Photo: Bryce Smith
By 10 a.m. last Thursday, the auditorium on the 27th floor of the Citigroup building downtown was filled with suits—mostly men but a good number of women too. Standing in front of them was guy in basketball shorts and flip-flops, his hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, and a t-shirt that said, “Punters are people too.”
It was Chris Kluwe, the outspoken LGBT advocate, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings, who had come to address the bankers, bond traders, analysts, insurance brokers, hedge fund managers, lawyers, CDOs, COOs and CEOs at Out Leadership’s 4th annual Out on the Street Summit, which convenes leaders in the finance industry to address issues relating to LGBT visibility, mobility and opportunity in that field.
“Culture is created by leaders,” said Kluwe as he introduced the opening panel of chief executives, among them Michael Corbat of Citi, Peter Grauer of Bloomberg and Ajay Banga of MasterCard, who fielded questions from a playful Jill Schlesinger, the ABC business analyst.
Photo: Steve Campbell
The all-male panel said all the right things and were unequivocally supportive of their LGBT employees as they chatted about recruitment, promotion and the challenges of being multi-national corporations who do business in countries, like India and Uganda, where LGBT rights are actively threatened.
While it was very much what you want to hear—top dogs talking about the “business and moral imperatives” of being pro-LGBT at the workplace because “it’s the right thing to do”—it at times felt more self-congratulatory than probing, a succession of carefully phrased talking points rather than a candid discussion of real challenges. In the age of Twitter, though, who can blame them for staying on script?
Most amusing was the sterile language that the CEOs defaulted to: “declared” standing in for being “out” at work, “orientation” always standing alone, without the spicy descriptor “sexual.” Still, for these guys to be publically and proudly waving their ally flags on record is an accomplishment for the team behind Out Leadership (founded and organized by former business insider Todd Sears) and a welcome cultural shift for an industry that many of the speakers admitted to having been a “boys club” (the “heterosexual” was implied, and many of the women present would argue it still is).
An interesting theme running through the daylong conference was the parallel between sports and business. Following the opening panel that was, um, kicked off by Kluwe, four women took the stage to discuss “LGBT Equality in Professional Sports.” Kathy Behrens from the NBA, Beth Brooke, a top exec at Ernst & Young (and a former college basketball player), Renee Brown of the WNBA and Wendy Lewis of the MLB were led in discussion by Hudson Taylor, the founder and head of Athlete Ally.
Gender, race and sexuality emerged frequently in that conversation; all potent factors in the way athletes navigate professional sports. The past year’s relative flood of coming-outs by high profile athletes—Jason Collins, Michael Sam and Brittney Griner especially—provided fuel for discussion and earned much respect from the panelists. And all agreed that despite the flash of entertainment and the celebrity status of its stars, sports is just business too.
“The premise for both is the same,” Kluwe told me after a lunch as he headed back to the auditorium for his next panel, “Active Allies,” with execs from Moody’s and Deutsche Bank. “You have a team and you want the team to work together.” Neither is possible when members of the team are less than focused, which is the case when they’re trying to hide any part of themselves and fearful of being discovered.
He pointed out that while sports was a visible national leader in racial integration decades ago, far ahead of the business world, now “business is leading on LGBT issues,” he said. Several of the attendees admitted to me that while they aren’t afraid to lose their jobs for being gay, they do still worry that it will impede their career advancement.
(Earlier this year, Kluwe alleged that his outspoken pro-LGBT stance did in fact cost him his job, making him perhaps one of the few true casualties of professional anti-LGBT sentiment at the event. The NFL is currently investigating his claims, he said.)
Out on the Street might be the closest thing Wall Street has to a Pride parade, a declarative statement that, at least on record and in spirit, it’s with us. Gaps in implementation still exist, particularly at the middle management level, many said. And the culture of an ambitious, cutthroat industry is not an easy ship to turn. But at least the captains appear to be heading in the right direction.