Cornelia Li

For Julia Oderda, AIA, it all started with blocks and Legos as her preferred playtime activity—any constructable toy she could get her hands on. A drawing class in high school further captured her imagination. One assignment was: draw a house along with floor plans and elevations. Immediately, she noticed she was devoting more hours to this assignment than usual and realized that she enjoyed the deep dive. From there, she started working as an assistant at a firm, was accepted to architecture school, and has not stopped since.

“Being able to be an architect has been a central part of my identity and who I am,” says Oderda, an associate principal at VCBO Architecture based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

When Oderda became an architect, she fit the traditional archetype of the field: white, straight, and cisgender male. In 2018, however, Oderda came out to her wife, family, and friends as a transgender woman.

She reflects the changing face of a discipline that has long lagged behind other fields when it comes to diversity. As architecture catches up to the broader society, the visibility of out LGBTQI+ architects like Oderda has the potential to revolutionize the profession, but it can still be difficult for someone to openly be gay or transgender in the architectural profession.

Oderda was met with a lot of positivity, but she also suspected that disclosing her gender identity wouldn’t generate warm welcomes and affirming embraces from everyone. The stories—better yet, cautionary tales—are plenty: alienation from family, housing instability, unemployment.

“The more I progressed in my transition and the better I felt, the more it was obvious that I would have to come out at work,” she says.

In many ways, Oderda was lucky. Governor Gary Herbert (R) signed state legislation SB 296 into law in 2015, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to Utah’s Anti-Discrimination and Fair Housing Acts. This law has made great strides in protecting LGBTQI+ people, specifically in employment and housing. That same year, a Gallup poll ranked Salt Lake City seventh among major metropolitan areas with the highest percentage of LGBTQI+ adults. By June 2018, when Oderda was transitioning, 18 states (in addition to Washington, D.C.) had passed laws barring discrimination in housing, jobs, and public accommodations to LGBTQI+ individuals.

“I at least have that [SB 296] as something to theoretically protect me. Although there are all sorts of reasons that people could find to fire you,” she says. “It was very scary.”

Not knowing what to expect from her firm, Oderda drafted a plan with a detailed timeline of tasks that needed to be completed before she came out to VCBO’s leadership. As it turned out, the firm’s response was supportive and receptive. “One of the principals made the statement that, with my transition, they have the opportunity to do the right thing,” Oderda says.

But not every LGBTQI+ architect has been embraced when coming out.

Much like Oderda, Amy Braun, AIA, found her architectural inspiration early on. Braun wanted to influence the environment around her. That desire, combined with her artistic background and formidable math skills, meant that becoming an architect wasn’t far-fetched at all. She took a conventional path for her education, earning her architectural degree from the University of Southern California in 2007 when the recession was heading toward full tilt. When she had trouble securing work at an architecture firm, she instead found a job working for a contractor performing bidding and field supervision duties—an atypical path, she says. Then, she made another atypical move and founded her own firm in 2014. She now works full-time at HMC Architects.

“Being visibly trans comes with its own disadvantages. Because of my choice to be visible, to be out as trans, some opportunities for me were hindered,” she says. “I do think that there are probably lots of parts of the country where being out, being visibly LGBTQI+, comes at risk of economic survival. We don’t talk about that enough, if at all.”

Oderda was fearful of these negative outcomes when she weighed coming out to her colleagues—potentially losing her job in a field to which she’s dedicated her life. Out of necessity, Braun launched her company when she was 30 years old, feeling she needed to make an opportunity for herself. “I hope that this profession is moving in a direction where people feel like they can be open about themselves and be fully respected in the workplace without risk to their own livelihood,” she says.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, protecting gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination. The day before the ruling, the Trump administration rolled back certain protections for transgender individuals under the Affordable Care Act.

Visibility is costly when architects aren’t sure how they will be perceived, from fellow architects to a firm’s board members and clients to the construction site. Outing oneself as LGBTQI+ can yield different results depending on the architect’s race, the firm’s leadership, the state’s civil rights legal protections, and the presence of allies and advocates within a specific company. Oderda’s and Braun’s experiences speak of that uncertainty, as well as the pressure to protect one’s career and livelihood when the power dynamics can be leveraged against an individual even if they are part of a protected legal class.

Kevin Johnson, AIA, remembers his reluctance in coming out as a gay man to his colleagues at an architecture firm where he interned during college. The firm was large for an Indiana company. He waited and observed. There were not enough LGBTQI+ architects at the firm, he says. It was not yet time. When Johnson moved to Washington, D.C., and joined SmithGroup in 2005, he grew more comfortable but still kept waiting and observing. A business trip opened the prospects for coming out: As he and his male colleagues were returning from the trip and awaiting their rides at the airport, Johnson recalls one of his colleagues getting picked up by his husband. No big deal.

“It gave me confidence to be my full self. Seeing other out architects succeeding and thriving helped me understand the value of being my full self, and how bringing that to the table would make me a better architect,” Johnson says. “For me specifically, the things that SmithGroup did to be supportive [weren’t] just tolerance. It [being out] just didn’t appear to be an issue. Bigger than that, there’s mentorship and seeing people as role models. Seeing that they were able to be completely comfortable with who they were I think was really a big thing, especially when I was 23 years old.”

Johnson’s career has blossomed at SmithGroup, where he’s led or made significant contributions to higher education projects at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Utah, Georgetown University, New York Law School, and Auburn University. He participated in the firm’s emerging leaders’ program, a three-year process resulting in a capstone project. This December will mark six years since he made principal, a remarkable feat considering his age. As one of his current assignments, he is project manager for a 300,000-square-foot building that is part of Virginia Tech’s new Innovation Campus located just outside of Washington, D.C.

Architecture is still striving to live up to the ideals set forth by Whitney Young Jr. in his speech at the 1968 AIA National Convention. Young, head of the National Urban League, challenged the nearly all-white assembly of architects: “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights … You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence.”

More than 50 years later, Black people remain underrepresented in architecture. Since Young’s speech, more attention has been paid to racial and gender diversity, but not explicitly LGBTQI+ representation or the intersections of multiple identities. Devin Davis, Assoc. AIA, a senior technical project designer at Cleveland-based firm Vocon, is Black and gay and sees a shift in the current architecture climate.

“I feel there’s a full breadth of myself that I can now offer to projects,” Davis says. “Proportionately, there’s always been a fair amount of LGBTQI+ identified people within the industry. It’s the Black spotlight that I think we have space that we need to fill.”

Davis believes firms can do more for visibility of LGBTQI+ individuals and connecting their work with its long-term impact on the built world. This includes incorporating intentional space for community within plans. “We need to use the voice that we have as design professionals and architects. We’re being hired to occupy that space. We’re being hired to bring what we know to the table. And I think we need to own some of that and realize we can help navigate and build the world to be a better place,” he says.

“Lean into the power you may have within your firm. Lean into the strength you have within yourself and make space occupied space. We just have to be more mindful about how we move.”

Davis, 41, is impressed by the younger architects coming into the field for not waiting for others to validate their identities. His advice: Own your story and speak your truth.

Larry Paschall, aia, a gay man, has been a vocal proponent of architecture’s EDI aspirations, including LGBTQI+ representation. His company, Spotted Dog Architecture, is based in Dallas. He also authors the blog “The Big Gay Architect” and serves on the advisory group for the AIA Practice Management Knowledge Community.

Paschall has been openly gay his entire career, which he attributes to working for progressive firms as well as being a firm owner himself. However, he’s painfully aware of the challenges others have faced being open about their identities at work. “As a society, I think we’ve become more comfortable with people on the queer spectrum, whether you’re gay or lesbian, transgender, [or] bisexual,” Paschall says. “As an industry, I think there’s still a lot of hesitation to talk about it. We will talk about gender and ethnicity because we can see it. Queer isn’t always visible.”

To capture accurate numbers of those who currently may feel invisible, Paschall wants better data collection that includes queer architects of various races and genders. AIA’s 2016 report “Diversity in the Profession of Architecture” breaks down the responses to gender and race but does not include LGBTQI+ questions or responses. In 2018, NOMA partnered with The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards for a separate report that stratified race and ethnicity in further detail, but still didn’t include LGBTQI+ options in the surveys. Last year, AIA published the second installment of its Guides for Equitable Practice. The document, created in partnership with the University of Washington, the University of Minnesota, and AIA’s Equity and the Future of Architecture Committee, comprises a “vital part of AIA’s long-term commitment to lead efforts that ensure the profession of architecture is as diverse as the nation we serve.”

It strives to be more inclusive of LGBTQI+ members of the profession. “I think within the profession, maybe that is still some of the issue, that we are not comfortable talking about queer issues even though they [AIA leadership] know we are there. And of course, people are still facing the challenge of worrying about their job.” Paschall says.

Braun remains optimistic about the profession’s prospects moving forward.

“For me,” she says, “to be an LGBTQ architect in 2020 is actually a tremendous time of opportunity. In the work I am engaged in at HMC Architects, there’s a lot of possibility to address gender inclusion in the buildings that we are designing. That’s something that I have never seen until the last couple of years. I think these opportunities exist now because of the visibility of LGBTQ people in the culture.”