Imagine having to wear a fireproof mask all day, every day, in your own home and never being able to take it off — no matter how suffocating it feels. That’s what it’s like for people who risk being fired if they acknowledge their sexual orientation at work.
As a fire protection engineer, I’m naturally aware that suffocation is a physical effect of being trapped in a literal fire. However, suffocation is also the emotional effect of being forced to live a secret life due to the fear of getting fired.
I have been at Sandia for eight years, and I think of the Labs as my second home. This Pride Month, I want to honor Sandia’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and express gratitude for the corporate support of all of our employee resource groups on campus (more on this later).
It is a gift to get to do the work that I love, at a place I love, and be open about the person I love. I also want to acknowledge that there are many people unable to share this gift. There are still a double-digit number of states in this country that do not offer any legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people in the workplace.
Blazes I’ve seen
I grew up in Texas, which is one of those states with no protections. Two of our best varsity sports coaches were fired from my high school in Dallas while I was a student: one for being a lesbian and the other merely for looking like a lesbian. This was devastating to me as a basketball player because the replacement coaches were nowhere near as good. It was also terrifying to me as a young lesbian. This had a profound effect as I saw firsthand how a career can be impacted. I spent the rest of high school wondering what job I could have as an adult that would be safe for me.
To my dismay but not my surprise, a public-school teacher in my hometown was fired just last month for showing her students a photograph of a woman and identifying that woman as her wife. She was not allowed to share a photo of her family, like the one I am sharing here with you. That is my wife, Mary Watson, on the top right, and our two children, Derek and Sara Reitzel.
Traveling by fire road
I knew I wanted to pursue fire risk analysis from the moment I first learned it was a possible career. I could not believe that fire science was a subject I could actually study in graduate school. I spoke to fire professionals and thought to myself, “This just sounds like the coolest thing ever!”
Once in my master’s program, I began a course that required me to analyze data from fire tests conducted at Sandia. Right away, working at the Labs became my goal. My professor told me Sandia only hired people with Ph.D.s. His comment helped motivate me to continue with school. Once I finished my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, I applied to Sandia and have never looked back.
Now, I conduct fire risk analysis for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen refueling stations and other emerging energy technologies. It is the job and the employer I wanted right from the start, and I am very grateful Sandia is not one of those places that could fire me for who I am. But as accepting as Sandia is, there is still work to do here.
Mary, my wife, also works at Sandia as a facilities manager. She has a colleague she now considers a friend. But when they first met, he revealed to her that he had never knowingly befriended a gay person. Over time, he came to both respect her and enjoy her company. Recently, he told her, “Because of you, I changed” and is more open than he was before.
Keeping risk under control
Mary’s story — and other stories like it — are a big part of why I became a leader in the Sandia Pride Alliance Network employee resource group. Sensitivity training can be helpful, but nothing replaces one-on-one relationships between people. These are exactly what SPAN is designed to foster.
The acronym SPAN and our logo are meant to evoke a figurative bridge, while social events and lunchtime discussions help create real ones between lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual Sandians; our allies; and those who’d like to become allies.
I’ll end here with an invitation to anyone reading: Please, come to one of our events. We’d love to have you. Sandia employees can view a calendar with events both in Albuquerque and in Livermore on our website, or view the resources on the site to read about how to be an ally.
Join us, and together we’ll make sure we help spark connections between colleagues that will make all of us feel more at home.