The most macho of high-profile industries has been changed for the better. The world of major league sports has long been a final frontier for social movements, slowly accepting what other industries have welcomed. Thanks to Jason Collins, the testosterone-fueled sports community is starting to shed its homophobic image.
In the spring of 2013, when Jason Collins came out as a gay man (the first in the U.S. to do so while actively playing a professional team sport), he wasn’t mocked or shunned. Instead, Collins was embraced by fellow athletes, the NBA, and sports fans worldwide. Even Nike, his corporate sponsor, had his back. Collins’ coming-out experience is likely to show closeted business leaders that being openly gay does not spell certain career doom, nor does it threaten a company’s bottom line.
From the Court to the Corner Office
Jason Collins has admirable leadership qualities, which have earned him the respect of the media and his peers. He’s busted the effeminate stereotype surrounding gays, proving that sexual orientation does not impact the quality of one’s work. At the same time, Collins’ coming out has debunked the myth that an industry steeped in testosterone would reject one of its own simply for being gay.
If we shift the focus to closeted industry leaders, Collins offers an encouraging glimpse into what it’s like for a prominent leader to come out today. Unfortunately, many still associate coming out with scaring business away. Ellen DeGeneres was highly watched when her eponymous character on “Ellen” came out of the closet. Her show tanked, and she effectively had to build a new career from scratch — that’s what people remember. But that was 16 years ago; these days, Ellen is arguably one of the most successful people on the planet.
The Advantages of a Corporate Coming Out
Affirmative action was put in place to assure that minority groups were hired, thereby developing staffs with various backgrounds, experiences, and skills. By this same token, openly gay executives would be a major boon for company diversity. If more leaders were out, more employees would come out. This would lead to better benefits for domestic partnerships. Most importantly, having visible, openly gay leaders would send a message of zero tolerance for unjust behavior.
More specifically, if top executives were comfortable being open about their sexuality, they would likely see the following positive results:
- Peace of mind: Keeping secrets is draining and stressful. If you’re comfortable with yourself, you’ll have a better quality of life. This will undoubtedly spill over into your professional life.
- Role models: Openly gay execs would be great role models for queer youth interested in the corporate world. Trust me — there’s a great need for gay business mentors.
- Efficiency: Hiding things is distracting. If you don’t have to live a double life, you’ll be far more productive and focused.
The negative impacts of remaining in the closet are disheartening. As a systems engineer in Silicon Valley in the late ‘90s, I met many closeted managers. I would occasionally run into them at gay events, where they would beg me not to tell anyone they were gay. Because they were so terrified of ruining their careers, I followed their lead and reluctantly stepped back into the closet.
This was a major step backward for my personal life. I’d come out in high school to a very accepting family, and it was baffling to have entered a world where being myself was unacceptable. I was grateful when I met a manager who helped me; eventually, I came out professionally while working at a very progressive staffing company.
Even with recent progress, these fears are not totally unfounded. Some executives might experience backlash from other partners or lose clients. However, the potential productivity that closeted staff would unleash if they worked in a tolerant atmosphere outweighs any perceived benefits of staying closeted.
What Employers Can Do
If you want your company to be queer-friendly, these three tips will get you on your way:
- Sponsor local gay charities: This tells closeted employees that you support the GLBT community.
- Run GLBT-friendly ads: If you use same-gender couples when running employment ads, you will attract “out” employees and provide support for those who want to come out.
- Provide manager training: Offer seminars to help managers understand employees who don’t feel comfortable coming out. Support at the corporate level makes queer employees feel safe and valued, whether their corporate leadership is gay or not.
The tide of public sentiment toward the GLBT community is shifting. Being out no longer carries the shame it once did. Thanks to Jason Collins, business leaders who are still closeted now have a positive, high-profile coming-out experience to reference. That can lead to a multitude of opportunities for gay employees — and their companies.
Who is Belo Cipriani?
Belo Cipriani is the Writer-in-Residence at Holy Names University, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind, the “Get to Work” columnist for SFGate.com, and the author of Blind: A Memoir. You are invited to connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube.