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Q&A: MSP Members Discuss Pride Month

The month of June, which is designated as Pride Month, is dedicated to the uplifting of LGBTQ+ voices, celebration of LGBTQ+ culture and the support of LGBTQ+ rights. This year, the Michigan State Police (MSP) is spotlighting two of our members in a candid Q&A.

Kyle Konkol has worked as a forensic scientist at the MSP Grand Rapids Forensic Science Laboratory for two years. He most confidently identifies with the label of bisexual, which means having the ability to be attracted to more than one gender.

Liz Lyons (non-binary: agender) is a forensic scientist in the Combined DNA Index System Section at the MSP Lansing Forensic Science Laboratory. Non-binary means that a person doesn't identify on the gender binary as either male or female. Agender means that a person doesn't identify with a gender. Liz was assigned female at birth, but does not identify as a female; Liz only identifies as a human.

Kyle and Liz are both members of the MSP P.R.I.D.E. (Professionals Respecting the Identities of Everyone) Employee Resource Group, which seeks to demonstrate how members who identify with the LGBTQ+ community are valued, supported, acknowledged and encouraged by the MSP to share their unique viewpoints, which will help to foster a more inclusive and safer working environment for all members.

1. What does Pride Month mean to you?
Konkol: Pride Month at-large is a time for members of the LGBTQ+ community to celebrate their battles, both past and present. Growing up in the Catholic church, I was told that people who were like me were destined for Hell. Extended family members said people like myself "should be taken down to the river and held under." The LGBTQ+ kids who were out in high school withstood a barrage of hate and slurs behind their backs. The culture in which I was raised conditioned me to hate myself from the moment I realized I was different. Whether it is bigotry, isolation, stigma, unaccepting friends and family members, laws that restrict us or our own personal demons, all of us in the community have fought, are fighting and will continue to fight through adversity. Pride Month to me, more than anything, is a time of reflection; a time to look back on everything I went through to finally be able to love the person I see in the mirror.
Lyons: I've only been out publicly for less than a year so I'm still trying to figure that out. I've personally identified as agender for about eight years, ever since I became aware there was a term to describe how I felt, but only a few very close friends have known about my gender affiliation for that long. Now that I am more publicly out, I hope Pride Month will enable me to educate others to be more open and accepting of their fellow humans and to connect with others who identify as I do. 
2. Do you have any plans to celebrate Pride this month?  
Konkol: I intend on celebrating Pride this month by taking time to lift up and check in with my friends who are also in the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, I look forward to educating myself more by seeking out the stories and perspectives from the community subsets of which I have a limited knowledge. 
3. In support of Pride Month, what can individuals do to raise awareness about important issues that impact the LGBTQ+ community?  
Konkol: Listen to and amplify LGBTQ+ voices, especially those of people of color. Being an ally of the LGBTQ+ community is twofold: (1) what you do and say in front of us and (2) what you do and say behind our backs. Being kind, compassionate and empathetic to my face only holds up if your attitude remains unchanged when I'm not around. Don't be afraid to get to know people in the LGBTQ+ community; hear our stories and struggles, ask tough questions and accept us for who we are. We need allies who are willing to go to bat for us when we're not around to defend ourselves. Tolerance is not being an ally. 
Lyons: Telling personal stories has always had the greatest impact on me because it humanizes the issues instead of being several degrees of separation removed. Cold hard facts are great to further substantiate claims, but it can be easy to disconnect that these numbers are actually people. Hearing or reading a firsthand story makes someone see the person that is affected and hopefully makes them realize how severe and damaging these issues can be on people's lives. 
4. For members of the LGBTQ+ community who have an interest in pursuing a career with the MSP, what is something you want them to know?  
Konkol: There are three things I would say to any LGBTQ+ individual interested in a career with the MSP: (1) No matter the division, rank or role, there is a place for you. (2) Your voice, perspective and talent matter. (3) You are never alone. 
Lyons: There is a place for you in law enforcement. So far, the interactions I've had with my MSP coworkers and other MSP enlisted and civilian members have been supportive and accepting. Nevertheless, working on this perceived stigma of law enforcement and LGBTQ+ is one of my goals for the MSP-P.R.I.D.E (Professionals Respecting the Identities of Everyone) Employee Resource Group where I serve as the chairperson. From personal experience I know how ingrained that fear is. For about seven years I lived in that stigmatized fear that someone would find out about my gender identity and people would try to get me fired because of that. Those fears and anxieties still live in the back of my mind and I don't know if that is something that will ever completely go away. But by working on this stigma and making safer and more welcoming environments it can help silence those fears for myself and others.
5. In what ways can members of the MSP be more inclusive of our LGBTQ+ peers?  
Konkol: Not making assumptions about our peers is something we can all work on. When it comes to gender, pronouns and significant others, making assumptions about your LGBTQ+ peers can be extremely damaging. Get comfortable having conversations that may seem uncomfortable (asking someone for their pronouns, using terms such as "significant other" or "partner" when inquiring about life outside of work, etc.). If you're comfortable discussing your personal life with your coworkers, you should make an effort to include your LGBTQ+ peers in those conversations. If you'd ask a heterosexual individual about their partner, strive to ask the same questions to your LGBTQ+ peers. We all have different stories and experiences we may be willing to share, but don't rely solely on any one person in the community to be your personal Google for all things LGBTQ+. It's important to try to educate yourself on the history and struggles of different subsets within the community to gain a better understanding of the challenges we face. Understand that while some members of the community may be willing to openly discuss their journey, ultimately, no one owes you an explanation of why they are who they are. 
Lyons: From a gender standpoint, don't automatically call someone Sir/Ma'am based on your perceived gender of that individual. If you don't know someone, ask them if you can call them Sir/Ma'am or if they would prefer to be called by their name. Traditionally, calling someone Sir or Ma'am is a way to show respect to that person, but when this is done to someone who doesn't identify on the gender binary it is very damaging. After working at MSP for several years there was a time where I seriously contemplated quitting because of how often I was triggered by being called "Ma'am" and "Ms. Lyons" on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis. Having those kinds of continual attacks on someone's mental health wears you down until you eventually break and no one should have to go through that. I'm not saying we have to remove gender from the workplace because that isn't fair to those who do identify with a gender. I'm simply asking that we become more cognizant of how we show respect to each other. 
6. For someone who wants to learn more about LGBTQ+, is there a book or other resource you recommend they check out?
Konkol: Being relatively new to the community myself, there's still so much that I don't know and have the desire to learn. One book that has been highly recommended to me is A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski. If you are interested in learning about the transgender community specifically, Disclosure is an excellent documentary on Netflix about trans-visibility and representation in the media. 
Lyons: There is a special on National Geographic (currently available on Disney+) called "Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric" that does a great job explaining the concepts of intersex and transgender identities from both a biological and sociological viewpoint. There is also a free course on Coursera called "Gender and Sexuality: Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace". This offers great explanations of different LGBTQ+ terminology and explains why gender and sexual identity is relevant to the workplace and how to enable safer working environments. 
7. Does your identity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community impact the work you do?  
Konkol: When I first started working for the MSP, I felt as though being open about my sexuality would hold me back when it came to career advancement. Fortunately, I now know this to be false. If anything, I feel my identity promotes me to work harder and be more critical of myself and my work. I sometimes find myself striving for an unrealistic level of perfection; people may have something negative to say about my identity, but at least they won't be able to say that I'm unreliable or a bad worker. There are still days where I feel like an imposter, or that I'm "deceiving" people when I hold back from talking about my personal life. I have been with the MSP for just under two years, but I didn't tell anyone at work about my sexuality until about 15 months into working here. I now serve as a co-chair of the Employee Resource Group MSP P.R.I.D.E. and a good portion of my co-workers still don't know about my sexual orientation, even though I'm confident that most wouldn't have a problem with it. Like many in my community, I'm still working through an ingrained fear of not being accepted. 
Lyons: For many years my gender identity drove me to overperform in the workplace so my work ethic and productivity couldn't be called into question if someone found out I was non-binary and sought my termination. I'm still a hard-working employee now that I'm more public with my identity, but because those fears do still live in the back of my mind I don't know if that is something that will ever change. 
8. What's a question you never get asked that you'd love to answer?
Lyons: Basically, that gender identity and gender expression are two different things. Gender identity is someone's inner sense of self that may or may not match their sex assigned at birth. Gender expression is how someone chooses to present themselves to society that may or may not match their gender identity. Someone may have a more feminine appearance or name, like myself, but that doesn't mean that person identifies as a female. In my case, I'm not interested in changing my name to something more gender neutral because I identify with the name Liz. As to my appearance, it isn't heavily feminine, but does lean to the feminine side of the spectrum because of my body anatomy, professional shirt patterns and make-up habits that are traditionally associated with femininity (flowers/bright colors and curled eye lashes). The bottom line is, how you perceive someone based on their gender expression doesn't always equate to their gender identity. If you don't know a person, please ask what pronouns you should use to address them.