It’s “Bring Your Gay to Work Day.”
It sounded innocent… even, kind: “You all should be proud of the academic success you’ve achieved while simultaneously dealing with the struggles of being LGBTQ.” But this is how I felt:
Let me set the context: almost exactly one year ago, I attended MIT’s Lavender Graduation, a celebration of MIT’s LGBTQ+ community amid the broader pomp and circumstance of commencement. I sat among a small group of MBA graduates, years into our careers, surrounded by dozens of undergraduates, just preparing to embark on their professional lives.
The speaker, a senior leader in the MIT administration, spent her speech delineating the pain of being queer in college — bullying, high rates of suicide, etc. — and lauded us students for managing these personal “adversities” while succeeding in an academically rigorous environment.
I left the event feeling immensely frustrated, but I couldn’t immediately put my finger on why. As I reflected, I discovered what was underneath my reaction. My frustration came from recognizing that the speaker’s address inadvertently implied a false and disabling message — the same message that I had told myself when I graduated from college a decade ago.
The message internalized by too many young LGBTQ professionals is this: “Your sexual orientation is personal. It can get in the way of success. Leave it at home, and you still might have a chance.”
In my first real post-college job, I hid inside the cubicle walls, working over-hard to prove my worth, hoping that eventually — once I had impressed everyone and maybe even gotten a promotion — then, maybe, I could come out and, maybe, it wouldn’t hurt my chances at success too, too much.
This attitude is common. Many folks in the LGBTQ community believe that their sexual orientation:
has nothing to do with their professional life, or
will limit their ability to achieve professional success.
Why blend the personal and professional when you can keep them safely distinct and separate?
But, over my career, I’ve managed to shed my hesitancy of bringing “my gay” to work. And while I’ve outwardly become comfortable telling colleagues that I’m gay, I’ve inwardly advanced my understanding of how being gay makes me an indispensable employee.
Being LGBTQ can grant you advantages in resilience, creativity, network-bridging, customer empathy, and effectiveness. Turns out: these are the exact traits businesses need to grow and thrive.
Here’s a little bit of what I’ve learned about how being a gay man has made me a better professional. These anecdotes reflect my unique journey. LGBTQ folks are as diverse as the rest of society, but elements of my experience are common among many LGBTQ people as — I believe — are the resulting professional superpowers:
1. Being queer builds resilience. Almost every day, I come out: to my dentist, to my waiter, to a colleague, to the stranger who observes my husband & I exchanging a brief handclasp on the subway. Being gay is not something you can tell about me from a distance. It’s not something you can tell about me from working alongside me. It’s something you learn about me when you observe my husband and I together, or when I tell you.
Living in the relatively liberal bubble of Boston, rarely do I face disapproval or bigotry when I tell someone I’m gay. But I do encounter surprise. I do encounter momentary discomfort and over-correction. And I still carry my childhood with me, when there were no TV characters with whom I could relate, when my church community expected me to marry a woman, and when I felt my friends would abandon me if they knew my deep dark secret.
Given this baggage, I still take a deep breath and my gut still wrenches a bit each time I come out, even though I’ve been doing it for over a decade. But after surviving thousands of big (my parents) and small (my dentist) coming out moments, I can weather a little stress and/or rejection.
This involuntary daily practice of vulnerability has built up rippling resilience muscles.
Organizations looking for employees who can take a risk, rebound and iterate in the face of failure, or lead the turnaround of a struggling team, need resilient leaders. Being queer builds such resilience. Bring that to work with you.
2. Being queer makes you a master of customer empathy. I spent 21 years as a straight man. I was careful not to show affection for other guys. I never told anyone of my feelings. I dated women. I pledged a fraternity. Through this, I became a highly skilled actor. Not a stage actor; a life actor: my public persona was a well-orchestrated act.
Through this, I honed a robust ability to exercise empathy. To fit in, I needed to observe carefully, empathize deeply, and mimic believably. It’s no surprise research finds non-heterosexuals have statistically significant creative advantages in theater.
I learned to study the language, the behavioral mannerisms, the habits, the preferences, and the media consumption of my “peers.” Over the years, this fit-in-quickly tactical pattern has allowed me to fluidly move between groups. In college, I could jump from nerdy mock trialers, to hippy ultimate Frisbee players, to macho fraternity bros. Professionally, I’ve transitioned from politics to nonprofits to for-profit tech.
Call me a chameleon, but enormous amounts of empathy underpin this ability to shift between wildly divergent groups. To fit in, I must empathize deeply and then fully connect.
At the core of running a successful business is a deep commitment to understanding “the customer” — their needs, passions, hobbies, wallet-size, etc. Disruption arrives when upstarts recognize the incumbents have lost track of their customers and/or there’s a niche customer-set being underserved by the current offerings.
Startups and large enterprises alike need employees who are relentless in their quest to empathize and connect with their customers. Being queer makes you a master of customer empathy. Bring that to work with you.
3. Being queer allows you to cultivate innovation and creativity. As I mentioned above, being able to easily jump between wildly divergent groups has given me an extremely diverse social network. My friends include actors, elected officials, oil & gas engineers, clergy, microbiologists, musicians, philanthropic leaders, farmers, and on.
Why does this matter for business?
Have you heard of William Dawes? Perhaps not… How about Paul Revere? They had the same mission, on the same day: ride from Boston and alert as many people as possible that the British were coming. They both alerted hundreds of people. William Dawes even rode further than Paul Revere.
But Revere’s message spread, because Revere had a more diverse social network. Dawes’ message fell into an echo chamber: he told people who knew each other, and they told each other. Whereas Revere told people who didn’t know each other, and they spread the message through their respective networks.
Serving as a “bridge” among diverse groups of people can aid in the dissemination of information. It also improves your ability to aggregate information across multiple domains.
It gives you access to diverse perspectives and problem-solving approaches (which heightens your likelihood of solving complex problems), and — ultimately — it makes you more creative.
As Walter Isaacson argues, innovation comes from collaboration around a collection of ideas from the past. The greater diversity across your social network, the greater the set of possible recombinations of ideas you have access to.
Having access to diverse perspectives is great, but being able to full-heartedly deploy these perspectives gives you uncanny creativity muscles. That code-switching ability I developed as a closeted, gay high schooler now allows me to escape the I-have-a-hammer-and-every-problem-is-a-nail trap — instead, I’m at ease flexing between academic disciplines, mental models, and business tactics.
Growing businesses need to infuse innovation and creativity into their DNA: if you don’t adapt and evolve, you die. Being queer allows you to cultivate this needed innovation and creativity. Bring that to work with you.
4. Being queer can radiate effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness is identifying and executing on the right thing. Efficiency is getting the right thing done quickly and consistently. Both are critical to realizing business success.
At the heart of both effectiveness and efficiency is trust. Research suggests that teams with higher levels of trust execute faster. Essentially, trust eliminates fruitless friction during execution.
Almost paradoxically, trust also engenders the type of healthy friction that drives effectiveness. Leaders who live in echo chambers are leaders destined for failure. Leaders who encourage debate and invite others to challenge their assumptions create teams that are more likely to predict roadblocks, anticipate their competition’s responses, and pick the best options from a broad field of possibilities. These types of transparent, healthily dissonant interactions emerge most readily within an environment exuding trust.
You can’t build a trust-filled workplace by dictating it from above, but you can lead by example. Trust grows from the relationships colleagues build with each other, one by one. And, ultimately, trust can only emerge amid vulnerability and authenticity.
When one person fully reveals themselves to another, and the other embraces that revelation with care and confidence: trust grows.
When working as a consultant, I opened my client kick-off meetings by describing how grappling with my sexual orientation led to my career choices and skills. It was a raw and honest story, and it often led to deep conversations with clients about why they chose their own work. These conversations built immediate trust and rapport, and allowed us to drive toward faster and more meaningful results.
Workplaces in which authenticity and vulnerability thrive are rare. Vulnerability can be messy, uncomfortable, inefficient and even destructive, so many businesses resist inviting vulnerability into their cultures. But those that pull it off see their employees grow personally, professionally, and into more effective, efficient, and trusting teams.
Being queer gives you the power to kindle the authentic conversations that build such teams. Bring that to work with you.
Advice to LGBTQ professionals: embrace the professional super-muscles that being queer has granted you. Your sexual orientation is not a side project to “deal with” separate from your professional or academic aspirations — rather, it’s deeply connected to your skills, perspectives, and mental models. Seek out employers who will respect you and allow you to use your whole self to deliver meaningful results.
Advice to employers: hire people based on their skills and experience (not their sexual orientation), but recognize that the personal experience of being LGBTQ may have granted such candidates powerful professional gifts. Recruit queer people and ensure your workplace invites them to be authentically themselves — your business might just grow faster, stronger, and deeper because of it.