Coming Out as an Ally: Why Pride is Personal for Me

Katie Burke
Oct 11, 2016 · 6 min read
My amazing siblings, a few of the many people who supported Brendan when he came out

In my role at HubSpot, I’m lucky enough to run our Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, something I care deeply about and that as a company we’ve made a public commitment to getting remarkable at long-term. Like many tech companies, we can improve in key ways, including recruiting more diverse talent, developing and attracting more women in senior leadership, and ultimately building an employee base as diverse and dynamic as our global customer base.

For me, this commitment is mission-critical to our business and our brand, and one of the most exciting parts of my job. I’ve written a lot about my personal interest in developing female leaders, but one thing I talk less about is why our commitment to LGBTQ inclusion is so deeply important to me personally. Given that it’s National Coming Out Day, there’s no better time to share why this issue is so personal for me and for my family.

Growing up, my little brother Brendan was everyone’s unapologetic favorite. Infinitely charming, handsome, and tall, he was as close with the lunch ladies at his high school as his hockey coaches. He was the type of person everyone simply adored. A high school hockey player, he went onto Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he helped out with the hockey team, was involved in the college Democratic organizations, and developed both a wonderful group of friends and an incredible footprint on campus. During his sophomore year in college, he shared some news with our family: Brendan was gay. Like so many LGBTQ young people, he had known for years, and had confided in a few close friends late in high school. But the act of telling us, his family, somehow made it all real and permanent.

As with so many young men, the person Brendan was the most hesitant to tell was my father. For context, my dad is a hockey executive who has a photo hanging in his office of him skating off the ice after a fight, blood coating his face and a faint smirk toward the camera. His brand is built on truculence and toughness, so telling him you’re gay as his youngest son did not come easy, but Brendan did it, with my younger sister waiting at the top of the stairs for him, always his cheerleader and partner in crime. My dad’s response? “We love you, this doesn’t change a thing.” This was a welcome sigh of relief for a young man who carried a secret deep below his smile.

A little over a year after Brendan came out, with classic bravery, he decided to share his story publicly. John Buccigross at ESPN wrote a story that would go viral, and the world learned what our whole family had long known: that Brendan’s charm was matched only by his courage. Brendan’s story amassed international media attention, and letters and emails poured in from LGBTQ young people, from dads struggling to accept their children and finding new ways to connect with their children after Brendan’s story, and from LGBTQ organizations interested in covering how the hockey community lined up in his support after his brave coming out story ran.

I have to admit that while I was incredibly proud of Brendan for telling his story, I’m his big sister. I would sob loudly at the homophobic comments on articles covering his tale, unsure whether he could stomach the hatred that came alongside the support and love on a daily basis. He was unphased — he had long admired pioneers, and he wasn’t about to let a few awful people ruin something that could have a larger impact on people who really needed a public voice.

Then, suddenly, Brendan’s story came to a screeching halt. He and his friend Mark Reedy were driving to Miami on a snowy evening, and were killed in a tragic car accident, two young lives cut short with no notice, What had begun as a triumphant narrative of strength and solidarity was suddenly overshadowed by silence and sorrow. That week is still as raw and hard to discuss now as it was six years ago — I’m not sure that pain ever truly goes away, nor the horror of seeing your parents bury their son.

But shortly after Brendan died, my brother Patrick decided to do something. He partnered with two co-founders to launch You Can Play, an initiative focused on increasing access and inclusion for LGBTQ athletes, coaches, and personnel in the world of sports. Brendan’s voice, silenced too early, now had heavyweights in sports in its corner, ranging from Brendan’s friends Andy Miele and Tommy Wingels (both former Miami Redhawks) to Rangers heartthrob Henrik Lundqvist and Leafs star Joffrey Lupul. What had begun as a single act of courage had grown into a movement, with some of the toughest guys in the world in the ring giving voice to groups historically disenfranchised in sports, with my siblings and parents playing a critical role in starting an important conversation.

Since then, You Can Play has developed relationships and programming with many of the top leagues, teams, and players in sports. A single act of courage sent a tremor throughout the sports world that continues to this day, and makes Brendan’s bravery and willingness to share his own story in spite of the comments and in spite of the backlash all that more remarkable.

So for me, working to make HubSpot and the technology world more inclusive for LGBTQ people is not just part of my job, it’s part of my being. I’ve seen first hand how powerful stories can be in changing people’s behavior and transforming locker rooms globally, and I’ve been fortunate to personally meet countless families positively impacted with Brendan’s stories. But I have also seen, read, heard, and felt the hatred and bigotry of people who have the audacity and naivete to believe that silence is more powerful than strength, the hate will win over love, and that LGBTQ individuals in any way shape or form deserve anything less than every inalienable right that the rest of us enjoy on a daily basis.

Sometimes I watch interviews with Brendan just to hear his voice and be reminded of the weight it carried with others. Of course it saddens me to hear, but it also reminds me just how much courage matters, and how imperative it is that all of us use our voices to show just how committed we are to being allies and just how loudly we are willing to raise our voices on behalf of LGBTQ candidates, employees, customers, and partners.

Pride Parades, National Coming Out Day, and frankly the current political climate are also an important reminder that often the most important work occurs without a parade, without fanfare, in the daily fabric of our lives, and that each and every one of us has the power, voice, and responsibility to create, maintain, and develop safe spaces, communities, and workplaces for LGBTQ people to live, work, grow daily.

In particular, we must acknowledge and combat the intersectional forces that empower some while marginalizing others, in particular as queer and trans* communities of color continue to face an uphill battle for safety, let alone inclusion. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be partnering with our team at HubSpot to do everything in my power to create safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ employees, and coming out as a strong ally today and every day for the rest of my life.

Happy #NationalComingOutDay to all the people brave enough to share who they really are with the world and to so many others wondering if that bravery lies inside them. When it seems like the world is conspiring to hold you back, know that there is an army of people waiting with open arms for your authentic story, and I’m proud to be one of them, thanks to my brother’s bravery and the outpouring of support that followed his coming out story and passing.

Katie Burke

Written by

Chief People Officer at HubSpot. Proud graduate of Bates College, MIT Sloan, and Space Camp. On the interwebs @katieburkie

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