Still Here, Still Queer: A Year Later and Where Are We?
Kiku Gross is a writer, punk rocker, and general nuisance from the Central Valley of California. If she’s being totally honest, she’s made a name for herself in the advertising industry by yelling on the internet, and she’s kind of proud of it. You may recognize her from the 3% VOICES Blog, but you probably recognize her from Twitter. When she’s not busy writing words, she enjoys drinking coffee, listening to loud music, and taking naps.
A year ago, I wrote a blog.
It connected me to a whole community of people who saw, and who felt, and who created just like I did.
It did a lot of important things for me -- it showed me I was a good writer and that I wasn’t alone. It made me feel like I had a shot at the profession I had chosen, and that maybe it wasn’t a pipe dream after all.
Most days, I still feel like I have a shot at making it in the Ad Industry.
Some days, though? Some days I feel pretty hopeless.
It’s a fear I feel, constantly nagging me in the back of my mind. It’s not just impostor syndrome, or insecurity. It’s not an ephemeral chorus of “what if?”
It’s a very clear message: “you don’t belong here.”
And it scares me. I’m not used to being scared.
See, within my friend group, I have a reputation of being the one who says “fuck it.” Given the amount of privilege I’ve been dealt in my life, I’ve always approached things with a certain swagger. I’m definitely a “head first” kind of person. Why wouldn’t I be?
But for the first time in my life, I’m approaching something with caution. And by all accounts, starting a career is not something you should do timidly. But I can’t help myself.
A year ago, I felt hopeful for this industry. I felt like I was joining at the exact right time, like I was on the precipice of something exciting and new. Not just for myself but for the advertising industry as a whole. Things were changing.
The blog I wrote a year ago reflects that.
I said that advertising had the power to change the world. And in many ways, I still believe that.
But in order for us to change the world, or the industry, we have to change ourselves first.
I’ve been working in advertising and public relations for just over two years, and the thing I can’t shake, no matter how hard I try, or how good I get at my job is that I don’t belong.
I spend a lot of my energy just trying to fit in. And I don’t have it half bad.
I’ve seen what this industry does to people. Friends and colleagues of mine who are bright and confident and brilliant have been absolutely crushed beneath the weight of a status quo that only has room for “different” when it’s convenient. These same people are asked to cut themselves down to fit into a very specific mold and are punished when they won’t, or more tragically, can’t. How do you cut out the very core of who you are anyways?
A year after I asked, “why are we afraid to say ‘gay?’” and now I know why. We’re not afraid. We’re tired.
Agency culture is still, in a word, toxic. And there’s no ping pong table cool enough nor any bag of kale chips trendy enough to change the fact that when people like me (read: queer, mixed race, different) walk into a room, we walk in ready to fight. Ready to prove ourselves, or worse, ready to pare ourselves down so we can keep our job.
We walk in prepared to not give our all. Not because we don’t want to, but because we’re not allowed to.
"You can’t hire people to be seen and not heard."
Nobody wants to see me be “too Asian,” or “too gay,” or “too much." Ironically, I’ve often been shown off because I am queer, and because I am Asian. I know I’m not the only one who’s dealt with this.
You can’t hire people to be seen and not heard.
So where last year, I asked this industry to try and change the world, this year I’m asking for something even more difficult: I’m asking for us to change ourselves.
If we want better work, if we want to stop hemorrhaging talent, if we want to save the industry that we not only work in, but so often bemoan is going to die soon, we need to change, and we need to be better.
It’s not just about the facade (which believe me, I know we as advertising professionals are great at), and it’s not just about getting “diverse” talent through the door.
"They might look different on paper, but they’re expected to be the same in practice."
It’s about making them comfortable once they get there.
Too often, diverse people who get their foot in the door are still excluded from “The A Team” or are shunned because they’re not a “the best cultural fit.” They’re seen as belligerent when they say things like, “that might be offensive.” They’re told to “lighten up” a lot. They’re told to calm down even more. They might look different on paper, but they’re expected to be the same in practice, and quite frankly -- why hire anyone who’s any kind of different if you’re just going to expect them to act like everyone else in the first place?
Sure, it’s uncomfortable and unflattering and generally unfun to hear things that deviate from your opinions and feelings, especially when those things you hear force you to do a little self reflection. But, this industry imploding because we were too scared to better ourselves is going to hurt a lot more.
It’s time we bit the bullet and actually tried to change. From the inside this time. Let’s actually put in the work to make everyone feel welcome, not just focus on the optics.
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