There is a wonderful TED talk by Morgana Bailey titled: The danger of hiding who you are. Morgana is a woman who in November 2014 came out as a lesbian to the world. It appears she kept this fact hidden from friends, family, and coworkers.
As a man who was also deeply in the closet for many years I was struck by these words in her speech:
“I realize now that the moment I realized something was different about me was the exact same moment that I began conforming and hiding. Hiding is a progressive habit, and once you start hiding, it becomes harder and harder to step forward and speak out.”
What struck me about these words is something that has puzzled me for a long time. In the 1970s I was positively counterculture. I was the last guy in the world you ever expected to have a big corporate job. I was sure my future lay in the arts. So much so in fact that after one year at a liberal arts college I transferred to an art school to study design. All through these years, I was hiding who I was.
And then after getting my bachelor’s in design I went on to get an MBA. It was during my MBA program that I discovered computers and decided I was in love. I was pretty geeky. I would sit in my apartment reading the CPM manuals for my new state-of-the-art Epson QX-10 computer with its Valdocs integrated operating system. Writing for the first time became fun because I had a spellchecker. The embarrassment of getting papers back with red circles for my spelling mistakes disappeared. I remember that I loved using the spreadsheet programs called PeachCalc, an early competitor of Lotus 1-2-3. Yes, I was positively a geek.
Somehow in this period of time I transformed from a kid who was nonconforming and isolated socially to someone on the corporate fast track. I think Morgana Bailey says it beautifully, showing the linkage between seeing our differences and conforming and hiding. And she’s right, once you start hiding, it becomes harder and harder to “step forward and speak out.”
As I progressed in my life, the gay went underground. As I hid my sexual orientation, my voice was silenced. I remember thinking to myself “I could never be a politician or anybody in a highly public role because I’m gay. I need to keep my head down.” But then something surprising happened. I was really good at information systems and business management and, with each job, I would get progressively higher levels of responsibility.
Beginning in 1999 I became the vice president of information systems for an $8 billion-dollar company. Highly visible and public. And I progressed from there to a regional Chief Information Officer (CIO) role for a $40 billion-dollar company, and now I work as the CIO of a $10 billion company. The more visible I got in my work life the harder it became to keep my personal life hidden.
Coming out at work has been positively freeing. Coming out has helped me step forward and speak out. Coming out has integrated my life in a way I could never, ever have imagined. Coming out is an incredibly powerful force. Coming out is opening doors for me in the LGBT community and within my own company that I always hope for. And interestingly, I feel a little bit less corporate, more counterculture these days. Coming out has loosened me up in a good way. Someone at work told me I walk around happier and seem more approachable. And it’s true, I am.