While conversing over eggs and a croissant with a prospective client about our respective kids and spouses (his wife, my partner), in the back of my mind I note an anomaly. Later that evening, I realize that the simple, natural, human interaction I had earlier that day still feels so foreign, unexpected, unreal. I also note that, in the midst of talking with the prospect, I felt a mix of, on one hand, gratitude for his easy acceptance and, on the other hand, exasperation (at myself? society?) that my colleague’s acceptance should be something for which I feel gratitude.
When I first came out, many lesbians and gay men did not disclose personal details, because much of society rejected the ultimate detail, our sexual orientation. Even if I disclosed that I was gay, I revealed little else about my life to most straight colleagues, to avoid an awkward or unpleasant reaction.
That reticence about being more open stifled my ability to engage fully with colleagues and clients or to develop business relationships. I felt like the “other,” not belonging, and wondered whether revealing personal facts would incline a prospect not to build a relationship with me. The energy I spent worrying about how much I dared disclose detracted from the focus I could have placed on thinking strategically about how I could meet the needs of the prospect or his business.
My reticence derived in part from a sense of self-preservation at a time when an employer could terminate an employee based on his sexual orientation. While I was innately self-reserved, I doubt I would have exercised such caution had I not felt the need to hide so fundamental a part of myself.
With this history, identity and experience, how could a simple conversation during a breakfast about an everyday subject not feel both natural and foreign? I understand why I would feel grateful for such a human interaction. In light of the years it has taken to get (society and me) to the point where the interaction is natural, I understand my annoyance as well.
The ease of connection that many take for granted is an opening to friendship, business, or maybe just an occasional drink. Many minority, including LGBT, employees have historically been excluded from such privilege. Diversity and inclusion programs have sought to remedy this exclusion, with some success.
Celebration is appropriate for the progress reflected in the ease with which LGBT professionals can now, in many places and under many circumstances, engage fully without fear, due in large part to the non-discrimination laws and diversity and inclusion programs. And exasperation directed at the missed opportunities resulting from a combination of societal rejection and prejudice, or at the notion that I feel gratitude for something that others take for granted, or at the efforts to roll back, protections amidst resurgent homophobia by leaders who want to rebuild barriers for LGBT workers and professionals, can, if appropriately channeled professionally and politically, be productive.
Particularly under the current administration, continued vigilance is essential to push back against policies that would permit religious beliefs to trump laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people or that would prevent the expansion of such laws. Those policies threaten the interactions that we have begun to enjoy – the interactions in which we acknowledge and appreciate the humanity in each other, and which are the foundation of meaningful relationships – personal, professional or political.
My experiences as an LGBT professional have informed my perspective in advising companies on employee relations, setting boundaries and standards for employees with performance problems, encouraging employee productivity and defending against claims of harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation or other characteristics. For example, in a matter that appeared headed for litigation, I helped a client develop a performance plan that addressed the substandard performance by an employee, who was gay, and included opportunities for mentoring and development that had been missing. I know from personal experience that the lack of such opportunities can have a significant impact on employee morale and success. The plan not only made a positive outcome for the employee more likely, it also cast the employer in a justifiably better light for a defense if the employee later brought a claim.
When facing employee issues, employers, in my experience, have welcomed counsel that promotes the morale and productivity of their employees as much as minimizes their risk. With an increasingly diverse workforce, retaining counsel with life experiences that reflect that diversity adds value to the legal advice provided.