WATERLOO — For many years, Gina Weekley felt pressure from all sides — her family, her schools and workplaces and from societal and cultural norms — to hide the fact she was gay.
That led the Waterloo native to fall into a deep depression, and even leave the state, in order to finally feel free to be who she was.
“I was operating out of fear — fear of being outed, fear of letting my family down, fear of letting my community down,” Weekley said.
But Weekley — who told her story for the first time publicly Thursday at the Cedar Valley LGBTQ Workplace Culture Summit at Allen College — said it was actually a boss she had in Virginia who challenged her to live openly on her terms.
“She said, ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’” Weekley said.
Initially, Weekley said, she resisted the “afraid” label. But her boss continued to challenge her, and Weekley finally set goals for herself she said were a long time coming.
“I would develop programs for youth, I would finish school, and I would speak up for people who grew up like I did,” Weekley said. “And she said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“This connection she made for me was life-changing,” she added. “I made a promise to myself to live without fear, and unapologetically.”
Her newfound courage eventually helped Weekley move back to her hometown, finish two degrees at the University of Northern Iowa, get married and become the Waterloo Community Schools’ at-risk student supports coordinator as well as the district’s summer school coordinator.
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She encouraged the attendees of the summit — around a dozen Cedar Valley employers — to look at their own employees and clients as potential leaders like her, just waiting for that boost of confidence that their employer has their back.
“Stepping up can be uncomfortable,” she said. “But the rewards are developing leaders that can and will create lasting change.”
Weekley’s keynote capped the half-day summit, the first in Waterloo of its kind put on by LGBTQ advocacy group One Iowa to show employers how to better develop leaders in the workplace by being more inviting and consider changing organizational policies that might be inadvertently leaving people out.
“There are LGBTQ members in our community who deserve to have a safe workplace,” said Eve Sanchez, One Iowa’s Waterloo/Cedar Falls stewardship and events coordinator. “Building an inclusive workplace is people walking the talk.”
That didn’t have to mean big, organizational change necessarily — even just simple things, like referring to a group of people as “folks” rather than “guys,” was a start.
One Iowa statewide program coordinator Max Mowitz, who uses “they/them” pronouns, said they learned the hard way when, at 15 and instructed by their employer to say either “good morning sir” or “good morning ma’am” to customers, accidentally misgendered a customer within the first two weeks on the job.
“They got very upset and talked to my manager and said they’d never come back,” Mowitz said. “That taught me something. ... It can alienate people that you want as your client.”
Instead, Mowitz said, don’t guess. Use gender-neutral terms. If you make a mistake, apologize sincerely and move on. Treat people with the same courtesy you’d extend any valued employee or client.
“Diversity and inclusion makes good business sense,” Sanchez said.