Pride + Action = Change
“What would your girlfriend think about that?” asked a passenger on a flight I was working.
“Would you be bringing your wife along?” questioned an event planner about a speech I’d been hired to deliver.
Those two statements made 18 years apart from each other are a strong reminder that coming out of the closet is not a one time event, but a lifetime process. As a corporate executive, keynote speaker, and author I believe my responsibility is to stand in the stage lights, to bring people with me, and to proudly respond “I’m married to man” each time I’m asked to come out of the closet.
I’m very aware of the lack of gay leaders in the highest ranks of organizations — public, private, educational, governmental, and non-profit alike. A 2014 New York Times article asked “where are the gay Chief Executives?” Another New York Times piece shared the pressure on gay executives to conform in order to protect shareholder value. And while not completely surprising to those in the tech world, there was a bit of eyebrow raise when Apple CEO Tim Cook announced “I’m proud to be gay” in an opinion piece in the Fall of 2014. We’ve come a long way baby — but there is still more slack left in the line.
The pressure to conform is all too real for gay people. As a public speaker, I am thoughtful about my brand realizing that getting paid to share my message (about company culture and connection at work) is a privilege. I speak at conferences and to companies around the world — in places not as progressive as my Southern California home. I attend lunches, dinners, and cocktail receptions meeting-and-greeting people who — because of my moment in the stage lights — are interested in knowing more about me. They ask about kids and wives — and each time I have to make a conscious decision to be my authentic myself (and say I’m married to a man) or to laugh it off and say “no kids or wife…yet.”
In my role at ChowNow as Head of People + Culture, I’m lucky to work with a diverse group of people and to head up initiatives aimed at helping us to continue to push the boundaries on becoming one of the most inclusive and welcoming places to do the best work of your life. We are developing our first ever culture code and values statement that includes our commitment to Welcoming, Belonging and Inclusivity. We have the same challenges that many other tech companies have — improving how we recruit diverse talent, how we nurture and attract a broader spectrum of people to leadership roles, and creating an employee base as diverse as our restaurant portfolio and consumer diner base. These are challenges we proudly commit to tackle together with each conversation, each hire, each promotion.
I have the duty and honor to also say that I am many other things besides my sexuality without having to discount either part — I write, I speak, I lead, I cook, I laugh, I’m gay.
In both situations, I strongly believe that I have a responsibility — as a thought leader, as a public figure, and as an executive — to be a role model, to nudge change, and to create an environment where everyone can be themselves. I can both shine a light on inclusivity and also share other messages at the same time. In some cases, I realize that I’m the first gay person some one may have met in person. In other cases, I understand that I’m the highest ranking gay person someone has worked with before. I can accept that while also still finding my own way to connect.
I don’t think anyone wins from hiding in the closet — I know how that feels from the first 18 years of my life. No one should have to be that version of themselves. While I respect others desire to be private about their sexuality — I also know how powerful it is to have role models and a broad range of examples of what being LGBTQ can be. I remember in my teen years feeling scared to death that I’d someday have to confront this truth about myself. To be happy as an adult, the world was telling me that I’d have to be married to woman. To be productive as a adult, I’d have to fit into a very narrow profile. The examples I saw of people that shared my secret were lonely, frail uncles that lived in Palm Spring or a criminal pedophiles — two things I know weren’t part of my DNA but I couldn’t escape that image because that is all I saw as a gay adult role model. We need public figures, media examples, and corporate executives to stand in front and break the molds, shatter the glass closet, and destroy the barriers that hold so many of us back.
As I get ready to celebrate Venice Pride with the team from ChowNow today, I am doubling down on my commitment to create safety wherever I find myself. I’m committing to continuing to drive the conversation forward and ensuring that pride is met with action. I believe that is where change comes from. The intersection of proudly claiming your identity and then taking action to make sure others can do the same. We all win by raising people up, by bringing people with us, and my helping others simply from standing in our own stage lights.
June is National Pride Month around the world — and as we organize our Pride Parades, make our donations, and promise to #resist, I’m also reminded that the biggest changes often land without parades, without streamers, and devoid of much fanfare. We can make a difference each time we decide to be slightly more thoughtful in our use of pronouns. We embrace diversity when we don’t assume everyone is dating the opposite sex. We drive change when we decide to listen more. We enhance the conversation when we all make the choice to create and demand safe places for work and community.
We progress when we ensure everyone has the chance to be their most authentic selves.
Happy Pride Month to everyone who has a reason to celebrate who they are, to all the allies who stand by our side, to organizations that are committed to creating safe places for everyone to contribute, and to anyone questioning whether they have the bravery or safe space to stand in their own stage lights.
Celebrate who you are. Know that you are enough. Take a step (no matter how small) to commit to your own authenticity. Realize that somewhere someone is looking up to you. Be proud of you.