Jessica Shortall Pushes LGBTQ Equality at Texas Competes
Jessica Shortall is an advocate, author, and speaker, focusing on the economic and human case for people being able to bring their whole selves to work and their communities.
She runs Texas Competes, a coalition of more than 1,450 Texas employers making the economic case for Texas to be welcoming to LGBTQ people, and America Competes, a national coalition in the same vein.
Shortall keynoted at SXSW 2017 on the story of Texas Competes, the Texas bathroom bill, and building unexpected bridges in a divided time.
Her 2015 book, Work. Pump. Repeat., is a survival guide for breastfeeding and going back to work, and her TED talk that same year on the moral and economic case for paid family leave was a TED “Talk of the Day” and has 1.5 million views. She is married with two kids and a dog named Willie Nelson.
Asked where she wants to travel when the world re-opens post-COVID, Shortall talks about Central Asia:
“I served in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2000–2001, and for twenty years, I’ve called my host parents ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ (I wrote about my mom in 2016). Pre-COVID, I was aiming for 2021 to take my family to see Uzbekistan through my mom’s exuberant eyes. But just this month, I lost both my Uzbek mom and dad to COVID. I’m still processing the terrible grief of losing two incredibly dear and influential loved ones, from so far away.
“I am still determined to take my family to Uzbekistan to meet my Uzbek siblings and their kids, and now to visit the graves of the second mom and dad who welcomed me into their family and called me their daughter all these years.”
From the perspective of Texas Competes, what are you most concerned about for the 87th Texas Legislative Session which begins on January 12, 2021?
Our biggest concern is a reboot of 2017 “bathroom bill” legislation, but more tailored to target transgender kids. In 2020, we saw a massive wave of bills in other states targeting trans kids in health care and sports, and we’ve already seen some Texas lawmakers promise to introduce similar bills in 2021. These are bathroom bills dressed up in new wrappers. They similarly draw on misinformation and fear about who trans people are, and seek to push trans kids out of daily life. Like all discriminatory policies, these bills would be terrible for Texas businesses, but more importantly, they’re incredibly harmful to an already vulnerable population. But we’re also going to see a bipartisan nondiscrimination bill introduced, and we’re very excited about that — and we have enormous economic impact numbers to back it up.
If Joe Biden is elected President, how does that change the tone of things at the Texas legislature (as compared to a second term of Trump)?
If a Biden presidency happens, and if he prioritizes nondiscrimination legislation for LGBTQ people at the federal level, we could see another backlash. Why? Because Texas. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blamed his 2017 bathroom bill on President Obama’s policies. But the truly pivotal election for the Texas legislature and Texas laws rests with the State House. If we end up with a Texas House with a pro-equality majority (note I didn’t say “flipping the House,” because a pro-equality majority is absolutely possible in both flip and no-flip scenarios), we could see a bipartisan nondiscrimination bill pass through that chamber for the first time. Certainly that kind of makeup would also create a counterweight to the kinds of discriminatory bills we’ve seen in recent years.
What is the best way for readers to get involved with the Texas Competes mission?
Literally any Texas employer or business — even sole proprietors — can join our coalition for free via the Texas Competes website. That will give them access to our briefings, intel, and calls to action. Folks can also share that opportunity on their social media and with small business owners they know.
In 2015, you published “Work. Pump. Repeat.: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work.” Do you think you’ll write another book — and (if so) what will be the topic?
I always thought I’d write a book, but I never thought I’d write the book I ended up writing. I just did it because I needed the content so badly myself, as I was literally circumnavigating the globe with a breast pump (in a previous job). I do imagine I’ll write another book, but my current work running Texas Competes (and a similar national coalition called America Competes), plus two distance learning kids, has my brain kind of full right now.
“One really heartwarming thing I’ve heard from a couple of big businesses is that the Texas Competes model of informing and organizing has influenced how they’re tackling these other big issues.”
You also presented a TEDx talk titled “The American Case for Paid Maternity Leave” in 2015. The video of that talk has since amassed about 1.5 million views. What did you learn from that experience? And, five years later, are we any closer to what you argued for regarding maternity leave?
One thing that has happened is that I’ve learned a lot about what good paid family leave policy actually looks like. It is important to talk about the people who give birth to babies (including nonbinary folks and trans men, a topic I was pretty ignorant on in 2015), but there are all kinds of caregiving needs that American workers face. The pandemic has laid that — and the inequities in our system, and how lack of leave puts us all at risk by forcing sick people back to work — bare. Advances have been made in some states and cities, but I’ve also learned that a patchwork approach can be hard for businesses to manage. I am hopeful, though, that as we see more women run for office at all levels, this conversation will be centered more, since women still do the lion’s share of caregiving for children and for elderly parents in America.
Over the years, you have written for The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Mashable, TIME, amongst others. What is your favorite thing you have written and why?
Hugh, I gotta tell you — it’s not in print, but it’s my 2017 SXSW keynote. I will never forget when you asked me to do it — the first word out of my mouth was “WHY?” I have never been so scared to give a speech in my life, nor so sure no one would show up to hear it. It was an enormous challenge –soon after the 2016 election, in the midst of the bathroom fight in Texas — to write a speech about building bridges, and as a cisgender and straight person, to try to talk to people about why treating trans people as normal and welcome and worthy of dignity and respect matters. I think I did my best, and I got to talk about my mom, my Christian faith, and sneaking into Kyrgyzstan on a rope ladder, too.
A lot of your work is focused on advising businesses on social / political issues. Have the events of 2020 made businesses more willing to take a stand on topics that are relevant to their employees?
Absolutely yes. More business leaders than ever are looking at issues of gender, race, identity, and the important intersections of these, and they’re taking bolder stances. One really heartwarming thing I’ve heard from a couple of big businesses, by the way, is that the Texas Competes model of informing and organizing has influenced how they’re tackling these other big issues.
Given that you are a heterosexual married woman, have your credentials to lead Texas Competes ever been questioned by the community that you serve?
I am straight and cisgender, and I’d say the person who questions my fitness to do this work most frequently is … me. I know intellectually that every movement requires allies, including some in leadership positions, but I often fret, and check in with colleagues, that I might be taking up a space I should not hold. On balance, when I’m not fretting, I think I have figured out how to use my voice and my talents to bring other folks along on the journey. Just because an issue doesn’t have a daily impact on my family, that doesn’t mean I can stand by and watch injustice and harm happen to the folks around me.
Between COVID and the George Floyd murder, the US has seen incredible turmoil over the last six months. What has been your silver lining during this very difficult time period?
I hate this godforsaken year. I’ve lost loved ones, I’ve experienced enormous stress and anxiety about the state of the country, about my kids’ wellness, about the folks hardest hit by the twinned pandemics of systemic racism and COVID-19, about trans kids being targeted and harmed. I internalize a lot. I’m not doing an amazing job at all of this. My silver linings are my family getting through this together, and the regular people of all political stripes who stand up for LGBTQ people, and LGBTQ people themselves using their voices and finding their power.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals.
He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.
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