Venturing OUT: My life as a queer Fellow

By David Lai, 2016 Fellow

Hey there, VFA Blogosphere. Happy Pride!

My name is David, and I’m a 2016 Fellow currently living in LA working in market research & political consulting. During the fellowship, I split my time between Miami, FL and Denver, CO. I went from managing marketing and business development at a fast-casual ceviche restaurant to building out the data science department at an online interior design company.

I was flattered when I was approached to write a blog post for VFA this month for VentureOUT – a resource group for LGBTQ+ Fellows and Alums. The overall topic I was tasked to write about: my experience as an LGBTQ+ fellow in VFA. Pretty broad, right? “Clear as mud” as one of my supervisors used to say during our meetings. In efforts to streamline my thoughts, I’ve decided to focus on three key experiences I’ve had as a VFA Fellow – attending Training Camp and working at startups in Miami and Denver.

These are only my personal experiences. I do not mean to and cannot speak for the entire LGBTQ+ community.

Attending Training Camp

Hattie, Marisa, Me, and Dimitri in Providence, RI during Training Camp; best allies/queer friends I could ask for

Coming into Training Camp, I knew I wanted to find other queer fellows to connect with. It was particularly important in VFA because I knew I would be going to cities that weren’t what I would typically deem as “gay meccas” like NYC, SF, and LA. I falsely bought into the notion of “metronormativity”- that queer people only lived in major cities and nowhere else – and feared that as a queer person of color (QPOC) in a VFA city, I would have a difficult time finding communities of people similar to me.

By the end of Training Camp, some of the queer fellows and I had formed VentureOUT and led a diversity workshop on LGBTQ+ identities for my fellow Fellows. The VFA Team was incredibly supportive in both of these endeavors, and gave me some reassurance that I would continue to be involved in queer communities post-grad.

Starting my Fellowship in Miami

In my first week in Miami, I joined a gay men’s tennis league and ran out of tinder likes much faster than I ever humanly thought possible (we all do this in a new city, no shame). In queer communities, it’s not uncommon to use dating apps to find platonic friends. I had faith that I could make perhaps one or two friends from the app – along with a date or two.

Damian, Me, and Hiram at Ft. Lauderdale Pride 2017. The two (amazing) friends I made from Tinder.

The first couple of months were admittedly rough. It’s hard enough to make friends in a new city, but tack on a preference for a certain sexual identity that approximately only 10% of the general population identifies with, and it just makes it that much harder. But eventually, I had two close QPOC friends that I met on Tinder, and attended a weekly potluck with the gay men’s tennis group.

These queer connections helped me stay sane in Miami, where there was (from my perspective) a rather strict adherence to gender norms. For instance, men were to greet women with a kiss on the cheek and other men with a firm handshake – even in a business context. Although this gendered behavior was rather innocuous, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I greeted another man with a kiss on the cheek in a business setting. I don’t think that action would have been so innocuous.

Moving to Denver

After a year in Miami, I decided to move to Denver for another opportunity within VFA because my interests had shifted from restaurants to data science. I also wanted to get a taste of what other US cities were like from the perspective of VFA, as I believe the cities themselves are perhaps some of VFA’s biggest assets. Similar to Miami, I joined an LGBT group and utilized dating apps to make queer friends – with great success, much to my (pleasant) surprise.

Some of the crew at a “Big Gay Bacon Potluck”

My time in Denver surpassed all my expectations. I never expected to make so many queer friends (from a dating app, no less) who also understood the nuanced ways in which the LGBTQ community discriminates against QPOC. One of my non-POC friends actually almost got into a fist fight when someone threw a racial slur my way at a bar and I was too scared to confront him; although I don’t condone violence, the sentiment was oddly reassuring – I appreciated that he spoke up for me when I did not feel safe doing so myself.

My friends even somehow managed to give me the courage to perform drag for the first time. They helped with everything, from taking me dress shopping, raiding the local Walgreens for cheap makeup, sending me links for heels that might work for my outfit, and going with me to my friend’s party so I wouldn’t be the only one in drag there.

Never in a million years would I have imagined that Miami and Denver could be places I could so deeply explore my queer identity, and connect with so many compassionate queer folk who would support my journey.

Ironically, I did end up moving to Los Angeles – one of the “gay meccas” I had my sights on in the beginning of the fellowship. Towards the end of the fellowship I realized I wanted to engage in advocacy work, primarily for LGBTQ and POC, and Los Angeles had the opportunities I was looking for.

Life Post Fellowship

It certainly feels strange living and working in a non-VFA city; however, even in the City of Angels, I believe the VFA core values still apply. Now more than ever I am determined to create value for myself and others and believe all the more fervently that smart people should build things – especially non-physical “things”.

The term “engineer” has largely been used to describe people building products or software, but rarely has it been used for people who build and tinker with seemingly intangible systems (e.g. referral programs, operational processes, community building). I think we need to start reframing the notion of what an engineer is, especially for VFA fellows. For better or worse, I believe VFA makes us all more of an “engineer” than when we first entered.

Personally, I am interested in figuring out how to engineer the various social, cultural, and political systems that shape our everyday lives to improve these systems for LGBTQ+ and POC communities. In undergrad, studying psychology and sociology, I’d often tell people that I aspired to be a “cultural engineer” or “social architect” without really understanding what those buzzwords really meant. After VFA, I still don’t. But, I do have the courage to more confidently say that I still aspire to those ideals, and the knowledge that I can build a great community of people around me wherever I am to help me figure everything out along the way.

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