A woman from Ontario is elevating the voices of members of the LGBTQ2S+ community in agriculture
By Jackie Clark
Julia Romagnoli grew up in a small town in the Niagara region of Ontario. She participated in 4-H, worked on dairy farms and was involved with her family’s fruit farm in Beamsville. Her father was an auctioneer, so she became comfortable working around farming equipment at auctions.
She graduated from the University of Guelph in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, majoring in animal science. Now she works as a production systems specialist for John Deere, providing support to John Deere dealers and customers across eastern Canada for their hay and forage products.
Romagnoli works on “everything from tractors and mower conditioners up to technology on our self-propelled forage harvesters. The biggest thing is really helping to connect agronomy, plus equipment, plus technology and how it can fit into the dairy and livestock operation,” she told Farms.com. “I’ve always gravitated more to livestock. I’m in a position now where I like to think I get the best of both worlds. I get to work with equipment, but at the end of the day it’s always about the cow.”
She’s also gay, and on a mission to increase LGBTQ2S+ representation in the ag community.
Growing up, Romagnoli didn’t have examples of LGBTQ2S+ folks who were “out” in the agriculture industry, she explained. In 2020 she started @prideinag_, an Instagram account celebrating Pride in agriculture.
When Romagnoli was growing up “I always felt like I knew there was just this different element of me, but I think I just pushed it down,” she explains. “I wasn’t really interested in anyone that I was told that I should be.”
However, when she got to university “you start to become more social and get to know more people and that’s where I started to have those lightbulb moments,” she added. “To me it was a struggle. I really had a hard time coming to terms with being gay, because it was not what I thought was okay.”
Over time she was able to give herself grace, self-acceptance and eventually celebrate that part of her identity. After seven years of self-discovery, “it’s a lot easier to talk about now,” she said. “I look back to even where I was a year ago and I’m so humbled by personal growth (but) it definitely was hard, I’m not going to sugar coat it.”
Mentorship and representation can make all the difference in the struggle for LGBTQ2S+ folks to find acceptance.
“If I had one person to look up to that was in the ag industry to reach out to, it would have meant so much to me,” Romagnoli explained. Now, she uses the Pride in Ag Instagram account to showcase “examples of folks that are across the LGBTQ2S+ community, but also across different areas of agriculture.”
Diverse identities should be a cause for celebration, she added.
“We celebrate differences in agriculture every day. Specialization of agriculture is always growing. So, we can have that diversity in the industry – we also need to recognize the diversity in people,” she said. “Looking back, it would have helped me a lot.”
She cannot speak for everyone in the LGBTQ2S+ community, but her advocacy gives more folks a voice and platform to share their experiences. Being open about parts of your identity that are historically oppressed or marginalized is difficult.
“When you start in the industry, you’re really just trying to prove yourself and build relationships and show your best work,” Romagnoli said. Being openly LGBTQ2S+ can add an isolating layer to that struggle.
“Not everybody is going to be supportive, but you have to stay close to those that are and lean on them,” she explained.
She was told when she started a field position that it would be an uphill battle because she was young, female and not local. Some folks told her that if she wanted to be successful, she should keep the fact that she was gay to herself.
“We know all the tolls that can take,” Romagnoli said. Hiding one’s identity can erode self-esteem and mental health.
However, putting yourself out there is taking a risk, she added. In her case, the risk paid off because she was fortunate to find safe and accepting spaces within John Deere.
“I made the decision in the last year to be more open at work, and that has allowed me to connect with an employee resource program at work called Rainbow, which also has helped me to meet more people within my own company within the LGBTQ2S+ community and form a network there,” Romagnoli said. “Now that it’s pride month we see a lot of rainbows, which is great. I’m so happy to see others make that stance and say, ‘this is a safe space.’”
Romagnoli doesn’t want to downplay the power of that visible signalling, however, organizations and companies need to follow up that step with an attitude and culture of inclusion and support for LGBTQ2S+ folks, and not just in June.
Leaders in ag organizations can “take a class on LGBTQ+ awareness, try to learn more about how to be an ally, not just in your workplace but in the community,” she suggests. Learning about and using inclusive language is also important.
Examples include specifying your own or asking other folks for their pronouns and avoiding heteronormative assumptions. Instead of assuming gender, you can use words like spouse or partner when asking about someone’s home or personal life.
“The LGBTQ2S+ community is an invisible diversity,” Romagnoli said. “You can’t necessarily tell if some of your peers around you are part of the LGBTQ2S+ community, but what if they are? Would you be proud of the language that you use? Would you feel like it was inclusive? The language that you use matters.”
She remembers experiences of overhearing homophobic comments.
“They have no clue that I’m sitting here and I’m gay. They have no idea that what they just said is totally inappropriate,” she explained.
“I’m really proud to be a part of Canadian agriculture,” Romagnoli said. In the future “I really want to be a leader in the agriculture community in Canada.”
She’s working to make Canadian agriculture an even more diverse and vibrant industry.
“I have this vision of being in an office and onboarding that new hire, and having that little flag in my office that tells them right off the hop that this is a safe space and this is agriculture,” she says.
Nicky Ebbage\iStock\Getty Images Plus photo