Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Dealing with Homophobia in the Workplace

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Note: Originally posted on the EAGLE online community site, behind IBM's firewall on 13 November 2001, at 9: 51 pm, and posted here on 24 May 2007:

Last night, I presented my perspective on dealing with homophobia in the workplace at the GLBT community center in White Plains, NY.

Following my prepared remarks, I handed out copies of the new recruiting brochure produced by Paul Carey and written by EAGLE - Raleigh member, Deb Davisson, of IBM Marketing Solutions.

The program coordinator agreed to put a stack in the room where the 20-something group meets, too.

I talked about the brochures in the context of IBM offering a barrier-free environment for GLBT employees, and that despite how good we have it at IBM, people are still not yet out en masse.

I welcome hearing others' perspectives on dealing with homophobia at work, including our own internalized homophobia.

[Here's the transcript:]

Dealing with Homophobia in the Workplace
presented by Sarah Siegel at
The Loft, White Plains, New York, 12 November 2001

Lovonia, thank you for inviting me to contribute to The Loft's series on dealing with homophobia in the workplace. And thanks to Mary Seminara for connecting us. Mary is a member of the Tri-State chapter of EAGLE, IBM's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) employee group and she is also active at The Loft.

When Lovonia made the invitation, I said, "Well, I hope it'll be OK that I'll be speaking from my perspective and won't be sharing sad stories because I've had a positive experience at IBM." And I have. And it was OK.

I have felt no career-limiting discrimination for being openly-lesbian at IBM and have observed that high-performing, openly-GLBT colleagues have gone only upward in their careers at IBM.

Still, I'm grateful to have had this assignment for The Loft series because it gave me the opportunity to reflect further.

When I dug a bit, I realized I do have substantial experience with dealing with homophobia in the workplace -- my own. It feels risky to say that; I'm a leader of the GLBT business community and I worry that if I admit my own not-yet-fully-loving pride in my lesbian identity, I could slow down progress.

It's a risk I'll take, though, because perhaps someone who's looking for inspiration to become more visibly proud can see my example as one of someone who has fears, but ultimately channels them to become a stronger, more loving leader.

Over the course of my career, my fears around being lesbian have been wide-ranging, including worries about:
· Coming out to my management
· Coming out to peers
· Coming out to teams I've managed
· Helping closeted colleagues on my teams be fully productive
· Getting my feelings hurt by closeted colleagues who are threatened by my visibility
· Standing out as too unfeminine in the conventional sense
· Speaking out against anti-gay jokes
· Being exemplary at my job to reflect well on the GLBT Community
· Representing the GLBT business community optimally

These are just a sample. In each case, I've acted despite my fears and feel I've been successful.

Today, it seems that any sort of phobia is both more and less understandable than ever. For example, considering the recent terrorist acts, as a Jewish-American lesbian, I can look at myself as more vulnerable than ever in several ways, but I don't feel so vulnerable at work.

In my experience, other than among my loved ones, my workplace is the safest place for me to be myself, now more than ever.

Among the first colleagues to check on me on September 11th were two non-gay, non-Jewish Austrian and British IBM colleagues based in Vienna and Hursley, England.
One's father is Egyptian and the other's parents are East Indian – one Hindu and one Sikh. I was so moved when their instant messages of concern popped up on my computer screen.

Both know that I'm Jewish and lesbian; one even accompanied my partner Pat and me to a Chanukah celebration at our GLBT synagogue in New York City a few years ago and we had a delightful time together.

I mean it about work being among the safest places for me now. IBM and an increasing number of employers are ahead of their in-country governments in their policies toward being equitable to GLBT employees.

IBM offers the added bonus of being a global company, so I've been able to work with people from all over the world throughout my career. I've been out to all of them and we've worked well together and even felt affection for one another.

It has, however, been more challenging to be openly-lesbian when I am working with colleagues in their countries than when they are working in the States with me; that has been due to my own insecurities, rather than any negative vibes sent by them or their colleagues, and that's another example of getting past my fears and ultimately succeeding.

Last fall, I was lucky to be among a panel from the private sector, addressing GLOBE, the GLBT employee group of the United Nations. The group wanted my co-panelists and me to talk about best practices for GLBT employees at our respective companies.

I was moved ultimately when I learned that if I remember correctly, at least 60 percent of the people attending our talk were not native-born, not American citizens, and that they can be deported if their management has a problem with their identifying as not heterosexual.

At IBM, I've never needed to worry about being fired for being a lesbian. By contrast, what a brave group of people, who have opted to trust that homophobia in their workplace will not adversely affect them, or who have concluded that hiding their sexual orientation is not worth it to them no matter what.

I said that any phobia seems more understandable and less understandable at once these days – more understandable because these are uncertain times, but also less understandable as follows:

I have nothing left to lose by being me. All hands are needed on deck now and if my hands are capable, I believe that their productivity will matter more than what shade they are, or that they stroke a woman's smooth face as a daily gesture of love.

Love needs to replace fear, now more than ever. The GLBT Sales and Talent team that my counterpart Joseph Bertolotti and our manager Mike Fuller and I are starting up for IBM is a prime example of love overcoming fear. Again, the fear was my own, not IBM's.

I worried about the risk of leaving to work full-time on appealing to the GLBT Community. I had spent nearly seven years building my reputation as a leader of and had gained respect for my contribution particularly to the revenue-producing section of the Web site; my teams designed, developed and built much of the online store.

My heart wanted to be dedicated to the GLBT mission, but I was nervous about the all-lesbian-all-the-time quality of the role I was going to take on.

I spoke with my non-gay manager about the opportunity without sharing my homophobic reservations and she said, "Sarah, this is an amazing startup opportunity. IBM always looks at startup experience in evaluating people who become general managers ultimately."

I had never voiced a desire to be a GM, but was flattered at her vision. I can remember my own well-meaning, older sisters Deb and Kathy asking me very early on in my career, "Sarah, is it such a good idea for you to be so out at work?" And that was when I was a technical writer, who didn't even know I had management aspirations.

In fact, it was my colleague David Chase's and my leadership of EAGLE – Tri-State that led me to want to be a manager. I realized that I enjoyed helping people be a bit happier and more productive through my influence, and EAGLE gave me a taste of what management was like in that respect.

And I have gained insight through helping to lead EAGLE: I have much to learn from the closeted and semi-closeted among my colleagues and a number of them are open to having a dialogue with me. In my role with EAGLE, they know they can open up to me because it's understood that it's between us.

Before I became a leader of EAGLE, and before I took on the role of helping start up IBM's GLBT Sales and Talent team, it was unlikely that closeted professionals would be drawn to me, as I was too poster-childish for them. Now, we have excuses to talk.

I said that I wasn't planning to tell sad stories, but upon reflection, I realize I've experienced a particularly heartbreaking aspect of homophobia in the workplace and I feel it's worth sharing: I'm going to talk now about the sort of internalized homophobia that hurts other GLBT people and not just oneself.

Even with having the mission to reach the GLBT market and attract, retain and motivate the world's best GLBT talent, sometimes I worry about talking to the particularly closeted among my colleagues for fear of getting hurt.

For example, I have presented myself to some on the one hand cautiously -- because I've got this notion that I need to be super-diplomatic -- and then since I feel tense from being overly-polite, I blurt out on the other hand an impossible question like, "What would it take to make you comfortable enough to come out?" Or "Too bad you couldn't bring your partner to that function; she's probably more appealing than many of the guys' wives."

When I say things like that, I'm making these colleagues uncomfortable and forcing them to respond with their discomfort. The typical result is that both of us feel hurt.

However, when I'm brave and also extend myself more naturally and meet them on their own terms, we have a respectful exchange and even become friendly.

Even as I'm about to talk of my own experience before I came out, I'm having a hard time relating to some colleagues' position that it's not self-hatred that keeps them closeted, but rather self-consciousness. There are truly private people in the world; obviously, I am not one of them.

Ideally, I should come to realize that not everyone wants to be as self-disclosing as I do and I'd like in turn for all of the more quiet among us to respect that I wish to be open about my sexual orientation.

I like how my colleague Rob Shook sums it up: "No one should need to hide his or her sexual orientation out of fear [of retribution]," he says.

As long as it's not fear that's motivating the non-disclosure, then I say, Terrific.
My challenge, as a super-open sort of person, is imagining that there would be any other reason than fear for keeping my sexual orientation to myself.

I do respect that there are other reasons, but in my experience, it was fear that kept me from telling colleagues about my lesbianism at my first job out of college.

I need to keep fresh my memory of how it was for me when I was closeted at work. Nothing anyone could have said to me would have helped me till I was ready to be visible.

Once I was ready, though, I wish there had been more in the way of resources around me, like there are at IBM. At Sears Technology Services – the technology arm of Sears, Roebuck and Co. in Schaumburg, Illinois, before much of it became part of IBM -- I was entirely out on my own 10 years ago.

How gratifying it was earlier in the fall to participate in a weekend gathering of the EAGLE – Midwest chapter and see two guys I used to pass in the halls in Schaumburg all the time. If we had been part of a company that had had a GLBT employee group back then, we could have been not so isolated.

During that same weekend, EAGLE hosted a GLBT employee group panel that included reps from Sears' GLBT employee group, which was formed following my move to IBM, and that was also satisfying.

Through our work, so far since June of this year, Joseph and I have discovered what we call the Outness Continuum. We have had a number of experiences both with colleagues and customers, who are not fully-out, but who are in any case eager to help us in our mission.

Recognizing all that I've just said about the potential tenderness of exchanges with semi-closeted and closet colleagues, typically, I'm more comfortable speaking with the often non-gay client team directors and managers about the mission and how Joseph and I can help them sell more to their clients whenever we have a GLBT decision maker for them to meet.

Joseph and I find that they respond to our enthusiasm and understand that what we're doing fundamentally is the same as any classic relationship- selling model, that we're using our network in order to sell. Personally, it's easier for me to be enthusiastic with non-gay people of both genders because somehow, less is riding on their response.

Again, with closeted colleagues, my own homophobia bubbles to the surface and has to be channeled compared with non-gay colleagues, who typically don't bring the same fears to the exchange.

Internalized homophobia is so poisonous because when I'm talking with someone who feels it's too dangerous to be out, part of me always loses a bit of my footing; I think to myself, What do they know that I don't? Why am I so brazen?

Ultimately, I remind myself that I get past my homophobia and come out to people for several reasons:
1. As a Jew, my parents raised me to be openly-proud of my heritage
2. I don't feel I can pass as non-gay, and don't want to try to
3. Being openly-lesbian has become a leadership opportunity; I've become somewhat of a mentor for GLBT colleagues who aspire to become managers, for example
4. I'm convinced there are more potential career and spiritual opportunities for me by being out than by being closeted, at least more of the sort of which I'd prefer to take advantage

For example, in my current GLBT Sales and Talent role, our team presents routinely to Doug Elix, who leads IBM's largest and most thriving division, IBM Global Services. It's a tremendous opportunity to get feedback on my performance directly from one of IBM's wisest leaders.

And it's the ultimate example of homophobia not being at work in the workplace – just the opposite. Doug speaks of what we're doing as helping burnish IBM's reputation in the market and among prospective employees – not the GLBT market, but the market at large, and not GLBT prospective employees, but all prospective employees. He says, "Keep in mind the star-burst effect your work is having."

I'm reminded of having hired an employee last year, who said he decided on IBM because his sister's a lesbian and he liked IBM's diversity commitment.
I said I'm out also because I prefer the sort of spiritual opportunities that being so affords me:

For example, last Friday, a leader of one of our competitor's, Accenture's, GLBT employee group invited Joseph and me to be the outside speakers that Accenture brought in for a special Diversity program; employees from the various employee diversity groups at Accenture in New York City attended, including the GLBT employee group.

The program marked the debut of the GLBT group in joining the rest of the family of diversity employee groups at Accenture. The group was formed last May and after our presentation, we got to meet with the members of that group in particular.

Yes, I relished that a competitor gave IBM an opportunity to demonstrate thought leadership; and yes, it felt good from the standpoint that we're already working together on projects around the world; and it was nice to connect for the purpose of celebrating our respective employees' diversity, but there were additional opportunities that felt particularly spiritual as well:

I felt like Joseph and I were visiting from their future. Their status as an employee group reminded me of IBM circa 1997 and I was moved that I was able to play a part in their early progress. I'm all for competition, but I'm also all for the advancement of all GLBT businesspeople.

In the elevator on the way out, one of the Latino participants said, "Good presentation. What's next for you?"
"I'm going to speak at the GLBT community center in White Plains on Monday about dealing with homophobia in the workplace and how it's not really the non-gay people who are the problem," I said, "but us, being our own worst enemy."

I responded with no self-consciousness because I was still inspired by the premise and success of the program at Accenture, and then it struck me, this guy might be gay himself. And I walked away from the exchange hopeful because he seemed receptive.

The spiritual part is knowing that there's a positive star-burst effect and a loving quality to my career that extends beyond any prior job. I feel like I can re-affirm for my sisters Deb and Kathy enthusiastically, "Yes, it's a great idea for me to be so out at work," but they came to that conclusion themselves years ago as they watched my progress.

My hope is that I'm able to deal ever-more effectively with my own internalized homophobia, so that I'm natural with GLBT and non-gay colleagues alike, and that unswervingly, I heed my own declaration that love needs to replace fear, now more than ever.

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