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Why corporates are ahead in the struggle for LGBT rights

Brian McNaught, a founder of LGBT training in the top corporates in the US, tells us about his career and how things have changed across four decades

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

2nd November 2012 08:31

Alessia Valenza | ILGA North America

Back when I started, when I was training in Dallas I would walk into the room and there were anti-gay pamphlets from right-wing Christians on each chair and I would throw them all away. We had a bomb threat one time and there was an empty duffle bag left so it was scary. People would write ‘fag’ on the bathroom wall.

But at that time, in the 1980s, corporations required every employee to take eight hours of diversity training a year. So you would get a menu of the courses available to you and I was the first one on offer on sexual orientation.

Initially it was just open to regular employees but they had to take something so they went to mine and in the beginning people were nervous but by the second year someone said ‘it’s harder to get into your class than it is to get tickets to the Lion King’ because it was so popular.

The reason it was so popular was it was very personal. I would tell my story and people would get very emotional and cry but in the other classes it was more about telling you what you were doing wrong and why you had to change your behavior.

I was the only person doing the work at the time but I trained most of the people who ended up doing the work. Suddenly it became this movement and that’s how Out & Equal was formed – in response to the fact that all these groups existed but no-one was having a national conference.

The first gay workplace summit [in the US] had maybe a few hundred people, now they had 2,500 people. Who would have imagined this 30 years ago when this work started and people were terrified to come to the training?

I was the first person invited to speak to the National Security Agency (NSA). I said I’ll come but everyone has to be there. So this room was packed. Military and non-military people. And I ended up getting a long standing ovation. Why? Because they came expecting it was going to be me proselytizing but I did what I always do and made it personal.

Executives will ask: ‘What do I do? Do I walk up to someone and ask if they are gay?’ And I say: ‘No, don’t do that. You have to make sure they are comfortable.

‘How did Elliott get ET to leave the shed? Did he kick him? Did he pull him out? No, he used Reese’s Pieces. He made it worth his while. What are your Reese’s Pieces? What are you doing on a daily basis to make it clear to your LGBT staff that you are there for them? And what are you saying to your children, because many of you have children who are gay?’

So I ask them to do two things. I ask them when they go back to their desks to tell their colleagues where they were. And I tell them not to say they were at an LGBT conference because people don’t understand what that is, they think it’s a sandwich. They have to say lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.

And then I tell them to go home and talk to their family and say where they were. The very next day I got an email from one of the senior people at the NSA saying: ‘I did what you told me to do and two hours later my college-age daughter walked into the bedroom and said “dad we need to talk”. And we now have an intimacy we never would have had if you had told me to use those words.’

I ask an audience: ‘What do you say to someone when they tell you there are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender?’ Because they don’t know. This issue is not about hatred. This issue is about ignorance. It’s going to a foreign country when you don’t know the language. You are worried you are going to make mistakes so you shut up and being quite gives the impression you are hostile. So you say: ‘Thank you’. Because that person has given you the gift of identifying themselves to you and not to someone else.

I have spoken in India, in Hong Kong, in Singapore on gay issues in the workplace. And when I would go there I would say to them: ‘You all think I am here to talk about gay westerners being sent to your country.’ Because they think there are no gay Indians. But I tell them I’m talking about their people, their sisters and brothers, their colleagues. All of them know they have someone in their families.

One of the most fun times I had was with a bank in London. I asked them: ‘How do you think the environment is here for gay people?’ And they all vote, everywhere I go, ‘somewhat accepting’.

I ask them if I worked with them, should I stay in the closet, come out to a few friends, come out to a supervisor or come out to everyone? And they vote ‘come out to everyone’. And I ask: ‘Nothing bad is going to happen to me if I’m gay?’ And they say: ‘No, not at our bank.’

So five minutes later I tell them I’m very good at picking out gay people and I’m going to do that now. And you see they are shocked. And I say: ‘Wait a minute, it’s got awfully quiet in here. If I said I was going to pick out the philanthropists you would all be sitting up hoping I would pick you. Do you think something bad would happen if I said you were gay? Do you think your life would change?’

And they all acknowledge that it would, that the next time they go into the bathroom the person at the stall next to them would feel less comfortable than they did before. So I tell them if they can get in touch with their fear that I would pick them out, they can understand why it is so difficult for their colleagues to come out. And they really get it.

You won’t go into a corporation and see openly hostile behavior. What you will see is the person who comes out becomes invisible. My partner Ray was at Lehman Brothers and why he left Lehman is not that people were openly hostile but that on Monday mornings when everyone was being asked about their weekends, nobody would ask him.

They didn’t know where the conversation might go. They were afraid he was going to say: ‘Oh it was great, Brian and I had sex in the kitchen, then we watched some porn, then we went to the living room and had sex and then we went to the bedroom and had more sex and watched more porn.’ It’s because we are homo-sex-uals and that’s what they think we do. When in fact we went to a movie and visited our nephew or niece’s birthday party. But you have to keep reminding them that.

They are much further forwards now then when I started 38 years ago. You have Glee, Modern Family, more people are out so more heterosexuals are aware. But they still need help understanding it is not a choice.

With race, people are clear there is no choice involved and they don’t think of a person of color as a behavior. But with gay they understand you are oppressed and they shouldn’t oppress you. But they still think of it as a behavior. That if you didn’t do the behavior then you wouldn’t be gay.

The thing that really helps them get it is when you explain it is different from growing up black or Jewish or Italian because no-one else in your family is gay and they assume you are straight until you tell them.

In the past when parents would tell me their kid was gay, I would say: ‘How are you doing? Do you need any help?’ Now I say: ‘That’s great!’ They get startled but they have no idea how their life is going to be better and changed because they have a gay kid. I say: ‘You are going to be introduced to things you would never have been introduced to. People, places, things, it’s going to be wonderful.’

We are at a tipping point. When I’m working with a gay audience, I say: ‘Tell me all the things you bring to the table because you are gay.’ And they look like deer in the headlights. We as a community haven’t thought in those terms. We have thought of ourselves as victims. But we need to say, [LGBT hate crimes and murders] are horrible but we are not going to live in our holocaust. We need to start talking about what gifts we have. What is special about two dads which a kid wouldn’t get if he or she had a mom and a dad? We have got to shift the paradigm.

Corporations don’t want to see themselves as changers of culture because that’s too controversial for shareholders – we are going to change the culture of Asia or Africa. But they are. They are way ahead of the churches. The churches used to be in the vanguard of the civil rights movement but they are Neanderthal now. The universities used to be ahead of everybody but they are way behind.

Corporations are doing an end-run around everybody and it’s all based around the war for talent. If you want the best, you have to make sure you have an environment where people feel safe and valued. That’s the mantra, over and over again.

In all these countries, whether they like it or not, we are changing the game by giving them the tools – not just in the company but these people are being encouraged to go home and talk about what they have done at work. So the kid hears for the first time the word ‘gay’ spoken by his Japanese father or mother.

In Singapore I had 20 women stand around me after my talk wanting to talk about their children or their nephews or nieces. When I was 26 I tried to take my life and that still goes on and they don’t want that for their kid. We have parents of gay people in every country in the world and the question always for us is does the love of the parent trump religious beliefs or political persuasions? And in some countries it doesn’t but in other countries where it is less severe the parents’ love trumps. And the more we get the word out we are changing the world. We have made extraordinary progress in the UK, Canada, the US, South America, Europe. I am pretty excited.

Brian McNaught was speaking with Tris Reid-Smith at Out & Equal’s LGBT Workplace Summit 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland.