The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.
Today, 20 Years Ago
In 1987, if I remember correctly, I was sitting in the Chicago studio audience of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," as I lived in Chicago at the time and Horizons, our local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community center, invited volunteers to be in the audience for Oprah's National Coming Out Day (NCOD) episode.
When Oprah shook everyone's hand on our way out, it was electric -- I've never again felt as much present-ness by a stranger in a single moment. Of course, Oprah was no stranger to me, but I was to her, and she gave a firm handshake and absolutely respectful and complete eye-contact. I loved her for doing the episode.
The day before it aired, my mother called one of the women from the Jewish community where I grew up and told her, "My daughter Sarah's going to be in the audience on the 'Oprah' show; Oprah's doing an episode about coming out as gay." My mother said she told Mrs. X strategically, as she knew that Mrs. X would tell others and it would be all over the community in one, swift afternoon.
An Indian colleague and I met today and he asked what made me ready to be fully open. I told him how I had been self-aware since age 11 -- he said that he knew about his own attractions by the time he was three or four years old -- but that I didn't own my identity till a decade later, when I was 21, after a lot of running from, and to, it.
"Something I didn't realize until I learned it from my mother," I said, "was that just as our families can reject us, we can reject our families, too. My mother said that she had already lost my father [from bile-duct cancer at 56] and that she didn't want to risk losing me, too, by not accepting me."
"That's something I never thought of until just this moment either [-- that rejection can go two ways]," he said, with an encouraged expression.
"Of course, no matter what wise thing anyone told me along the way, until I was ready to come out, I did not do so. It didn't matter that my Honors Advisor in college, who I considered a role model, told me it was fine in her experience to be out. She could have told me a thousand wise things, but until I was ready, nothing she said would have convinced, or did convince, me."
"But it's conversations like those along the way that help so much," he said, and I wondered if I could be for him what she was for me.
Our stories were full of dramatic moments and had many touching twists. Recently, I realized that non-GLBT people's stories of their romantic awakenings were interesting, too, but that so much less frequently did I ask them to share their stories because with one another, our stories were like jugs of water at a serendipitous oasis. Each of our stories helped us tell ourselves that we weren't as alone as we felt, growing up.
Of course, most teenagers were alienated for one or another reason, and our particular alienation was just one brand of many.
Why Does IBM Care?
Unfortunately, I had to rush, ultimately, to a 1:30 pm teleconference, and he asked me a great question as we were saying goodbye. "Why does IBM care about GLBT people, or is it just the GLBT community at IBM, who cares and gets others to care?"
"We have a legacy of inclusion," I said, feeling like I sounded like a propagandist and so I qualified it:
"Prior to integration in the South, IBM told the city of Raleigh that it would build a huge facility there, but only if black and white people could work side-by-side. Raleigh became integrated ahead of the rest of the towns around it as a result." I had to run to my call and we agreed to talk more.
It was definitely yes and yes to my colleague's question; since IBM was among the very first giant companies to include non-discrimination for "sexual orientation" in its equal employment opportunity, GLBT people were encouraged to work for IBM, and since we were encouraged, we became a strong community in the company, advocating for our further and further inclusion, e.g., for domestic partner benefits, for inclusion of "gender identity and expression" in our global non-discrimination policy, for a global team dedicated to the GLBT business-to-business market....
Why Don't Other Smart Institutions Care More?
The grad school, where I'm pursuing my Masters in Organization & Leadership, does not have a great record of visibly welcoming GLBT faculty and students. It's not systematically inhospitable, but for a world-class educational institution, it's not well-educated on our community and not particularly warm to it.
This morning (India time), I learned that yesterday morning (Eastern time), a black professor at my grad. school came in to work to find a hangman's noose strung up on her office door.
When she was interviewed, she mentioned that there was "ill-will" between her and another professor. I turned to one of my Indian colleagues and told her the story. "And can you believe that a professor might have done this?" I asked.
"Yes, I can. A professor committed a terrorist act in Delhi on December 3, 2002. I remember the date because it's my birthday."
I think the hangman's noose and the occasional ignorance about our community that I have personally experienced from some of the school's faculty are related, just as IBM's integration of Raleigh and its welcoming of GLBT clients and IBMers worldwide are threads from the same sari.
Let me qualify what I mean: I'm not suggesting that many faculty of my school are racist and homophobic, but rather that when an institution does not actively support inclusion of all historically-underrepresented groups -- as IBM does in my experience -- and remains ignorant about their humanity, then it becomes less surprising when hate-crimes against any historically-underrepresented group occur there.
Typically, I'm not one to point out problems without also trying to solve them. If time were no object, I would help lead the GLBT campus group. I saw how it worked at IBM. Good policies + inspired grassroots leaders (including me) brought deep success to the company in this arena.
I am also one, who prefers to have happy endings, and so I'll mention that one of the faculty of my school -- who I considered among the not-fully-educated when she was my professor -- is the key advisor on a colleague's dissertation, "Unlearning Homophobia." My colleague's premise is that since we can learn it, we can unlearn it.
Please, God, let everyone learn love and unlearn hate, including me.