By Carlos García León, Queer, non-binary, Mexican-Statesian, and fundraiser

As fundraisers, we are not allowed to move past the heteronormative standards of behavior or even wear clothing that is more acceptable in other departments.

In a previous job, my development supervisor bought me nail polish since she knew I enjoy wearing it. This was evident, as I had done so in the office previously.

However, this supervisor was also the one to tell me to remove the nail polish before I went to any donor event or donor meeting.

The message was clear: You can be whoever you want to be, as long as it doesn’t interfere with or inconvenience our revenue streams.

Yet, my colleagues in the artistic department received no such messages. They would come to work dressed fabulously, with their dyed hair and wearing chunky jewelry — while also being placed at the same tables as our donors during galas.

This was a complete disconnect for me — and I didn’t understand it initially. As years went by, it became evident that being able to variate what is perceived as “normal” is reserved for creative types and not for those who deal with money or who work in other “serious” jobs.

As we keep exploring and discussing the multiple spectra of gender and gender expression in the sector, I often feel and have seen that trans and non-binary people have more of a disadvantage working in non-profit philanthropy. As fundraisers, we are not allowed to move past the heteronormative standards of behavior or even wear clothing that is more acceptable in other departments.

There is a major problem here — although many don’t understand this — in seeing that creativity is necessary in the field of fundraising.

The way we view dress codes now is problematic, too

This barrier isn’t often explicitly addressed in the dress code of organizations, but the rules of heteronormativity and the consequences of breaking heteronormativity definitely exist in our field.

In philanthropy and fundraising, it is already hard to not be white, male, and heterosexual. In addition to the lack of staffing of trans and nonbinary BIPOC individuals and the erasure of our identities through the erasure of our writings, we are doing an additional disservice by not allowing these folx to express themselves authentically in the workplace.

What is especially noteworthy is that we do this even more so when it comes to donors, who we generally and collectively envision as more conservative and uncomfortable with these types of conversations and topics.

Let us not forget that this is an intersectional issue. Expressing yourself outside of your perceived gender is celebrated if you are white and thin (i.e. Harry Styles, Nico Tortorella, Ezra Miller). However, this kind of expression from BIPOC and/or body diverse individuals is not as admired, like Alejandro Speitzer, Jaden Smith, or Sam Smith.

This barrier isn’t often explicitly addressed in the dress code of organizations, but the rules of heteronormativity and the consequences of breaking heteronormativity definitely exist in our field.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2011, 47% of workers have experienced an adverse job outcome because of their gender identity or expression, including being passed over a job, not getting a promotion, or even being fired.

It has only slightly gotten better. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey report states that 30% of respondents were fired, denied a promotion, or experienced mistreatment at their jobs because of their gender identity or expression in that past year.

These consequences are still happening and begin at young ages, too. Only last month, a student at a Texas high school was suspended for simply wearing nail polish since it went against the school’s dress code. (This seemed extreme to me as well as such a double standard. In my experience growing up and going to public school, teachers and school administrators were not as vigilant when girls wore makeup or nail polish.

As for me — during a mock job interview only two years ago, I was reprimanded for not wearing a suit and tie and for choosing to wear heels. My mock interviewer went as far as telling me that they would never hire me at their company, even if I was qualified.

The policing of gender expression needs to go

Gender policing should be removed from all dress codes and diverse gender expression should be allowed at all work events. Let people wear what they feel most comfortable in.

Dress codes, whether explicitly written or not, are just another barrier of classism that our art and nonprofit sectors already have a lot of trouble dealing with.

You might be thinking: “Of course, Carlos, wearing a mesh glittery top to a fundraising gala is a dream. However, in my opinion, I don’t think that we as a nation are ready for the wearing of such things in the course of our jobs, yet.”

For those who are currently worrying and calculating that slippery slope problem of “how far is too far” — in my experience, those who choose to stray from heteronormative clothing are wise in choosing a look that feels proper to the setting. As a collective, we should make sensible decisions in order to still do our work at such events.

Allow for these moments of expression to happen with donors

Give your donors the opportunity to experience your fundraiser’s true self.

Organizations often act like their missions and policies are unchangeable, and therefore they are unwilling to accept the benefits of change and create moments of discomfort that could provide a helpful lens for what is holding these systems of oppression in place. It is a harmful practice, one that creates inauthentic or fabricated personas, centers whiteness, generates toxicity for BIPOC individuals, and leads us all to hide the reasons why a person is or isn’t qualified for their job in the first place.

Many times, when we are unwilling to change a policy (or a mission) to one that will have a good impact on marginalized communities, particularly when it involves dress codes, the result is gender-expansive individuals hiding themselves for their own safety or for job security.

Give your donors the opportunity to experience your fundraiser’s true self. It’ll not only make the workplace better for your staff, for the organization, and for retention, but it will also give your fundraiser the chance to speak with donors about other issues that go hand-in-hand with DEI statements. (After all, a reason gatekeeping exists is to make donors as comfortable as possible.)

We cannot justifiably make DEI statements and DEI promises without being willing to challenge the comforts of our donors. If they aren’t willing to listen, if they make negative comments about outfit decisions, or if they don’t make an effort to grow after being given the chance — drop them.

I know it’s not an easy decision, especially for those with few donors, but in this time and age, there is simply no room for those who aren’t even willing to make the effort.

Let me tell you, from my perspective as a queer and non-binary person of color, the more out and proud you as an organization are in your stances, the more people will come and support you from near and far. Yes, there will be people that leave, but if you are committed to changing for the better, you have to learn to be okay with that. Not only for your future employees, but also for your future donors and patrons.

Younger generations have become bolder in how they express themselves. Men are painting their nails. Women are wearing suits and baggy clothing. Gender norms are things that the younger generations are breaking down and are no longer placing on themselves, and much less their clothing. These people are our future donors!

If organizations want to attract and sustain these younger generations, they will have to come to grasp that policing gender expression at work is no longer viable. To put it frankly, it’s not a good business strategy for the future of the arts, the future of the fundraising field, the future staff, and the future of the potential art lovers (donors) that have yet to experience what we are bringing to the stage.

Carlos García León

Carlos García León

Carlos García León (he/they ; el/elle) is a queer, non-binary, Latine, Mexican-Statesian, and fundraiser. They were born in Atlixco, Puebla, Mexico, but currently reside in the stolen land of the Shawnee and Miami tribes, also known as Cincinnati, Ohio and work as the individual giving manager of Cincinnati Opera. Their work, both in the arts and through writing, is driven by a fight for cultural equity, decolonizing the arts, and social justice. Outside of working and writing, Carlos likes to stream TV and movies, read a good book, learn German, take naps under their weighted blanket, drink milkshakes, and look for the next poncho to add to their collection. They can be reached via email or on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms @cgarcia_leon.