community

'Growing up gay in rural Nebraska I felt isolated - now I help lead my company's global Pride group'

Austin Christensen from Verizon Media talks about the importance of building community from the ground up with myGwork.

2021-03-15

In partnership with myGwork.

Austin has worked at Verizon Media in Omaha, Nebraska since 2017 when he started as an intern. He is an Ad Ops Specialist and Global Co-Lead of the company's LGBTQ+ network, Prism’s. While he is fully integrated and vocal in the LGBTQ+ community, this was not always the case.

Austin grew up in a small rural town on the Kansas-Nebraska border and looks back on his childhood as a happy time, although one where he had nobody to look up to in terms of LGBTQ+ representation.

“If there were any out gay people in my town they weren’t really seen in the community and identifying as LGBTQ+ was definitely something very unheard of at that time and would have been met with some forms of discrimination, maybe not in person but behind one's back,” he says.

Growing up, Austin was always close with his twin brother and explains that their relationship and his brother’s popularity helped him to go under the radar.

“My brother identifies as straight, he was very involved in farming and ranching. He was always into sports and much more masculine than me… I think people would have known I was gay a lot quicker if it hadn’t been for my brother. Even though he had no idea, with his help I was able to have this mask on and keep my true identity to myself for a while.”

While Austin felt comfortable with who he was, he kept himself to himself and his mask firmly on throughout high school. In fact, he describes his journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance as a completely solitary one.

“It was during high school that I came to terms with who I was. I didn’t talk to anyone about it and actually went to YouTube and found that to be super helpful. I learned about celebrities coming out as gay or lesbian and it made me feel seen. I watched personal stories from the It Gets Better movement that I could relate to.

"I listened to how these people had been bullied and mistreated, but they just needed to get through those childhood years to get to a place where they were understood and accepted. That was incredibly encouraging for me at the time.”

As soon as Austin knew there were other people out there like him, he felt he could accept who he was. Although he was anxious about telling his parents - thinking they wouldn’t understand as there were no other out gay people in the family - he wanted to tell them who he was.

“I came out the summer before I went to college. I didn’t want my parents to think that I went to college and turned gay. So, I told them before I went, to make sure they didn’t think I was being corrupted there.”

Austin was happily surprised when his mother was accepting of him and that his dad was willing to be there for him and put in the time to understand his son; he let go of his pre-existing prejudices and re-educated himself. When Austin came out to his brother it didn’t impact their relationship.

“When I first came out, he didn’t really believe I was gay and said that I didn’t fit the stereotypes. But he came to accept it quickly and understand that there are so many ways to being gay just like it is for straight people. We are still really close today.”

Austin studied advertising and public relations, with minors in graphic design, psychology and LGBTQ+ studies. “My parents were very supportive of my choice to minor in LGBTQ+ studies and wanted me to continue my journey of self-discovery. To this day, I still love going back to the farm and I try to see my family as much as I can; I went home recently for my nephew’s baptism and I was asked to be his godfather, for which I felt very honoured.” 

After graduating and starting his internship at Verizon Media he wanted to make sure the Prism network had a representative group in the Omaha office.

“I was lucky to be in the Omaha office, we have such a great culture and have so many of the employee resource groups represented there. I know we are in a more rural area, but I think that works to our benefit where we want to see representation and promote diversity and inclusion in a less diverse and inclusive city.

"I was involved in some of the resource groups already and in 2018 one of my co-workers asked our Omaha employees if someone wanted to lead the Prism chapter in Omaha and I proudly jumped at the opportunity.”

Austin lost no time and had established the group in the office by March and worked quickly to get Pride celebrations organised for the summer. “Three colleagues and I were all really keen to step up, pitch in, and make it happen. We started the chapter, and we were just a force. We had a lot of energy to get involved in the LGBTQ+ community here in Omaha, get the chapter booming and collaborate with the other resource groups.”

With their dedication and tenacity, the group snowballed into something bigger than they had anticipated. Austin did not shy away from raising his voice and sharing his story, and with his background in LGBTQ+ studies, he was able to bring in a lot of knowledge and run sessions on gender, sexuality, pronouns and so much more.

“I loved running those sessions and then after almost two years as a chapter lead, I was invited to interview for the Global Co-lead role in December of 2019. I had been hired permanently in August of 2019, so the timing was just right for me to take on the role”.

As Global Co-Lead, Austin works with his global lead counterparts, puts on events and promotes LGBTQ+ equality, which is a big passion of his. Where does this passion come from? Austin thinks it stems from his own journey.

“Coming to terms with who I am has made me want to make sure everyone else feels like they have a place to be themselves. I was always drawn to the LGBTQ+ community and wanted to hear stories that were like mine as well as different from mine so I could understand other people’s journeys and perspectives.

"Now that I am openly a part of the LGBTQ+ community, I always feel an ease that I can be myself here.”

One of the most important things Prism is working on at the moment is with the transgender community. “You know within our LGBTQ+ community it is the most marginalised - particularly Black transgender members of our community - so we need to give them a voice.

"We need to help people that don’t have the representation that I have as a white and Hispanic cisgender gay man".

Verizon Media is a corporate partner of the myGwork business community.