Ep 7: Coming out matters - Be bold and show your pride

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Coming out is a brave process – one that has the ability to change hearts, minds and create more advocates for equality. In honour of National Coming Out Day, Johnnie Vu, Community Manager, RBC shares his personal journey and the added complexities of being gay and Asian in corporate Canada. Tune in to our latest podcast with host Haritha Murthy for more on living authentically, raising LGBTQ+ awareness, and being an ally.

TRANSCRIPT

Haritha:

Hello, and welcome to the Ascend Canada podcast. We just celebrated National Coming Out Day on October 11th, a day of awareness to support LGBT people to, “Come out of the closet.” But folks, it’s not just about one day in a year. There is a constant need for awareness, inclusion, conversation, and dialogue to help LGBT people come out regardless of their race, religion, and ethnic background. This is your host Haritha Murthy. And joining me today is a very special guest who will be sharing his own coming out journey as a gay Asian professional in Canada. Johnnie [Vu 00:01:43] has been with RBC for over 10 years and is currently a community manager. He leads a multi-billion dollar business and is responsible for implementing sales strategies, managing talent, and sustaining an empowering culture. Johnnie is an active member of various ERGs within RBC, such as RBC Pride, Next Gen, Mosaic. And he’s also a champion of RBCs Future Launch program.

Haritha:

Outside of work. Johnnie is an officer of the Canadian Forces and is very active in the community. In fact, I actually got to know Johnnie when he was a VP of marketing at Ascend Canada, and we both worked together on the 2018 annual report. In fact, Johnnie has actually moved around quite a bit within Ascend Canada on various teams, such as the partnership team, Montreal strategy team, marketing, and so on. Johnnie really is a great example of someone who I know is living their true self. So I’d love to hear more about his journey. Johnnie, thanks so much for joining us today.

Johnnie:

Hi, Haritha thanks for having me and thank you so much to you and Ascend Canada for this opportunity.

Haritha:

Johnnie, as an openly gay Asian, National Coming Out Day must have a lot of significance in your life. Talk to us about your own coming out journey.

Johnnie:

Yes, definitely Haritha. I think everyone’s coming out journey is different and everyone has their own story, but definitely being gay and Asian is not the easiest. National Coming Out Day started for gay people to have the opportunity to liberate themselves and come out to their friends and family. And I think that’s why it’s so important to all of us, and thank you for the opportunity for me to share my story today.

My coming out story, I remember all the way back when I was probably 12-13. I was playing video games with one of my uncles and he asked me, he’s like, “Johnnie, are you gay?” And then right away he stopped himself. And he said, “You know what, if you are gay, I don’t think you should come out.” And I didn’t even know what to say. I didn’t even know if I was gay. It never really crossed my mind. But then I started doubting, I’m like, “Am I gay?” And then, nothing really happened until really, as I continued to progress into my teenage-hood, I started thinking, “Maybe I am gay.” And I think by the age of 16, I realized I was gay and I didn’t know what to do. And then, around that time, my mom would ask me if I was gay and I always denied it.

But then, a series of incidents happened, and when I turned 18, I decided to come out to my mom. And her first reaction was, “Oh, are you sure? Do you need a psychologist? Is this a phase?” And I think she was more concerned about me being discriminated against and having a difficult life and having a difficult career because I was gay. And so she was just really worried. And I think, for any Asian parent, or for any parent, it’s tough to have a son that’s gay and being worried that society is going to discriminate against him and not be supportive with him. And so, we never really spoke about it again. And it was only really last year, many years later, that my mom walked the Pride Parade with me in Quebec.

And so I was invited by my regional president in Quebec to walk their Pride Parade. And on that Sunday, I got really nervous. My mom asked me what I was doing. And I said, “I’m going to walk this parade. It’s for Pride. I don’t know if you want to come with me, but it’s okay if you don’t.” And my mom said, “No, you know what? I’ll come.” And that walk was just so special to me because I think it was the first time that my mom showed it was okay for me to be gay. And, I think it was great for me because I showed her that I work for an organization and we live in a country where being gay is celebrated and diversity inclusion is so important to us and that my senior leaders support me and continue to support my career, even though I’m Asian and I’m gay.

So I think it’s just such a great thing and I’m so fortunate that we live in a day and age where this is so much more accepted. And then I work for an organization that promotes diversity and inclusion and not only promotes it, but celebrates it with the individuals to make sure that they’re comfortable. And so I want to thank RBC and Pride, which allowed me to experience this with my mom.

Haritha:

That’s beautiful, Johnnie. I think your journey has been so incredible where from the age of 12-13 until now, there’s been an array of experiences that you’ve encountered. And I think your mom is totally right. She was coming from a good place where she was concerned about, as a mother bear, you were concerned about your cub, almost that maternal instinct would have kicked in when you came out to her. But, I don’t completely fault her, because growing up as an Asian kid in North America, it would not have been easy. So even school, college, it must’ve been a pretty interesting experiences that you had. What was that like?

Johnnie:

Yeah. I originally grew up in Calgary, and when I was in Calgary, I was young, so I didn’t realize I was gay. And then now, when I moved to Montreal, I had no friends when I first moved there and I went to high school there. And a lot of people were assuming that I was gay. And maybe it was because I had gay tendencies or maybe because I wasn’t out with girls and I didn’t really have that many guy friends. But, a lot of people started making fun of me and bullying me because they thought I was gay. It was really hard growing up.

But then I was fortunate. I met some great people that would stand up for me and made me feel comfortable. And then I came out to them later on as I realized I was gay, and they were always there to support me. And I think it’s so important to have a support system and a network that celebrates your sexuality and doesn’t discriminate against you and stands up for you and is that voice of reason when the world is looking down on you. And I think that voice and that support system really helped me through my teenage-hood.

And then when I hit university, it was kind of that thing again. Do I come out? Do I not come out? And when I was in university, I was very involved in many student governments and student politics. And I was always worried that if I did come out completely, I wouldn’t get voted in or I wouldn’t win the election or people would discriminate against me. So once again, a university, there was this fear of having to come out. And so, I was out to my closest circle, but I was never publicly really out to all my university friends.

And then when I got to the workplace, my first five years of my career, I wouldn’t say I was really openly out either. Once again, that fear comes back and, do you come out to your colleagues? Are you going to be discriminated against if you do? Will the organization not accept you or will clients not accept you because you’re gay. And so, this constant must of have having to come out each time, it’s challenging. And then, when I come back today, I’m in a leadership role within RBC. I have to constantly come out to my clients, come out to my teams, and I think it’s much easier now because when I moved to Toronto, I got to meet a lot more senior leaders that were gay and that were open and that were successful, which inspired me to continue to work on myself and make sure that I am comfortable and bring my full self to work. Because I think you just build much deeper and stronger relationships with your team and with your peers if you are able to bring your full self to work.

And I think, I’m a lot more comfortable today than I was 10, 15, 20 years ago. But it’s still a journey and it’s still, like I said, every day, it’s like you’re coming out again. And today I’m coming out to all of us in Canada and all of our VC. But I think it’s important that I’m comfortable and it’s important that people that are feeling like how I felt are comfortable and know that the world will accept them for who they are and will celebrate it. And we’re fortunate to be in a time where it is a lot more accepted.

Haritha:

Johnnie, you covered so much in that dialogue. I have so many questions bubbling inside me. So I’m going to take it one at a time. So for sure, I think having that right support system, having people that you can look up to, that is so critical. And especially at a young age, you need that because it gives you the confidence to be your true self. So, was there any key influential figure in your life when you were growing up?

Johnnie:

I guess the person that influenced me the most growing up would probably be my mom. My mom, I think like all of us who are immigrants to Canada, she worked really hard to make sure that I had a better life, and she truly inspired me to continue to work really hard. Because, I feel that if she can achieve it and be successful in a world where she barely spoke the language, and through her hard work she was able to set up some very successful businesses. So there’s absolutely no reason why for myself, who had the opportunity to get educated and who have the opportunity to have a professional career, to not be successful. So she definitely influences my work ethics and my drive to continue to grow within corporate Canada.

Haritha:

That’s amazing that you were able to identify that every person goes through their own troubles and hardships. So, that shows a lot of empathy, Johnnie, from your side. And it’s amazing how your mom inspired you. And fast forward to now. You’re a force to reckon with. As you said, you’re a leader now trying to be your true self within RBC, within corporate Canada. But I know that your role is extremely people-centric. As a community manager, I’m sure you’re meeting tons of people day-in, day-out. How do you feel comfortable being an Asian gay professional in this setup?

Johnnie:

It’s interesting, because in this role, the bank had me move to the Vaughan market, which is a very, mostly Italian, Catholic, conservative market. And I was a bit nervous coming to the market to be honest with you. But I think I’m very fortunate that I have a leader that supports me. And I know that if there’s ever a client who doesn’t feel comfortable dealing with me because of my sexuality, I know that I have her full support. An activity she did with all the leadership team is before I joined the team, we had the whole management team watch a movie called Love, Simon, which is a story about a teenager who came out. And even during that movie, I think there were some leaders that were a bit uncomfortable, but I think that just helps us make everyone a bit more comfortable before I joined the team.

And so there’s all of these little actions and all these little things that our leaders have taken, that people have taken, helped me be more comfortable. And I think by having allies, people managers showing their allyship through reaching out to me. Through wearing a Pride bracelet. Through celebrating National Coming Out Day or Pride Month, it just makes me more and more comfortable to work in that space and know that I have someone that’s going to back me up. And I think generally clients don’t question, but when they do, I’ve never had a situation where they made me uncomfortable. So I think I’ve been very fortunate that way, but obviously it’s always on the back of my mind, every time I’m interacting with a new client.

Haritha:

Have you had any difficult experiences in corporate Canada in your day-to-day job? Has there been an issue where you’ve been afraid to come out?

Johnnie:

Sometimes there are moments. When I took over my first team, I had a lot of people on my team who were of different backgrounds that I know religiously, it’s not acceptable for them to have a son that’s gay or for them to be gay because of their religion or because of their culture. So, those moments it was tough for me to come out because I said, “Are they going to accept me? And are they going to be comfortable working with me because I’m gay?”

There was this one night where I was working with one of my employees and they shared with me that, if their son was gay, they wouldn’t want to know. And, it makes them very uncomfortable. And it was interesting because, I was thinking in my head, I’m like, “Does this employee know that I’m gay?” And second of all, am I building a culture of openness where, if I had other gay employees on the team, would they be comfortable to come out? And so what am I doing as a leader to create a more comfortable space for everyone? I spoke with one of my senior executives and she shared with me, it’s not about you enforcing your values on everyone. It’s just you creating an environment that’s within RBC or within our work environment, diversity and inclusion has to be celebrated and everyone needs to feel accepted. It’s not about what you believe or what I believe, it’s about all of us need to feel that we are included and that we are comfortable and that when we show up to work, we’re protected. Since that day, I work really hard as a leader to make sure that I’m creating a space that, whether you’re a minority, whether you’re a woman, whether you’re LGBTQ, whether you have a disability, that everyone is comfortable in that work space.

Haritha:

Yeah. You know Johnnie, how inclusion is so important to me, and of course it’s important to you too. And I’m so happy that you’re creating that work space. But I can relate to that culture, that religion bias that we normally have and we bring, but we’re all coming from different spaces in life and from different countries and different ethnicities, backgrounds, religious upbringing. I myself, you know that, I don’t think I would have been an ally a few years ago if you had asked me. I was questioning, I wasn’t against LGBT, but I was just ignorant, you could say. And I thought to myself, if I didn’t know, I didn’t care.

But one incident really opened my eyes. And I think it was, again, to bring out the fact that there’s a lot of unconscious bias that we have because of our upbringing. I remember in Chicago, on Michigan Avenue, my mom, my sister and I were walking. And my sister’s always been extremely liberal when it comes to the LGBT community. And she always been an advocate. And my mom and I, we didn’t really think twice about it. And there was a Pride parade going on, a rally going on. And a person came up to my mom asking to sign a petition for gay rights. And literally my mom was just very nervous and anxious and was like, “Oh, I don’t know. I just don’t want to be associated,” and she walked away. And I was in a situation where I was just a little confused, okay, what’s going on here? I’m not sure if I know what I’m doing. And my sister was the only one who was standing and listening and paying attention to what this person had to say, and I just walked off. And that was it.

So I just wanted to share with you that story, because it shows that, coming from the same family, there’s three different mindsets. So I think it just takes time and a lot of awareness and the willingness to learn. So I think that’s my two cents. But you bring up a really good point. To have that support group. To have that allyship. And you must have had some great allies for you to be such a force today. So, what do you think is the importance of allyship, particularly in the Asian LGBT community? And I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can be allies in this virtual environment, where we’re not able to put your Pride flag on your desk or stickers on your laptop. What are some of the tips for allyship today?

Johnnie:

I think the first thing is, as a leader, when you’re leading meetings, to be inclusive. When you’re talking about people’s partners, you refer them to their partner, and that way everyone feels comfortable in that space. And I think as a leader, you can have a lot of impact in creating a work space that’s comfortable. Like I said, celebrating Pride Month, Celebrating National Coming Out Day. Showing that you’re an advocate. Voicing your opinion. Little things that you can do. I know you can’t put a Pride flag on your desk, but you can have maybe a Pride object within your frame when you’re doing a WebEx, and/or maybe changing your virtual background to something Pride representative. Adding a little Pride flag in your email signature. Adding proverbs at the end of your signature. Sorry, pronouns at the end of your signature

All these little things you really demonstrate your allyship. Something I do sometimes is I wear my Pride pin on my suit during my WebEx calls. It shows that either I’m an ally or I’m a member of the LGBTQ community. So I’m a member. But if other people where it, it shows allyship. So all these little nuances, I think it just creates a more comfortable space for everyone to be comfortable to be themselves. And so these are little things that allies can do to demonstrate allyship.

Haritha:

Yeah. You bring about a couple of really cool points here. Because one, when you mentioned partner, it brought back a memory from my first week in RBC. My manager then was actually, he identified as gay. And we were talking and I didn’t know that he was gay. So I was talking, he had a ring on his finger and I kept referring to my husband as my husband. And I said, “Oh, my husband did this, did that.” And then just out of my curiosity, I asked him, “So what does your wife do?” And he looked at me and he used the air quotes and he said, “My partner works for X, Y, Z.” And I was taken aback. I said, “Oh, wow. I should have been conscious of that. Why did I not know?” And, I started questioning.

But then what I did was I started asking him truly about what his thoughts were and I started learning more about the difficulties, the experiences. And I think that’s what’s changed me today. I’m now an ally. I sit on the CFO Pride committee because I truly understand where the LGBT community is coming from. And as an Asian myself, I know how much Asians in the LGBT space might be going through, just because of their religious background, their cultural background. So I love the ideas, especially the pronoun idea. Oh, I had so many questions on why I put she or her after my name on LinkedIn. You can imagine a lot of my high school friends are pinging me, questioning me, “Oh, why are you putting she, her?” And then I had to actually send a link, explaining the reason why we put pronouns to make others comfortable that we are an ally. So thanks Johnnie, that was some great tips.

Just one final piece. What would be your go-to piece of advice for Pan-Asian LGBT professionals and their allies?

Johnnie:

Yeah. My first thing is, don’t rush the process. Don’t feel pressured that you have to come out. I think, everything takes time and you have to be comfortable with yourself, and it’s a journey. And it’s a marathon, it’s not a race. So, don’t ever feel that you have to come out right now. Take your time and make sure that you feel comfortable doing it. My other thing is, building that support system around you. Not everyone is going to accept you unfortunately and that’s okay. Know that people will change. Get to know people and build a support system of people that you know will love you for who you are and will accept you for who you are. And other people eventually will accept you for who you are, because you are great. And some people like yourself, you gave an example of yourself where, in the beginning, you didn’t really know much about LGBT because of your upbringing. You might’ve had a perception, but after interacting with a lot of LGBTQ professionals, you now are a lot more comfortable. So I think just, be okay with yourself and building that support system is so important.

And, the example, I remember I had a leader that was working with me and he shared with me on his last day, he’s like, “I never had a gay leader. And after working with you, I realize gay people are very normal.” And I said, “What do you mean by that?” And he said, and I think he caught himself after and he realized what he said. But I think there’s this perception in our society about gay people and media makes this perception of what gay people are supposed to be like. But really, everyone that’s gay is just like me and you, we’re all humans. There’s different personalities. And I think the sooner we all realize that we’re all the same and there’s nothing really different, it doesn’t make us different, the sooner we’re going to get to that open and inclusive culture that we’re trying to create within our country and within our organizations.

Haritha:

Johnnie, that’s so true. It’s the same blood that runs in all of us and the same heart that beats. So, we are human at the end of the day. That was so profound. I think National Coming Out Day is one day that we celebrate, but it’s not about just one day. We need to be able to encourage our LGBT people to be able to come out every single day and not be in that closet, not be afraid of who they are, to live their true full selves. So I’m so happy that you have taken that step, a leap of faith, and you’ve quote, unquote, “Come out,” here. But, it’s a privilege, Johnnie, to have known you these last couple of years, and we should encourage everyone to educate themselves. And we’re all one at the end of the day. So Johnnie, I really, really thank you for joining us today.

Johnnie:

No, of course. It’s my pleasure. And thank you so much again for this opportunity.

Haritha:

All right, folks, this is your host, Haritha Murthy signing off. Stay safe and stay tuned.