Happy Pride Month! Since 1999, June has traditionally been declared Pride Month in the United States in honor of the Stonewall Riots in New York in June 1969. While Pride Month celebrates the collective cultural impact of the LGBTQ+ communities – separately and united – “pride” has a unique and personal meaning to every individual. 

It is important to understand that being proud is still a new experience for LGBTQ people. Many of our elders and ancestors spent their lives shrouded in secrecy, or shame, and self-hate. Consider the impact to a human being who has been rejected by their family, outlawed by society, and isolated without a community. Living your best life as a LGBTQ pioneer was an especially brave, noble, and often dangerous decision. 

We have so much to celebrate as a community in terms of the progress we have made from legal workplace protections in many states to marriage equality across the U.S.  And while we should be proud of this progress, we still have work to do as a community. Today, many people still cannot safely or confidently be their best selves in the world. These members of our community may still fear the negative reactions, costs, and consequences of making that decision to be unapologetically themselves.  Transgender people are a particularly vulnerable population facing significant risk of violence simply for being visible. This is the reason PRIDE month is so important as it is a medium for our community, allies and families to come together to celebrate our progress, align on the work we still have to do, and create a space for those in our community who may still not feel that they can be themselves. 

To that end, I would like to share my story of self-acceptance and the positive impact that living my true self has had on me.  

I grew up in a very rural area in New Mexico. My family is and was wonderful to me and always made me feel loved. Nevertheless, I was a very different child in a very religious, conservative, small community where being different was not a good thing. I did have a gay uncle on my mother’s side of the family, and although he was accepted, he lived across the country and visited only on rare occasions—and the murmurs and whispers about his “lifestyle” were something that I took note of even as a young child. There were times when, although I know my father loved me, I could see that he hoped to help me be more “normal.” He put me in every sport he could, which I did enjoy because I liked sports and I was good at it, but sports didn’t change my “mannerisms” or the way I spoke and acted. It did not change who I was. 

I am grateful for the support network I had and the truly accepting relationship I have with my family today. Without support, people can only be strong for so long. I know people who turned to drugs and alcohol because they could not accept who they were. Some became suicidal because the struggle was so overwhelming. Sometimes, people would achieve self-acceptance through their own support networks – i.e., chosen families – only to realize that they had to step away from their unaccepting parents and families of birth to remain healthy. 

We spend so much of our life at work and having to balance a completely different persona at work and at home takes its toll both mentally and physically—and many of us know exactly what that feels like. For me, I think back to when I was in the military as a 21-year-old man. I loved being in the military, even though I absolutely could not be my authentic self, and I was proud to serve. I loved the people I worked with and the sense of purpose in my work and pride in serving my country. At the same time, I was actively hiding and lying– except to a small group of trustworthy people. Pause for a moment and think about the fact that a person has to be dishonest to feel safe. Dishonesty is not good for the soul and a lie that is repeated leaves scars.

Since then, I have worked at organizations where the signals were both subtle (innuendo, comments, jokes) and blatant that people like me might not be so welcome. Statements like “I don’t need to know about your personal life” are very silencing.

These companies were not outright discriminatory, but they did make me feel that I was an “other” – an outsider who didn’t belong there. These experiences really instill a fear in you that continues to your next employer. 

Everything changed when I met David, the man who would become my husband. He was one of the first people I met who was just so unapologetically himself at work and in his personal life. His authenticity relaxed and inspired me. Everyone embraced him. He was celebrated and really advanced his career with this aura of honesty and authenticity. And he taught me:  I can be ME!

“I am proud to be a leader at VCA Animal Hospitals, where we encourage people to be unapologetically themselves. We want and value diverse perspectives, opinions, and experiences. ”

At almost the same time I met David, I joined Banfield/Mars and I felt like I had come home. The people in the veterinary industry inspired me, accepted me and gave me a sense of purpose I hadn’t ever felt. As I navigated the greater Banfield/Mars organization, I heard other members of the community freely talking about their spouses and children, and this was before marriage equality was even legalized. And then, I went into the hospitals and realized I had found my people. 

I sincerely feel fully accepted in my profession, at VCA/Mars, and in the culture. The joy I feel every day is so difficult to put into words. 

Sadly, there are many in the workforce today who have not found this joy. Someone who is uncomfortable with their identity eventually becomes uncomfortable with workplace connection. They carry the fear they learned in less-accepting workplaces forward with them. Fear and being unauthentic leaves scars.  Living a self-limiting life requires a lot of time, thought and energy. You start hiding things without even thinking about it. You learn to censor yourself and share only a fraction of your truth. You learn to lie. You normalize mistrust – both for others, and for yourself. Eventually, you do not even know what you have shared with whom. In the end, nobody ever really knows you for the person you are. A self-limited life is extremely harmful to your mental health, which in turn, manifests in your physical health. 

While there are visible costs to the person, there are also invisible costs to the employer. When people spend so much energy self-limiting, they withdraw from collaboration, withhold their best work, and distance themselves from relationships. Their fear of being “found out” eventually erodes confidence, limits contributions, and stalls careers. Some of the best talent in a company can remain hidden as a result.

If this sounds like someone you know, or even yourself, I would ask you to step back and think about a lifetime of constant anxiety. What it is like to always be on-guard? What does it feel like to always be so worried about what you can and cannot say? How are you coping with the health risks and costs of living this life? How can you be an ally and create safety for others?

And most importantly, is it worth it to not be YOU?

I am proud to be a leader at VCA Animal Hospitals, where we encourage people to be unapologetically themselves. We want and value diverse perspectives, opinions, and experiences. These differences make the company better, and it improves the industry and the world. It also is good for mental health and well-being.  We believe that thriving, healthy people build a thriving, healthy planet. People can be more committed to employers, causes, and relationships when they are committed first to themselves. And of course, we are more loving to pets – and each other – when we can absolutely love ourselves first.

If you are seeking support within VCA Animal Hospitals, please reach out to our internal resources. Contact the Pride diversity resource group. Consider Lyra Health, where we provide services free of charge to all Associates. Explore the Mars Ombudsman program. You can always reach out to your local People & Organization team for immediate support.

We also recognize that it does not always feel safe for people to pursue a gender transition in the workplace. We have an opportunity as an organization, and as a society, to truly accept transgender people for who they are. The VCA Transition Guidelines for Associates & Managers, brought to you by the Pride DRG, will seize this opportunity to ensure all VCA Associates feel supported throughout a personal transition. Watch for more on this in WoofConnect soon!

Throughout Pride Month 2022 and beyond, be unapologetically you! The progress that we have earned, through our work and through our alliances, cannot and will not be eroded. It is so important that we celebrate our allies and partners, who stand with us against adversity. No matter who you are, no matter how you identify, this is the month to be intentionally, whole-heartedly, unapologetically you.

You do not realize how much fear can hold you back as a person, colleague, partner, parent……. Until that one moment when you let it go.

When you truly let go of the fear, and embrace yourself fully, your life completely changes for the better. Happy Pride Month 2022 to all!

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Brian Coon is the vice president of People & Organization at VCA Animal Hospitals and the co-leader and co-founder of the Pride diversity resource group. Brian lives in Marina Del Rey, CA with his husband David and their two cats, Oliver and Simon.