As a part of LGBTQ+ of FIRST’s pride month activities, I was given the opportunity to interview Mr. Jon Kentfield. Mr. Kentfield is a co-founder of the Rainbow STEM Alliance (RSA), serves as the manufacturing manager at AndyMark, and is a long-time FIRST alumnus and volunteer as well. For most, he needs no introduction, but he gave several details and insights that I personally found fascinating, and I’m sure you will as well.
Q: Why don’t you start by talking a little bit about yourself, what you do, and how you got here?
A: “My name is Jon Kentfield, I’m a cis gay man, and use he/him prounouns. I’m a mechanical engineer and currently am the manufacturing manager at AndyMark!
I started on a FIRST® LEGO® League team in 2000 after my mom had taken me to see the FRC regional sponsored by her company at the time. She had some coworkers volunteering there who told her to bring me. I then joined the FRC program in 2001-02 and graduated in 2005 as my team’s president and drive coach.
In 2003 I started volunteering at worlds when it was in Houston the first time! I got hooked and have been volunteering ever since, 20 seasons now! On top of being a head referee for FRC and FTC, I also am a cofounder and president ofThe Rainbow STEM Alliance.”
Q: You’ve been in FIRST since before many of our members were born, can you describe what the queer environment was like within the program? How did this compare to the world at the time and what you saw outside of FIRST?
A: “Queer involvement was a thing, but most LGBTQ+ (myself included) were pretty closeted. One of my drivers, and the person I eventually came out to first, was the only out person I had any regular contact with at the time. I was the subject of a lot of bullying within my own middle and high school times, for at the time, what others perceived my sexuality to be. It kept me pretty closeted.
However, my team, and more specifically the other seniors I graduated with, were always welcoming and accepting. They even had offered to find me a guy to take as my date for prom if had preferred that. Mind you, I wasn’t out, but everyone in my life basically knew I think. They literally saved my life. I honestly don’t think I would have survived high school if it hadn’t been for my FRC teammates.
The world in the early 2000’s was not kind to queer people (much more so than today), but FIRST has always seemed to be a safe place accepting of outsiders”
Q: When did you begin seeing a serious shift toward making FIRST such an inclusive environment? When would you say it became (mostly) safe for people to present themselves genuinely at events?
A: “I don’t think I saw the major shift towards inclusion until the LGBTQ+ of FIRST student organization was founded and specifically the fact that folks like Woodie Flowers, Frank Merrick, and others within HQ staff wore pins to events and on streams. The work of the student org really has precipitated a cultural shift, and I’m so thrilled to be able to help continue the change.
I mean, I wasn’t publicly out until 2018, when I felt like I needed to be a visible presence at events, especially in Indiana. I wanted to be an example of a (at least moderately) successful gay man, who could still do FIRST at high levels. As an AndyMark employee and head referee, I have a platform and a visible role to do that.”
Q: Obviously, you’re known for founding the RSA. Care to tell people what it is and how it came to be?
A: “My co-founder Tom Wexler convinced me to start the Rainbow STEM Alliance so that the LGBTQ+ of FIRST pins could be sustainably created in the future. The first year or two, they were done with Go Fund Me campaigns where friends and family would give me gifts to put towards the pin costs. The Rainbow STEM Alliance allowed us to grow the program and now we have scholarships, pronoun pins, and a lot more in the works!”
Q: There are many queer students who have come to view you as a role model. Would you say that you have a responsibility toward the younger members of our community? If so, what would you say it is?
A: “Oh jeez. It’s still weird to me that anyone would look up to me. (But again, it’s part of why I live an out life now, because I know there are people who do, and I just want to be a visible presence.) Otherwise, I’m just a guy trying to do a small part to make the world suck a little less.
That being said, I definitely have a responsibility to do my best to learn and grow as the community does. I am not perfect. I make mistakes too. The biggest thing for me is to own those mistakes, and learn from them. There is still so much about queer culture as a whole I don’t know. I don’t have the lived experiences of trans and non binary folks. I don’t identify as ace or aero [sic]. So I try to learn from those around me who do.”
Q: There are also many who are unfortunately unable to be open about themselves due to a variety of factors ranging from community, to family, even to personal reservations. If they are reading this article, do you have anything to say to them? If so, what?
A: “Stay with us. Find your chosen family. Come out at your own time, in your own way. Find a therapist you can talk with openly and honestly! Everyone’s coming out is as unique as they are. I started coming out in my 20’s but wasn’t publicly out until my 30’s. I’ve known since my early teens. Don’t feel like you have to come out. Don’t let people force you out.”
Q: Wrapping this up on the lighter side, are you looking forward to anything in particular this month or for this upcoming FIRST season?
A: “I love pride month. While pride events always give me some anxiety, the feeling of belonging is incredible. The ability to just exist in a space with other queer people brings me a comfort I can’t explain.
Also, in August I am helping out with the first LGBTQ+ off season event, called The Rainbow Rumble! It’s going to be incredible (and everyone should sign your teams up for it!)
As for the FIRST seasons? I always love the start of a new season! Especially seeing the reactions flood in the first weeks or the water game guesses the weeks leading up to kickoffs. 20+ years in, and it still doesn’t get old. The anticipation and joy of a new season just gets me every time!”
We would like to thank Mr. Kentfield for his time and consideration to make this interview happen. Much of what is said is sure to resonate with you whether you’re queer or an ally participating in FIRST in any capacity. We appreciate everything he does for our organization and FIRST as a whole, and I appreciate you for reading this article.
Moderator and Representative, LGBTQ+ of FIRST
About LGBTQ+ of FIRST
LGBTQ+ of FIRST is a student run organization that advocates awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ students, mentors, and volunteers of FIRST Robotics. LGBTQ+ of FIRST reaches out to over 1000 members across the FIRST regions and fronts multiple outreach endeavors.