The Accidental Advocate

Larry Paschall

Chamber and SBA MOU signing at the Business Equality Conference. Courtesy of Larry Paschall.

Chamber and SBA MOU signing at the Business Equality Conference. Courtesy of Larry Paschall.

Advocacy, much like charity, starts at home. Except that wasn’t the plan. I just wanted to be an architect.

Over twenty years of practice, I’ve worked for various firms. I’ve helped create a new practice with two other partners and eventually ventured out on my own. Somewhere along the way, perhaps as I stood in front of 100+ architects at American Institute of Architects (AIA) Minnesota in 2010, poised to give my first public presentation, I took my first step on the path toward advocacy.

And I didn’t even know it.

My partners and I joined the North Texas Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender (GLBT) Chamber of Commerce in 2010 with one goal in mind—visibility. We were a new firm in a poor economy. No one knew who we were, and we needed business. We would be the only architecture firm in the Chamber.

Soon after joining, I began to volunteer in the Chamber, and soon enough I had spent almost two years serving as the chairman of the Board of Directors. The more involved I became with the Chamber, the more connected I felt to the LGBTQ community. My sense of identity enhanced as a gay man.

At that point, I did not foresee the advances the LGBTQ community would experience, such as the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act (and by extension the validation of my own marriage).

Yet somehow, as the LGBTQ community continued to make strides toward equality, I was still the only architect in the Chamber. I simply began telling people, “I’m the only gay architect in Dallas.”

That statement wasn’t true. However, reality is often perception. And I knew my reality.

I was the only architect in the Chamber. The AIA did not have an LGBTQ-specific committee or group. And when I attended LGBTQ mixers at the annual AIA conferences, I was the only architect from Dallas, and sometimes the only architect from Texas.

Although I knew other gay architects, the more involved I became in the LGBTQ community, the stronger the idea that I was the only gay architect grew. I knew of others—I just never saw them.

At the same time, I was also busy developing my skills as a public speaker. Whether the idea was new marketing approaches for architecture firms or connecting public service to recognition of architects, I was traveling to various conferences and offering what I hoped were new ideas on how we approached the practice and business of architecture.

With each presentation, I shared personal aspects of my life to help tell the story and create a connection with my colleagues. I “came out” over and over as a gay architect. I was advocating without realizing it.

I left my firm in 2016. I could check the box that said “firm owner” and be proud of what we had accomplished. I was certainly not the same person, and I knew that there were other stops left to visit on my career path. There was more to do as an architect than just own a firm.

Perhaps driven by everything that had been happening in the LGBTQ community and by my time spent with the Chamber, I realized that the time had come to stop advocating as just an architect and business owner and start advocating within the profession from an LGBTQ perspective.

The AIA, after more than 100 years, has begun to recognize the diversity and inclusion issues within the organization and within the profession. Committees have been formed. Surveys done. Reports issued. Conferences held. Each one centering on two groups—women and minorities.

Yet when the 2016 Equity in Architecture survey asked respondents about their sexual orientation, the response was so low that the information was unable to be included in the final report. Other architecture organizations had no datasets available either. Had the question ever been asked before? Or are architects still reluctant to answer the question for fear of losing their jobs?

If the AIA wants to talk about diversity and inclusion, it must consider everyone. Diversity and inclusion cannot stop at just women and minorities. Poor survey responses do not mean that LGBTQ architects are not dealing with their own unique issues. We do not have another 100 years to wait for our turn.

As LGBTQ architects, if we want the AIA to start addressing our issues; if we want to be included in the discussions about diversity and inclusion; and if we want more than a cocktail reception at the annual conference; then LGBTQ architects must begin inserting ourselves into the conversation.

At the next conference of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) or at the next meeting about equity in architecture, someone needs to ask how the needs of LGBTQ architects are being addressed.

We must make sure we are counted, and we need to be doing this at local, state, and national levels. We must look at how we can create a presence for ourselves on social media.

I am not the only gay architect, as much as I may feel that way at times. If we do not want to stay the silent minority, then our voices must be heard. I insist we have a seat at the table.

More importantly, we must be ready to step up and answer when organizations call on us to do so. We cannot work to make ourselves part of the conversation and not be willing to step into a leadership role.

And should we find ourselves still sitting outside the AIA looking in, we should be prepared to create our own space. NOMA began in 1971 with twelve architects in Detroit.

Advocacy only takes one person—even if that person is the only gay architect in Dallas.

Larry Paschall, AIA, is CEO of Spotted Dog Architecture, specializing in residential architecture. Mr. Paschall is a fervent advocate for his industry and the communities in which he both lives and serves. He is currently pursuing advocacy opportunities within the architecture and LGBTQ communities.