Ryan Gann, AIA, NOMA, Mikel Bennett, Assoc. AIA, and Lisa Ulibarri have been or are currently involved in the leadership of AIA LGBTQIA+ alliances that have been formed in the AIA Chicago, Dallas, and Austin chapters. Beginning in 2019 and continuing today, these alliances not only have brought visibility, advocacy, and community to their local chapters but have inspired others around the country to do the same. We sat down virtually with Gann, Bennett, and Ulibarri to hear their stories and about the origins of these three LGBTQIA+ alliances. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Beau Frail, AIA: Ryan, what motivated you all to organize an LGBTQIA+ alliance at AIA Chicago, and how did it get started?
Ryan Gann, AIA, NOMA: AIA Chicago had seen how the WiA Committee and the newly formed Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee were starting to have conversations centered on identity, and we realized there wasn’t a space — physically or virtually — for queer architects to come together. The executive director at the time spoke with a few of us, and we had kick-off meetings to identify those that were openly out at work and in their personal lives.
After those initial conversations, we thought why don’t we just throw an event and see how many people show up? That would be the barometer for how much Chicago has an appetite for this. We hosted a happy hour at Studio Gang in 2019. Then AIA President Peter Exely gave a few remarks about AIA’s commitment to EDI and that started this ripple effect. We wondered why had we taken so long to do this, and why hasn’t this existed before? The event sold out, and the rest is history.
BF: Mikel and Lisa, can you share about the LGBTQIA+ alliances forming at your chapters?
Mikel Bennett, Assoc. AIA: We were at the Austin Outpost LGBTQIA+ Center design competition when we realized that there are a lot of queer designers who would like to come together more often. You, Beau, had also gone to Chicago and seen their alliance. That really kicked you off thinking the same thing — why haven’t we started something already? You talked with our [AIA Austin] executive director, Ingrid Spencer, and decided to launch it as an interest group at first.
Since the pandemic had started, we couldn’t really get together physically, so our meetings started virtually. For me it was different because I’ve never been closeted. But I was married to a man and had a kid, though no one really knew this other part about me. A lot of social movements were happening in 2020, so I felt like I needed to do something. I thought to myself, “I’m going to get involved with this because I’m part of this community and I want to be able to help other people who are like me.” I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t be themselves at work. So that was my personal motivation.
Lisa Ulibarri: I wasn’t there at the initial meeting for our AIA Dallas alliance, but I’ve been the chair subsequently. Bradley (Fritz) was involved in Chicago, so he had the same idea as Beau — there is this great thing happening in Chicago, why don’t we do this here? Bradley was part of the AIA Dallas board, so he had access to pick people’s brains and requested some help because starting it on your own is hard. That’s where I got involved to help move things along. We all share the same sentiment — we should form a community to support each other, especially in a workplace environment. I have met people in offices who are not particularly forthcoming for whatever reason but have told me that they appreciate how visible I am and the resources that we’re able to provide through the AIA. I think that highlights how important and necessary it is.
RG: I would say, too, that there was a broader context happening when these things started to align. At the 2017 AIA Conference in Orlando, there were a series of sessions for the first time specifically about LGBTQIA+ experiences in architecture, and that was an “aha!” moment for many people in that room to say, “Why aren’t we having more discussions like this?” Then there were articles on the AIA website that started to launch conversations and have ripple effects. Bradley fortuitously moved from Chicago to Dallas. Beau, you’ve always been connected within the AIA circles. It’s become this organic network that has started to really blossom.
LU: Our first meeting was in 2021. Forming after the Black Lives Matter movement was felt in Dallas helped us bolster the importance of why we’re here, why we’re doing this, why we’re trying to amplify voices like this. Leaving the marginalized in the margins is not an option anymore, not within the AIA community and not within the broader context of society as well.
Sarah Nelson-Woynicz, AIA: Regarding our identities, especially within the LGBTQIA+ community, there’s sometimes choice and privilege that’s associated with visibility. Can you speak to the importance of being visible and how the LGBTQIA+ alliances can help create space for increased visibility?
MB: I think that’s where I was coming from and why I started to get involved. I wasn’t as visible before. I really felt like this was something I could do to help other people. I’m in my 40s now. There’s no way I would have gone to the office when I first started working saying, “Oh yeah, I like women.” My firm would not have been okay with that. Now I’m so much more comfortable with myself. It feels good to give back and let younger people see that it’s okay to be yourself.
LU: I feel that as a young person, especially as someone who is female-presenting and white, I recognize my own privilege can help bolster the cause and that’s why I’m so passionate about this work. I want people to feel more comfortable — or at least if they don’t feel comfortable they know we exist — and if they need us, we’re here. I’m not trying to get everyone to come out — that’s not the goal — I just want to be a resource for people if they need it.
MB: Representation matters. It does. Being able to see there’s someone up there like you. I’m a senior associate at my firm, so I hope when people see that, they know it’s okay to bring your full self to the office.
LU: Having Bradley on the board of AIA Dallas is awesome — knowing that someone who is part of our community and shares our views is at least in the room.
MB: The previous chair of our alliance is about to be on the board at AIA Austin. I’m going to be on the board. It’s a diverse board now, and it’s really great that’s happening. But that isn’t how it’s always been.
RG: This is about work over generations. Yes, there’s a span of generations that are existing within these communities, but this is a much broader dialogue about mentorship in the past and also to come, about belonging and authenticity. This was something that I made a decision about personally when I moved to Chicago from Western Michigan: “I am no longer going to feel like I need to hide my authenticity.”
I don’t think I recognized the power of that decision until recently when I heard someone say, “Just because you are there at the table means something to me; it matters to me.” That was something I had never consciously considered. Being visible and the joyfulness in the discussions and the fellowship that we have when we’re together is so important. How can we continue to encourage others to do that in their own identities, whether they’re queer or not?
LU: I do want to highlight that I personally have been fortunate enough to not have my professional career negatively impacted by how visible I’ve been, but I know that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. There are still people being hindered, taken off projects, not being chosen by clients because of their authentic selves, and we as a society still need to work on that.
BF: Why is having an LGBQTIA+ alliance so important, especially knowing that our profession has significant gaps in racial-, gender-, and queer-equitable representation?
RG: I think with any group that’s identity-based there’s often the question of, “Why don’t you just join another group that’s already existing, structured, and resourced?” I think there is such uniqueness to the challenges and opportunities each group faces. Lisa, you were just mentioning, there are ramifications to being out sometimes. There is a negative side to this, and there shouldn’t be. Those who have shared experiences can come together to create a path forward and a resource for identity-based individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community. I’ll use an analogy of learning about bias and how architecture has been trying to interrupt bias. That takes practice. You have to learn those strategies of identifying and then interrupting bias — it’s not like you can just show up one day without your toolkit of strategies and expect to make impactful changes.
LU: I think it also comes down to intersectionality. We have Black voices; we have feminist voices; but what about queer Black women’s voices? We do identify and group ourselves into certain camps, but when there’s not that many of us, it’s hard to narrow down specific issues and concerns that need to be addressed within very niche parts of the community. Having the option to be in NOMA and also be part of the LGBTQIA+ alliance allows for such a great convergence of two groups that struggle with different challenges within society. It allows for people to have more conversations about when there’s commonalities and when there’s not. It also provides an opportunity for people like myself to learn about these kinds of things.
RG: I think individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+ are not as visible in conversations we’ve had related to equity and diversity. I think that’s a unique facet that we as a profession haven’t fully understood yet — that some people can hide, that you can keep that portion of yourself to yourself (intentionally or unintentionally), and that has a whole other series of impacts to the way in which you feel a sense of belonging in the workplace, on a job site, or at an AIA event. There’s a whole layered onion that we’re just starting to unravel.
SN: What would an equitable future for LGBTQIA+ people look like?
LU: From a design standpoint, I think we still need more information. Part of my day job is writing research papers. I am currently pursuing one with a co-worker about a prototype transgender clinic which looks at not just medical needs but behavioral health needs and community needs. I say prototype because
there is not really anything out there like that. There is still a lot of speculation about what queer design looks like. It is popping up in little pockets against the vast library of information, but it is not fully there yet. Getting more information, asking those questions, holding panels to get people saying, “Maybe I should put in a gender-neutral bathroom.” Small things like that to make these designs more normal, almost as normal as an ADA restroom.
RG: What would a more equitable future look like? I think I will riff off of your comment about “normal,” Lisa, though I will be a little more radical. Wouldn’t it be great in the future if people had to come out as straight? We are at this point in time that being queer is still seen and perceived as alternative, and that is not the case. How do we shift the dialogue so that it is no longer about alternative or “other”? Whether you identify as queer or not, that changes how you belong in your community and in this profession broadly. That will evolve and begin to diminish the otherness that has disenfranchised many of us for decades, centuries, as a community.
MB: I love what you just said, Ryan. That was fabulous.
BF: When I think of your role in building an equitable future, Mikel, it gets personal. It’s about how you have come into your authentic voice and self in a more visible way — and have started sharing that. Everything that is important to you in your life, about being a designer, a mother — embracing all of your identities and giving back in meaningful ways. We are working towards systemic changes, but that first step is really about being authentic to yourself and then creating opportunities for other people to feel comfortable to do that same thing if they choose to.
MB: One thing that hit me pretty hard recently when talking with a colleague is that it is hard for him to even talk about his weekend with co-workers — like if he goes on a date with a guy and doesn’t feel comfortable sharing that part of his life and has to navigate coming out to his office. The fact that you can’t have a conversation over even a simple question like “What did you do this weekend?” is a big deal. This really affected me. I do not want that for people coming into our profession. You should be able to just go to work as your full self and do your job.
LU: I think part of going along with the “normal” theme is not having you being the “queer architect” as your primary label. It would be great if that becomes a multifaceted part of the way people know who you are. I am a dog parent, and also queer, and also chronically ill. There are a lot of different parts of myself that are all equally part of the pie. Being able to share that and have that be a part of the pie — and not the whole pie — that would be a great future.
Beau Frail, AIA (he/him) has helped launch LGBTQIA+ alliances at AIA Austin and AIA New York and is passionate about advancing equity and justice in his communities. He is a project architect at Fox Fox Studio in Austin.
Sarah Nelson-Woynicz, AIA (she/her) is dedicated to advancing equity, diversity, inclusion, and visibility of LGBTQIA+ architects and design professionals. She is the founder of Pride by Design and is a project architect with HKS in Atlanta, Georgia.