, as Jason says he discovered, his desire to stay closeted diminished, and he yearned to freely be his true self.
Upon landing his second Part 135 charter role, Jason told the hiring managers point-blank in the interview that he was gay. “I wanted to know if it was going to be a problem with anyone in the organization,” he explained. “They told me, ‘As long as you can do the job, it’s not an issue.’”
The company Jason worked for was—and still is—a diverse and inclusive organization, with LGBT professionals in all roles, including management. “At its peak, the company had eight gay corporate pilots out of 50, including management,” he said.
Before leaving that company, he wanted to be sure that his next employer was inclusive as well.
While it’s illegal for someone to inquire about one’s sexual identity, Jason was asked during his interview if he was gay. Knowing it was not a question he had to answer, he tried to change to subject. Then he asked the interviewer why they were asking that question. As it turned out, the interviewer revealed that the aircraft owner was himself gay and the company wanted to know if Jason was okay with it!
Bethe Stenning: “Create the vision of who you want to be”
Having begun flying in her early 30s—right after coming out—Bethe Stenning says she was uncomfortable talking about her personal life at work.
She told me that, for about the first 10 years of her flying career she tried to avoid discussing it. “I deflected the conversation if it came up,” she explains. As I probed a little further, she told me about a time when she was having lunch in a group setting and an acquaintance asked her about a boyfriend. She answered, “I gave up on men a long time ago. I was being honest, but not that honest.”
It took Bethe time to process who she was and, as she put it, “get to the place of not caring about what other people think.” She went on to say, “I’m a pilot, and I happen to be female and gay. I don’t hide it, but if it’s not relevant in the workplace, I still don’t feel I need to make a point of telling someone I’m gay.”
But, as she’s discovered, people actually are more accepting when they do find out. “Especially in the last 10 years there’s been a lot of growth and understanding,” she says. “People have come to realize that LGBT people aren’t a threat to their existence in any way. We are just people. It doesn’t mean that I don’t come across those who are ignorant and still need education to help them understand. Everyone has their own opinion and that’s their right, as long as it doesn’t compromise safety.”
Over the years, like Jason, Bethe’s colleagues asked her about a spouse or why she didn’t have children. Because she was so focused on her career, she often answered that she didn’t have the time to date. Then, as she became more comfortable, she would toss out a zinger: “I divorced my husband and haven’t met my new wife yet.”
I asked whether it was more difficult to be a female pilot vs. a LGBT pilot. She admitted it’s harder being a female in this male-dominated industry. After all, as of December 2017, females make up only 7 percent of registered pilots in the U.S.
“If someone isn’t very ‘evolved’ as a human being, and hasn’t figured out that women can be pilots, then they might not love the fact that I’m gay,” she says. “If they want to judge me, that’s their prerogative.”
Bethe revealed that she recently accepted her first role with a Part 121 carrier. I asked her if she volunteered information about her sexual identity during the interview. She told me that she did not—due to the brief nature of the interview—but that she had been prepared to mention it. “The only reason I would bring it up is that much of my volunteer experience involves my work with NGPA.”
As our conversation closed, I asked if she had any advice for younger females in flight school or coming up through the ranks. Then she shared something I find is great for anyone, regardless of sexual identity. “Create the vision of who you want to be,” she said. “And the people you need to be around will show up.”
Yeol Grant: “Someone blazed a trail for me.”
Three years ago, Yeol Grant applied for a first officer opening at a Silicon Valley-based flight department. Within three weeks, he had an offer and went from flying a Phenom 300 to a Gulfstream G550.
In his case, being “open” at his new employer was easy, because a trail had already been blazed in that regard. “The Chief Pilot was gay himself,” Yeol disclosed.
I asked him if, as a young, gay, African American, he felt like a “diversity hire.” He said he didn’t feel like he was there to fill some quota. “I had the right qualifications and they told me my experience in technology would add value.”
I also asked Yeol if he feels that working in the Bay Area makes a big difference in the level of LGBT workplace acceptance. He says it does. “This area—and my generation in particular—are more accepting, more forward-thinking. Before our Chief Pilot retired, we were 33-percent gay pilots.”
While his employer is “the most open atmosphere” he’s ever worked in, I was curious if Yeol hasn’t always been 100-percent free to be himself. He shared that it was most difficult when he was working at a Midwestern-based charter company, paired with someone for two weeks at a stretch.
“When you’ve got down time, you take tours, walk around town, and sometimes the conversations would be so polarizing, just like political discussions. I remember a colleague drilling me, ‘Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you have kids? What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you found the right girl yet?’”
So, for 15 days a month, Yeol had a constant wall up. And that went on for three and a half years.
Brooks Beaudoin: “Diversity and inclusion starts at the top.”
Brooks Beaudoin revealed to me in our interview that early on in his flying career he realized he could either be gay or be a pilot. “I didn’t think I could be myself, so I remained closeted for a long time.”
Now, 25 years later, not only is Brooks out, he’s helping advocate for the LGBT community as board member of and advocacy committee chair for the NGPA.
He shared that the way the NGPA approaches diversity and inclusion in aviation is to focus on how both issues have the potential to affect safety. “We’re not here to change anyone’s mind or get anything special, but when we’re operating an aircraft together, we’ve got to work as a team because our passengers’ safety depends on it.”
When asked to share an example of how diversity and inclusion could be a safety issue, Brooks painted a crystal-clear picture for me: “If a captain calls a first officer a fag at 36,000 feet and then later in the flight there’s a thunderstorm on the descent into the destination, how well do you think that crew is going to perform as a team?”
A non-inclusive workplace environment in aviation is not just a safety issue, but a moral and legal one as well.
Brooks explained why it’s no longer safe to make a derogatory comment based on someone’s appearance. “Negative comments can harm anyone, whether they’re a member of the LGBT community or not.”
He went on explain that someone might feel more comfortable sharing an insensitive remark with someone who’s a 6-foot male, blonde-haired and blue-eyed pilot. But these days, you never know who person is related to or what gender their partner is. They could be married to an African American or have a lesbian sister or mother. They might have a brother who’s transgender. Not to mention, you can’t tell who might be LGBT through your perception of their appearance and mannerisms alone.
That put things into perspective for me as I know so many LGBT individuals myself. So many of us do.
The role of the NGPA is to help employers become more aware of what the vulnerabilities are and address them. In February 2018, the NGPA held its a Diversity and Inclusion Summit, which was open to leaders from the airlines, Universities and flight schools, the NBAA and corporate aviation departments. “Our role is to help people understand what they fear,” Brooks explained. “When people are educated about the LGBT community, there’s less of a tendency to be fearful.” In addition to the NGPA’s own Industry Expo, the association also exhibits at AOPA’s Fly-In events, at NBAA’s BACE and in Europe at EBACE.
“Business aviation is a focus of ours, but it’s a more difficult space to reach than the airlines as there are thousands of operators.” Brooks shared that his goal as the Advocacy Committee chair is to get the attention of flight operations leaders. “As pilots, we do what we’re told. We follow the rules. We turn right when ATC tells us to turn right. So, if we know that flight operations groups comprised of pilots will closely follow those who lead them, it follows that leaders who understand and practice inclusiveness themselves have the influence within their flight operations departments to make that environment fully inclusive of everyone.”
Advice for LGBT Aviation Candidates
Following are some pointers, especially for LGBT candidates who are looking to network or learn more about inclusive employers:
- Attend career fairs
Pay attention to companies that sponsor or send recruiters to attend LGBT-friendly job fairs.
- Review Employer HRC Scores
The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization that’s working to achieve LGBT equality. The organization surveys large employers in America, and ranks them based on their LGBT inclusiveness. Keep in mind, though, that the employer may have a 100-percent score, but the flight department’s makeup and level of inclusiveness might not be reflective of the enterprise as a whole.
- Join NGPA
Joining this organization was a big shift for Yeol. “It allowed me to network in all segments of the industry. It helps you understand what others are going through—from quality of life issues to struggles they’re facing.”
Be willing to talk to your peers. “If you’re not out, it can be challenging,” explains Yeol.” If you know other gay pilots, your peers will be able to communicate which of the flight departments are inclusive of the LGBT community. Talk to other aviation professionals via NGPA.org and various groups. There are Facebook groups as well.
Brooks added that there’s an association for everyone. If you’re female, there’s Women in Aviation and Women in Corporate Aviation (“WCA“). If you’re African American, there’s the Organization for Black Aviation Professionals (“OBAP”). There’s even an up-and-coming Professional Asian Pilots Association (“PAPA”). There are several networking opportunities to learn which environments are welcoming to members of the LGBT community, and those that are not, he told me.
“We have an NGPA industry expo each year, and while there may not yet be a lot of corporate aviation exhibitors present, there may be NGPA members who know which companies value diversity and have inclusive flight operations departments,” Brooks explained. “Even if your employer of choice isn’t present at the NGPA’s industry expo, you’re going to have the opportunity to network with people who know the lay of the land.”
In closing, I’d like to share a final bit of advice from Yeol. He suggests that employees who feel safe should try to be more authentic about being LGBT in the workplace. He explained that being “open” helps further educate our industry. “It will help hiring managers know that they can recruit great, quality talent who can not only do their job, but be happy—and be themselves doing it. Happy employees add tremendous value.”