The Public Service Pride Network: ‘We put the queer community on the map'

The Public Service Pride Network (PSPN) is making significant strides in creating a more diverse and safe environment for 2SLGBTQIA+ (Two-Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, and other diverse gender identities and sexual orientations) employees in the Canadian Public Service. It aligns with the Head of the Public Service’s Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity, and Inclusion in the Federal Public Service

Building on the legacy of advocates, the PSPN was officially established in 2018 and has made notable progress in those five years. This includes the pioneering of Pride Mentoring Program, the introduction of Pride Awards, and its most recent milestone: attracting over 10,000 public servants during the 2023 Public Service Pride Week, held from August 21st to 25th. 

This was not always the reality: “Thirty years ago, Canadian workers in the civil service were fired for being openly gay and lesbian during the LGBT Purge, and as a result, many have suffered in silence for years,” Jason Bett, Champion of the PSPN, tells Government Transformation Magazine. “We put the queer and trans community back on the map in the Federal Public Service.”

Bett served as a public servant from 2007 before taking on the responsibility of Champion for the PSPN. He describes the moment he knew things had toJason Aug 2023 pic (1) change: “Five years ago, a colleague came into my office and started crying. They came out to me and said: I don't know what to do, I'm gay and I’m having such a hard time with this at work. This moment was a turning point for me. Driving home from work that day, it made me realise the importance of creating a workplace where everyone can be their authentic selves without any fear of being judged.” 

What started as a grassroot initiative made up of a handful of colleagues and friends has since grown into a network of thousands of members spanning 75 of Canada’s federal organisations. Its influence has now spread beyond the Federal public service, with many provincial governments and local councils reaching out to get involved.

“The PSPN, as it is known today, began as a small group of dedicated volunteers all striving to transform and push for systemic culture change so that those sitting around the decision-making table are reflective of the whole community,” Bett explains. “At the end of the day, having a fully representative, diverse and inclusive public service means better programs, better services, and better policies that are reflective of the Canadians we serve, which align with our public service values.”

A call to action 

There are many challenges 2SLGBTQIA+ employees must endure, many of which they are forced to face by themselves. For example, attempting to change their name and gender on IT systems at a time when there is still judgement and backlash to any variance of rigid gender norms in the workplace — and society at large — can be very isolating. “Having to jump through these hoops is not only hugely inconvenient, it is painful and unfair,” Bett says. In addition, many 2SLGBTQIA+ people still face obstacles to career progression as a result of prejudice and bias. "To our knowledge, there are only a handful of out transgender senior leaders across the entire Canadian Public Service," Bett adds. 

This August marked Canada’s fifth Public Service Pride Week; a curation of events and workshops focused on advancing diversity and inclusion; from advocating for easier name and gender marker change processes, to highlighting the need for inclusive washrooms and increased awareness of intersectionality and allyship.  

Screenshot 2023-10-09 101831This year’s theme was "Taking Action to Create a More Inclusive Public Service”; shifting the focus from mere discussions to the importance of measurable actions, timelines, and plans. Bett expressed his desire for substantial progress and tangible outcomes, noting that “it’s time for real change.”

Against this backdrop, Bett offers some practical steps that organisations can take towards a more inclusive and safer workplace for 2SLGBTQIA+ employees. Firstly, introducing pronouns during meetings signals to employees that they are in a safe space. Within the Government of Canada, the pronoun initiative has been a particular success; with about 40,000 employees having voluntarily added their pronouns to their display names in MS Teams and Outlook. 

Bett also emphasises the importance of having senior executives lead employee networks who actually champions diversity - and allocates resources to support them. In the current context, merely supporting such initiatives is insufficient; “leaders need to join the 2SLGBTQIA+ community by actively participating, attending meetings and championing these issues in their respective organisation," he says. 

In its latest call to action, PSPN has published its first strategic plan for 2023-2025, which focuses on increasing gender-inclusive washrooms in federal properties, the rollout of the pronouns initiatives and the development of ongoing mentoring programming for 2SLGBTQIA+ employees and executives - with a particular focus on transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse people.

No one left behind 

As progress is made in some areas, there are still groups sitting under the 2SLGBTQIA+ umbrella that are being left behind, Bett says. Transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse people are being targeted by a rising number of anti-transgender laws and increasing harassment and discrimination; as evidenced in a 2022 survey where at least 73% of trans people said they had experienced discrimination or bullying.  

“People are not at all where they should be; historically, the public sector was not open to giving transgender individuals opportunities,” Bett says. “Our focus now is on making sure they get the representation and the support they need from leadership-level.”

In May, the PSPN penned an open letter to deputy ministers urging them to listen and engage with 2SLGBTQIA+ public servants, particularly Two-Spirit, transgender, gender-diverse, and non-binary employees. It flagged that “progress is slow” in many federal organisations, and “completely absent” in others. The letter offered practical suggestions for leaders, including access to safe and inclusive washrooms, and the need to adapt IT systems and related processes to enable employees to choose names and pronouns that match their gender identity and expression. “As with inclusive washrooms, there has been positive, measurable progress made; however, it is not nearly enough”, Bett writes.

The response to the letter has been “absolutely extraordinary,” Bett says, with many deputy ministers having committed to taking action to make their departments more inclusive.

The latest achievement is the Guide for Two-Spirit, Transgender, Non-Binary, and Gender Diverse Employees in the Federal Public Service; a collaborative effort from 47 different federal organisations, all contributing their lived experiences to create this resource aimed at helping employees navigate the workplace. 

Growing Pride 

For those looking to replicate the work being done by the PSPN, Bett offered the following advice: “Start small and build capacity, but know where you're going and what you ultimately want to achieve. Ensure that the people involved in these initiatives are committed and not doing this work on the side of their desk. Find a few influential allies at the senior level of the public service who can support you. And lastly, be clear with what it is you want to change; is it mentoring or is it influencing decision makers at leadership level.”

Bett continues to look for new ways to grow PSPN and amplify the positive impact it is having. This includes plans for a week-long, 24 hour-cycle Pride celebration next year.“We hope to have five of our Canadian embassies in five different time zones participate in a one day of Pride activities during the week; this would be a continuous 24 hour cycle.

"We want the network, and the platform it creates for 2SLGBTQIA+ federal public servants, to reach beyond the Canadian Public Service.”

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