Diversity Dialogue: Perspectives of LGBTQIA+ in Construction

“Pride.” This concept can be conflicting. It’s one of the seven deadly sins, right? But for people who feel ashamed about an attribute that is inherent to their being, pride can be a freeing concept. Pride means abandoning that shame, any judgment that may be attached to it, and just letting yourself be. For these reasons, pride is such a unifying idea for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and/or queer, intersex, allies and/or asexual, and other queer-identifying communities (LGBTQIA+).

I am a gay woman. You could define me as a lesbian because I’m a woman who loves women, but identification is a very personal thing, and I’d rather call myself gay. Sexuality, gender, etc. are all on a spectrum, so selecting a label (if you find that’s even necessary) that feels like the right fit is totally up to you. It’s also something to be respected; when people tell you how they identify, it’s not up for debate – it’s just a fact.

You’re probably wondering, “How is this relevant to CFMA’s readers?” Bruce Orr, Chair of CFMA’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, recently asked me to share my experiences and perspectives to help foster and promote diversity and inclusion in the construction industry.

I have lived in North Dakota nearly my whole life. North Dakota is a wonderful place; it’s big in geography but small in populace, so it feels very interconnected.

It’s also where the construction business that my grandparents started together in 1953 is headquartered. My dad, Paul, is currently the President of Industrial Builders, Inc. (IBI), a heavy civil contractor with about 275 employees and around $60 million in annual revenue.

I recently (and proudly) became part of the third generation of family ownership and currently serve as the Director of Finance and Administration.

When I met Chelsea during our senior year of high school, she was a surprise in every way. I didn’t know I was gay (rather, I knew, but wow was I good at lying to myself), but I was magnetized to her in a way I’d never been to anyone. This started a spiral of questioning my sexuality, which led to us confessing our mutual interest and kicking off a romance. It was lovely; still is.

During this budding relationship, I felt internal conflict. I thought if I told anyone, they’d hate me. I’d been at sleepovers and the latest gossip was “I heard so and so is gay” followed by a whole deconstruction of their sexuality. This led to further reflection on past sleepovers when they shared a bed with this person and vowed to never do it again (because obviously if you’re gay that means you love every single person of the same sex, so sleepovers had become predatory). I was terrified to become the person they’d talk about. I feared that by coming out everyone would hate me, my parents would be disappointed in me, and my friends would be disgusted by me; basically, I was afraid that everything I knew and loved would implode.

In the summer following high school, I worked in the field as a rotomill groundsman to save up some money for college in the fall. I thought it would be my only stint at IBI since I was headed to business school and planned to learn from smart people, start my own business, and be wildly successful. It’s funny how plans change, isn’t it?

During that time, my relationship with Chelsea was wonderful and brought me so much happiness, but I felt compelled to isolate it because I thought being gay was wrong. I was especially closeted at work because the construction industry is not legendarily open-minded.

So, there I was, an 18-year-old woman working on a rotomill for 80 hours a week with a man named Roman. When he saw me on my phone during breaks, he would ask if I was texting my boyfriend. I would waffle between saying I was texting a friend or lying and calling Chelsea my “boyfriend” but never revealing “his” name. I continued like this as a way to talk about my relationship without actually revealing who it was with.

After a year of dating Chelsea, I started coming out. Some people would coyly acknowledge that they’d known all along, while others were shocked at the revelation. The bark of coming out was worse than the bite. Finally, after more than three years of dating, I boldly updated my Facebook status to “In a Relationship with Chelsea.” The support I received surprised me and bolstered my confidence to keep coming out.

Coming out, especially when you don’t “look” gay, is a neverending process.

Since my coworkers at IBI were not my Facebook friends, I brought Chelsea as my date to the holiday party for our official debut as a couple. I remember how nervous I was. Many of my coworkers were older than me and heard the word “girlfriend” and thought “friend who is a girl,” so me introducing her as “this is my girlfriend, Chelsea!” didn’t really land. We left the holiday party somewhat unsure if people realized she was my love interest or not, but since I had technically come out, I just let it ride. Time went on and after clarifying several times that “no, she’s my GIRLFRIEND,” my coworkers tended to be surprised by our relationship, but not opposed to it, once they learned it was more than a friendship.

Chelsea and I had seriously talked about getting married, but if we did, we would have to move to Minnesota since North Dakota had a same-sex marriage ban. Finally, on June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that denying same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional and all states had to allow and recognize same-sex marriages. If the Supreme Court hadn’t ruled on that case, I strongly doubt that North Dakota would have legalized same-sex marriage, even by now. Life would certainly be different.

In 2015, Chelsea proposed to me. Having a ring to wear forced me to come out some more; no one can misconstrue “fiancée” to represent a platonic relationship, and an engagement ring is visible even to those not on Facebook.

I was out, and as my confidence grew, so did my pride for who I was and for my community. I’d post pictures of her, we’d go to Pride in the Twin Cities, and we just publicly existed together. When a few of my friends who had been in the closet themselves told me that seeing Chelsea and I together helped them come out, it was so powerful.

Homophobia is far less prevalent than it used to be and definitely less accepted. It took many years, but now, when I talk about my wife (to whom I’ve been married since November 2016), I don’t leave room in the conversation for people to object to our existence. I try to be very direct, transparent, and approachable when people ask me about our relationship.

As time’s gone on, I’ve given more people who ask questions or make comments the benefit of the doubt. It’s much easier (and healthier) to assume they are asking out of genuine curiosity or because it’s something new that they don’t understand, which becomes an opportunity to educate. I would genuinely prefer for someone to ask a question that is a little personal than find out they made an inaccurate assumption because they were uncomfortable.

As an owner at IBI and a visible presence in my community, I’m proud to leverage my influence to continue to make LGBTQIA+ individuals feel confident, safe, and welcomed. 

– Brittany Diederich

Response from Jordan Gleason

There’s no shortage of pride on a construction site. Pride in our skills, pride in our experiences, and pride in our work are commonplace. Pride in our acceptance of various sexual orientations? Probably a little more difficult to find.

As a field project manager for Construction Engineers, Inc., I spend all of my working time on commercial building construction project sites. Based out of North Dakota, Construction Engineers provides construction management and general contracting services for a variety of commercial and industrial projects throughout the upper Midwest. My favorite part of the job is getting to work with a wide array of individuals – laborers, craft workers, foremen, superintendents, inspectors, engineers, architects, clients, and everyone else in between.

I’ve known Brittany since 2013, when we were classmates in the Construction Management program at North Dakota State University. Since college, we’ve become close friends on both professional and personal levels. We’ve bonded over our involvement in various construction organizations and also through our shared hobbies of cycling, camping, and skiing.

A few months ago, Brittany asked if I would be interested in contributing to a CFMA article about diversity and sexuality in construction. “Woah,” I thought, “that’s way out of my comfort zone.” I’m a straight, white male in the construction industry, and opening up about diversity, sexuality, or emotions just doesn’t come naturally. But as Brittany and I talked through the potential article, I started to see how a contribution from my point of view could absolutely be beneficial for the industry. I just needed to get in touch with my own experiences and emotions – something that is much more difficult than it should be for too many of us in construction.

As I waited for Brittany to send me her part of this article, I wondered how her write-up would make me feel about our industry and its acceptance of her orientation. On our road trips to different cycling and skiing events, Brittany and I have had many candid conversations about our experiences in the industry. I knew there were certainly some uncomfortable moments for her, and it got me thinking about my own experiences on the jobsite.

At first, I couldn’t remember seeing discrimination. I’m sure some people have negative thoughts about different groups of people, but I didn’t think they came to light at work. But as I paid closer attention to this topic over the following months, I started noticing not-so-subtle comments that I must have previously brushed off – a concrete carpenter asking me if I have a boyfriend (with a smirk on his face), a plumber facetiously asking an electrician where his boyfriend is (referring to the electrician’s apprentice), and a variety of “artwork” that many people would certainly find offensive on the walls of the portable toilets.

When the concrete carpenter asked if I had a boyfriend, I responded “no, I don’t” with a straight face, acting as if I didn’t realize he was trying to make a joke (considering this is a perfectly reasonable question, less the smirk on his face). When the plumber made the boyfriend comment to the electrician, I corrected him by telling him the apprentice’s name. When I realized just how much graffiti was on the portable toilet walls, I promptly cleaned it off.

My responses to these situations were small but meaningful steps in the right direction. Trying to manage other peoples’ thoughts and feelings is a tall order, but creating a workplace environment where everyone feels comfortable is an attainable goal that all of us in the construction industry should work toward.

I might just be an optimist, but I don’t believe the interactions previously described actually come from a place of true hatred for the LGBTQIA+ community. Rather, I think the individuals made these comments because they had heard someone make similar comments in the past, and the words have now become a type of unpleasant (yet persistent) “jobsite slang.”

These negative behaviors are coming from those who I believe are good people. Small corrections, like the actions I previously described, give those people the opportunity to grow and set the right tone in the future. If I hear more discriminatory comments, I’ll be sure to make a more dramatic correction. 

I want to thank CFMA Building Profits for hosting this diversity dialogue and Brittany for inviting me to contribute. This process has helped me grow as an individual, and I hope this article helps my peers in construction grow as well.

As an industry, we need to be more cognizant of our interactions and the impact they have on others.

How do we eliminate discrimination in the construction industry? I don’t think anyone has the silver bullet answer to that. But I do know that diversity and discrimination in construction is not a topic that we can sweep under the rug and expect to improve over time. Conversations like these are how we continue to make forward progress.

As an industry, let’s continue to take pride in our skills, experiences, and work. But let’s also begin to take pride in the quality of our relationships with all of our peers – regardless of their gender, age, or sexual orientation.

– Jordan Gleason

Copyright © 2021 by the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA). All rights reserved. This article first appeared in May/June 2021 CFMA Building Profits magazine.

About the Authors

Brittany Diederich

Brittany Diederich is Director of Finance and Administration at Industrial Builders, Inc., a heavy/highway contractor based in West Fargo, ND.

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Jordan Gleason

Jordan Gleason is a Field Project Manager at Construction Engineers, Inc. located in Grand Forks, ND.

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