The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.
Reprinted from my internal, IBM blog, "Learning to Lead":
In college, in 1984, our Women and Literature professor assigned the novel *Orlando*. In the novel, fog was practically an additional character, as there was deep cloud-cover during the period of Orlando's mystical gender transition. Coincidentally, I remember that in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I read the novel, it was unusually foggy for the duration of my reading that section of the book. And it was a foggy time for me, personally, too, as I was transitioning into allowing myself to own my lesbian identity fully, though it took till senior year ultimately. It actually struck me -- Ann Arbor's weather -- as being empathetic with my own real-life journey, at the time, as I was reading the book.
Now, a week after the mass shooting mostly of LGBT people in Orlando, Florida, perhaps by one of our own people, my head has cleared enough to reflect on it a bit more deeply. On Thursday afternoon, I spoke with Doris Gonzalez, a Latina IBM colleague, who had called to say that she was distraught about Orlando and was thinking about how to piggy-back on the great anti-bullying work that was done by Connie Bonello and Esther Dryburgh and others from IBM in Canada. When we spoke, I was on my way to the San Francisco Airport to head home from a business trip.
"May I tell you a personal story?"
"The closest I ever came to what happened in Orlando was in Chicago in 1987. I had just moved to Chicago [after graduating from college] and wanted to socialize in the LGBT community, but didn't know where to begin. I found a venue that sounds as ... boring as it was [-- apologies to any Womyn's Music lovers --], the Mountain Moving Coffee House for Womyn and Children. It was at the end of the [lesbian] separatist era and I really don't like womyn's, with a Y music at all [-- I've always been more so a fan of Teena Marie and Patrice Rushen --], but I went anyhow.
It was held in a church and part-way into the performance, there was a giant BOOM. All of the women in the audience, including me, ducked down in the pews. It didn't turn out to be a bomb. We never learned what it was, but for the few moments, when I was crouched on the floor of that church, I thought, I'm gonna die and all because I came to hear this [lousy] music [because I was so desperate to be among my people, where I could enjoy a Saturday-night haven; I was not open about my sexual orientation at the magazine, where I was interning and so needed the company of others like me all the more so. I remember feeling so alone and awful that I, who had been raised with a deep Jewish identity, should die by myself in a church because I was a lesbian, who was lonely for my people, and then when it turned out to be nothing, I shook off those thoughts and didn't really re-conjure them till this Orlando tragedy and my conversation with this colleague]. But in any case, Doris, all of us went out to clubs in our twenties, didn't we?"
We agreed that it was tragic, since all of us liked to go out dancing back then, whether or not our parents were thrilled with our entertainment choices, and the same thing could have happened to us, that is, in our twenties, Doris and I could have gone to Latin Night (or any night) at a[n LGBT] club -- Doris with a gay friend and I to dance with kindred spirits -- and in fact, I did relatively often, but never was gunned down, thank God.
And now, I'm reminded of how I brought my eldest sister and brother-in-law with me to an LGBT club in 1991, to hear Crystal Waters sing both of her hits at the time. We had "100% pure fun" that night. Talking with my middle sister while in the airport, she recalled our having gone to a club in Chelsea before Chelsea was a gay neighborhood, and with my boyfriend at the time, in 1985 -- I was still on my journey then. Who didn't go out dancing in his or her twenties?
When I read the brief obituaries in today's "New York Times", I saw that only a small number of those killed were not still in their twenties. In general, their bio's weren't yet super-impressive, and neither was mine at that age. Thank God I had more time to amass experience and to make a difference and to learn -- to clear the clouds and make a primarily happy life as a lesbian.
This morning, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story, where the reporter was covering the Latino angle of the tragedyand I was flooded with poignant IBM memories:
To my knowledge, the first senior executive, who ever said the words, "lesbian and gay" to an auditorium of IBMers was Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the VP of the Internet Division at the time; it was 1997, though IBM had had a non-discrimination policy in place for gay and lesbian IBMers since 1984. Irving was from Cuba. IBM alumna and now IBM Watson Ecosystem Partner Maria Hernandez and I collaborated back then, so that EAGLE, IBM's LGBT business resource group (BRG) and LatinNet, IBM's Hispanic BRG could co-sponsor Irving's talk on How to Be an IBM Leader. Irving met with both of us together prior to the talk and asked, "What do your constituencies need to hear?"
"Ours just needs to hear you say the words, lesbian and gay," I said; unfortunately, it was 1997 and we were not yet explicitly inclusive of bisexual and transgender IBMers; that happened explicitly a few years later. Still, what we were asking for felt a bit revolutionary, and Irving said, Fine. And then he spoke brilliantly.
In the mid-90s, "Wired" magazine called Irving Wladawsky-Berger "the smartest person at IBM.” Here are just a few of his remarks:
Well, first of all, the environment in which you exist is all-important. Clearly, if I were talking about a career in Germany in the 1930s, that was not a good place to be Jewish. Being black in the 1950 or '60s in the deep South, some may even say in the North, was not pleasant either. Only more recently have women begun to significantly progress from the point of view of careers while, as far as gays and lesbians are concerned, movement is now beginning.
...what observations do I have about my career, especially given the fact that I'm a minority in more ways than one, being Hispanic, Cuban-born, always speaking with an accent and second, being Jewish? … Don't waste the energy trying to be what you're not. Be comfortable with who you are because, again, it takes too much energy to pretend to be anyone different ....
You'll never, ever be able to focus on your job if you are concerned with who you are or whether the world accepts who you are because then your energy will be dissipated. If you're comfortable with who you are, if you're comfortable that the world will accept you and that for those people who don't, it's their problem, you have so much more energy.
So, it's a good time to be in IBM. It's a good time to be whoever you are. It's a good time in our country to be whoever you are because we're about as open as I can imagine any nation has been and the rest is up to us as individuals.
Bruno Di Leo, who was from Peru, and was then the GM of IBM in Latin America, flew to IBM in Palisades to address and encourage us as up-and-coming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender leaders at IBM. Currently, Bruno is the SVP of all of IBM Sales & Distribution, globally, as well as the senior executive sponsor of the LGBT Council at IBM, and Bruno jumped on a web cam to talk about the Orlando tragedy and to reaffirm IBM's inclusiveness and support for all IBMers, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender IBMers. Seeing the short video from Bruno and recalling Irving's remarks makes me realize that since the late-90s, Latino IBM leaders have been among our staunchest allies.
But I want to wind back the clock again finally to the early-2000's; after the penultimate day of sessions, at night, there was ice cream in a common room at the IBM conference center. I didn't want ice cream, but thought I'd go, just for more of the fun company of LGBT IBM colleagues from around the globe. On my way, I heard fantastic music coming from another ballroom-sized room. I peeked in and spotted a bunch of conference goers dancing Salsa. Apparently, they preferred dancing to the ice cream, and so did I, but I was shy.
Cristina Gonzalez saw me admiring the dancers from the door and invited me to join them. It was the Latin-American conference delegation and they were so welcoming. I felt silly, as all I had ever learned was the cha-cha, and that was when I was taking ballroom and Disco lessons as a pre-teen many years prior, when David Kaplan from my Jewish day school class was my partner; all of us from the school took dance lessons in preparation for the Bar Mitzvah circuit. Dancing with Cristina and others was much, much more fun. No offense meant to David, who was a fine, 12-year-old dancer, and still a kind friend and ally today .... "Who's singing?" I asked Cristina. "She's gorgeous."
"That's Celia Cruz", Cristina told me.
The next and final day of the conference, Cristina came up to me and handed me an envelope and told me it was a gift. In it was the Celia Cruz CD that had been playing the night prior. We beamed at each other.
The NPR radio report about Orlando ended with Celia Cruz, singing "Yo viviré (I will Survive)". And we will survive, and thrive, as long as we follow Irving Wladawsky-Berger's advice. I just wish I weren't imagining dancing in a bullet-proof vest at the moment. I will get past such thinking. I'm glad I read *Orlando* in my twenties and lived beyond those decades to gain clear-headedness about who I am. And I will keep dancing.