When Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in 1997, she was the first highly visible celebrity to come out openly. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, she relays that she “realized that as long as [she] had this secret that [she] worried about all the time, that it made it look like something was wrong.”
I can relate to that feeling. Hiding myself and policing every conversation to cover my sexuality was (and sometimes still is) a significant emotional and psychological burden. It has kept me from being fully engaged with my family, friends, and even colleagues. It also took a toll on my productivity and impact within organizations.
I am not alone. A 2014 report by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) revealed that over half of all LGBT workers nationwide hide who they are in the workplace and that employee engagement suffers by up to 30% due to unwelcoming environments. Meanwhile, twenty-eight states in the United States do not prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
But visibility can make a difference. Professor Marc Poirier (J.D., Harvard Law, 1978) asserts that “indisputably, visibility has been key to the rapid shift in Western culture around the status of homosexuality. And LGBTQ strategists seem to return to visibility tactics when all else fails.” Coming out doesn’t only alleviate the individual of psychological stress, but also contributes to changing the hearts and minds of the population at large. Knowing someone who is LGBTQ personally changes the conversation from the abstract to the human.
The goal of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Student Association (LGBTSA), a club at Harvard Business School (HBS), is to create a safe space for individuals in the LGBTQ community to be themselves. The LGBTSA also provides platforms that enable conversations with the larger HBS community. The impact of these conversations can be far reaching when we consider the diversity of the student body and the different leadership roles that they will take across the globe.
On National Coming Out Day (NCOD), the LGBTSA organized student gatherings where LGBTQ students publicly shared their stories of coming out as LGBTQ with their classmates. Additionally, the Portrait Project was on view in Spangler Hall, the main student hall at HBS, where the HBS community could interact with the personal stories of LGBTQ students and staff. Additionally, the LGBTSA handed out T-shirts with the phrase “Live OUT Loud” and a subtle upside down triangle that references the branding of homosexuals during the Nazi era and reclaims it as a point of LGBTQ pride. It’s a powerful demonstration of support to have our straight peers wear these shirts around the HBS campus. These events not only increase the visibility of LGBTQ people at HBS, but also provide an opportunity for the entire HBS community to engage in the dialogue.
The mission of the Harvard Business School is to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” Making a difference involves taking risks. Through the NCOD events, the LGBTSA sought to enable the HBS community to understand and empathize with LGBTQ people. But NCOD wasn’t the culmination of the conversation; it was merely its starting point. Since then, I have personally engaged in rich discussions with students of varied backgrounds and comfort levels, shared experiences and view points, and sought mutual understanding. Wherever we may fall in the political or social spectrum regarding LGBTQ people, I am hopeful these conversations result in mutual empathy. Bridging the empathy gap can help each of us lead more inclusive organizations, ultimately driving social progress for everyone.
Sergio Velasquez-Terjesen (HBS ’19) is a hodophile, epicure, logophile, and chemical engineer. He indulges in learning about cultures and people through gastronomy, visual arts, and language. His favorite things include sunny autumn days, long distance running, Champagne, and artisanal chocolate.