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Working in Parks and Recreation means being a Leader in LGBTQ Inclusion – By Jason Shriner

Jason participated in a recent Bethiah Shuemaker Shake, Rally & Roll pickleball tournament hosted by the Department
Jason participated in a recent Bethiah Shuemaker Shake, Rally & Roll pickleball tournament hosted by the Department

When I first started working in Parks and Recreation back in January of 2012, I was a baking instructor. At the time, I was publicly out as a queer person, but I still strategically chose when to disclose that information to somebody face-to-face. I had never worked for a government agency before, and being an instructor was a dream job for me, so I decided that I didn’t want to take any risks and chose to keep my identity to myself.

I’ve been working as the Marketing Manager for Parks and Recreation here in the City of Manassas Park since July of 2015, and I’ve learned a lot about the industry – an industry I never even thought I would ever work in. I’ve always been passionate about the environment and community services, but fairly tepid when it came to parks and recreation specifically. While working here, I’ve read a lot of materials published by the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) (who happens to be located not far from us in Ashburn) and their pillars of parks and recreation. They identify the pillars as conservation, health & wellness, and social equity.

The first two are fairly self-explanatory so I’ll focus on the third pillar. NRPA defines social equity as “ensuring all people have access to the benefits of local parks and recreation.” As a Department, we also have similar language in a few of our eight core values –  namely people, diversity, and accessibility. At first, I found this language to be specifically used to address issues of income inequality and resources for people with disabilities – both extremely important groups of people to provide accessibility to – but over the years, NRPA has really impressed me with the progressive content it has been publishing to encourage departments across the country to examine how they can be systemically alienating people of color, non-native English speakers, immigrants, refugees, and LGBTQ people.

Growing up queer, particularly in a hostile home environment, I’ve always felt excluded from many opportunities. Actually, that’s not exactly correct. The exclusion was a choice I consciously made because certain opportunities felt risky or unwelcoming to me as my whole self. These are my own experiences, of course, so not all LGBTQ people growing up may have the same thoughts and feelings – especially today – but one of those opportunities included sports. I’ll be honest, not all sports interest me, but there were sports I was curious in trying but never actually pursued because I worried what would happen when my identity was found out. Looking back, I realized I missed out on a lot of great experiences. At the same time, if I had the knowledge I have now back then, I might make the same choices. As an adult and in today’s environment, it’s not as difficult to live as my authentic self. Being a queer teenager even in the early 2000s and not having your own source of livable income, every decision carried a lot of risk.

Reading through the LGBTQ inclusion content NRPA published, it made me realize how important parks and recreation is to inclusion – and how important inclusion is to parks and recreation. Pillars and goals aside, as a government agency, we have an obligation to provide fair access to our services. But inclusion goes beyond obligation – simply put: it’s the right thing to do. I am deeply grateful that my coworkers and my Director here in the Department understand that access goes beyond low and equitable fee structures. I am also incredibly grateful that everyone here listens to my suggestions as a queer person and works to be inclusive of the LGBTQ community.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of ways we’re working to be more inclusive of LGBTQ folks:

  • Partnered with PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of the LGBTQ community)
  • Offered LGBTQ specific programs like self-defense and yoga
  • Updated our membership handbook to be gender neutral and inclusive of gender expansive people and identities
  • Providing a gender expansive choice in our patron engagement survey (which will become choices – with an “S” – for the 2018 survey)
  • Added sexual orientation and gender identity to our programs and facilities non-discrimination policy
  • Online staff training on suicide awareness with an LGBTQ specific module (through the Suicide Prevention Alliance of Northern Virginia’s (SPAN) LGBTQ committee)
  • Attended a panel discussion specific to making outdoors spaces LGBTQ affirming
  • Partnered with Team DC an LGBTQ sports club based in DC

Of course, there are still so many more ways we can continue to become more LGBTQ affirming, but we’re proud of the changes we’ve made and the trainings we’ve participated in.

If I were talking to somebody, usually this is about the point in the conversation where somebody will ask me how having LGBTQ specific programs promotes inclusion, because by definition it’s exclusive. As I mentioned in my personal story above, LGBTQ people may opt themselves out of programming if they don’t feel like their identity will be authentically respected – and even if they do come, they may not get as much out of the program, because they’ll be afraid to participate authentically. For example, trans participants attended the self-defense class and felt reassured when the instructor asked for everyone’s pronouns – and their pronouns were used and respected during the entire class. In a non-specific program, these individuals may not even share their pronouns in the first place and that added stress can distract from their learning. Imagine everyone using the wrong pronouns for you for an entire class and how uncomfortable you would feel. Ideally we want LGBTQ people to feel completely welcome to be their authentic selves in all of our programs and facilities, and we can show that we believe that by offering LGBTQ specific programs.

Eventually I did decide to come out as an instructor to my supervisor at the time. It got exhausting having to explain my partner in vague terms, and I eventually felt that my identity wouldn’t be an issue. Actually coming out here at Parks and Recreation was an extremely liberating experience. I found out that some of my coworkers went to universities that had lots of queer people and have close relatives they admire who happen to be LGBTQ. When I was at the front desk, my supervisor even proactively addressed an issue she witnessed and perceived as discriminatory or offensive on my behalf. I have a lot of support here in the Department and I want you to know that you do too. We aren’t perfect, but we’re getting better every day.

If you’re interested in learning more about parks, recreation, and sports initiatives to make these spaces and opportunities more LGBTQ inclusive, here’s a list of resources to check out:

You Can Play Project

Team DC

A Queer Endeavor

5 Ways to Make Classrooms More Inclusive (NPR article, October 2018)

Parks for Inclusion Resources (my favorites are below, but all are great!)

Parks for Inclusion LGBTQ one pager

Gender-Spectrum Inclusion for Recreation Professionals (NRPA Magazine, October 2018)

Sport Your Personal Gender Pronoun­ (NRPA blog, September 2018)

Jason Shriner is the Marketing Manager for the City of Manassas Park, Department of Parks and Recreation. He can be reached at 703-335-8872 or via email at J.Shriner@manassasparkva.gov.

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