Stigma and Stereotypes: Perception does not always equal reality.

My article “I Dislike Labels….Strongly,” relates closely to what I intend to discuss in this article. What I only recently remembered though, was that that article did not constitute the first time I had written something on the topic. I had forgotten writing a letter in the fall of 1998 while at the Royal Military College (RMC), which had been in response to a letter published anonymously in the student newspaper, The Arch. My response wasn’t a public one. The student editor, the Cadet Wing Public Affairs Officer, wouldn’t reveal who it was that wrote the letter, but through her, I had my letter delivered to the individual.

The Arch letter was a written by a gay Officer Cadet (OCdt).  His sexual orientation was not public knowledge at this point; he was still very much in the closet. This was over 20 years ago, so my recollection of his exact words is foggy, but in essence, he lamented how difficult it was to be gay at RMC. The only specific piece I remember is that he expressed a fear of judgement, and a lack of acceptance. It struck a nerve with me, and I couldn’t let it pass without responding. The message I wanted to convey back to him was that in his letter he had effectively judged others in the same manner he himself feared being judged.

To imply that the cadet body would be unaccepting, or that he would persecuted or ostracized by his peers for being gay, he tarnished us all with one fell swoop of a brush as homophobic and ignorant. That caused dissonance in me. I take exception to being lumped into a category with simple-minded people, especially before I have even been given the opportunity to display my true being. Don’t get me wrong, I can understand why this individual would have this fear. Perceptions do not manifest out of thin air without some basis for them, generally speaking. But however naive it may be of me (then and now), I believe that the negativity, hate or narrow-mindedness that may surface within the Canadian Armed Forces is the exception, and not the norm. Consequently, I feel strongly that perceptions can sometimes be dangerous, and that perceptions can cause us to surrender our power to those who least deserve it. Denying our true selves for fear of somebody else’s reaction seems so wrong. I know that is an easy statement for someone to make when then are not the person going through the turmoil, but I stand by it. I felt it necessary to give him some context as to why I felt so strongly. 

Thanksgiving weekend of 1996 I learned that my brother was gay. At the time, I was the only family member or friend from childhood or university that he had confided in. In the summer of 1997, the night before my Performance Objective Check on the Computation of Firing Data …that’s how vivid that memory is for me… is when I got the phone call that he had finally opened up to our family. A bit of mayhem did ensue considering this was 1997, and my family is from a small community in Newfoundland, predominantly Roman Catholic. But support was there. It seemed like it was more of an initial shock. And on 10 Dec 1997, I sat with a good number of my RMC OCdt friends in the lounge of Haldimand and watched my brother appear on Oprah, featured as an example of one of her top ten shows that got the greatest viewer response.  My brother had come out following Ellen’s coming out, and subsequent appearance on Oprah. I pointed out to this OCdt who was clearing struggling with his identity that my Oprah appearing brother has two siblings, one currently at RMC, another a recent graduate, and that neither one of us had any problems whatsoever with him being gay. Moreover, none of our RMC friends had issues with it either. What I was trying to suggest to him was that while his fear was very real to him, his fear was born out of a perception, and not necessarily a reflection of reality.

One of the most rewarding moments in my career occurred about 6 years later while on my Army Operations Course in Kingston. I was at the Tir Nan Og for an evening. I was invited up to dance by a fellow who had been a first or second year when I graduated. I knew him a little, but not well. He said to me, “I owe you a thanks for the letter you wrote.” I had no clue to what he was referring and was a little lost. He said, “You wrote me a letter when you were the Cadet Wing Commander. I was the anonymous cadet.” He went on to tell me that he did come out while at RMC, in his third year I think, and he was now living happily with his partner.

Feelings are real. People can feel a variety of different things, in different ways, and for different reasons. But feelings are not always rational. They can stem from a perception of something that may or may not be an accurate assessment of reality. Feelings and individual reactions are unique to individuals. History and experiences may give us some indication as to how people might react or feel in a given situation, but it is only an indicator, a predictor, and it isn’t always reliable. It can be a touch presumptuous to assume you “know” how someone will feel or react. I cannot express enough how important it is to emphasize this. Like I said above, I believe that fear of a negative reaction (stigma, rejection, ridicule) is a huge detriment to our well being as individuals, and for the CAF as an organization as well. It takes an immense amount of courage for someone to overcome fear of this nature and face it head on – seek help for injury or illness early, get treatment for addiction, embrace your sexual orientation, etc. We need to eliminate or reduce the size of this obstacle. Unfortunately, I believe we sometimes unwittingly reinforce it with the words we use.

Feelings are valid, but perhaps not founded. That needs to be addressed. Through careful choice of words you can challenge perceptions without questioning the validity of, or marginalizing, those feelings. I have sat in mental health briefings, vibrating in my chair and getting more and more irritated hearing affirmative phrases along the lines of, “The stigma of mental health…” It is a subliminal message that there is something negative about it, but that is the exact opposite of what we are trying to say.  We are trying to say that it is no big deal. We are trying to say we want you to get help, just like you would get help for a broken arm. You have a problem with addiction? You are an alcoholic? Okay, no big deal. We can handle that, provided you can admit it, and seek treatment if necessary. We want to normalize those aspects and challenges in life that the majority of us have to contend with at some point in time so that we can be a more productive and healthier organization. We need to challenge the perception. Rather than dwell on what not to do, or what to be afraid of, or the risk, or the negative, let’s reinforce what we do want to be focused on.

Let’s approach it differently. Don’t even mention stigma. How about something like, “If you have never experienced something in your life that you didn’t want to share because you were afraid of how people would react, then you are the exception.” Then, reiterate that point; a perfect, charmed life, without adversity of any sort is not the norm. Make sure it sinks in. Who is then sitting uncomfortably in that room? Perhaps not the same group of people who were at the beginning.

Don’t talk about the stereotype. Don’t say, “Women are taught to not be aggressive or assertive.” Instead, say “You’re a leader.”

Don’t give anyone an excuse to be less than their potential. Don’t waste your time on excuses at all. Lay out your expectations. Instead of, “Men have been taught to not show weakness,” rephrase it to, “Leaders need to show both strength and compassion.” 

Your job as a leader is much more than management of resources. You need to inspire people. You need to look after their welfare. You need to figure out how to motivate them, how to set them up for success, and how to make them a cohesive team that is productive and able to achieve the mission. It is a daunting challenge given the complexity of human nature and the diversity of experiences. Challenge stereotypes and stigma. Understand people. Job knowledge is critical, but for success as a leader, understanding people is vital, and goes hand in hand with communication. Your words matter. You may not fully appreciate how important it can be until one night on a dance floor someone tells you that you made a difference in their life. 

I don’t profess to have all the answers, and mine is but just one perspective. Nevertheless, I thank you for taking the time to read.