The Boss is Queer; Does it Matter?

Queer (novel)

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Public business figures disclosing their sexual orientation is big news this week.

Should it be?

Rick Welts, CEO and President of the Phoenix Suns, a men’s professional team in the top tier of the elite National Basketball Association announced he is gay in an article – A Sports Exec Dares to Leave the Safety of His Shadow – in  the New York Times Monday.

CNN weekend prime-time anchor Don Lemon announced in an interview, also in the New York Times, that he’s gay, a fact he also discloses in an his upcoming book Transparent which will be released this week.

There are no active players, nor front office business executives in US men’s major league professional baseball, basketball, or football today who are publicly gay; they vast number are, however, publicly straight.

Welts is a first in the NBA; only a handful of former players in any of the big 3 men’s leagues has disclosed that they’re gay, and all waited until after their playing days. And it’s in the NBA that Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakes recently disputed a call by a referee by calling the ref “a faggot” – a slur that cost him a $100,000 league fine.

The business of women’s sports – both professional and otherwise –  have taken a somewhat more accepting route, with any number of players – both active and retired – disclosing that they’re lesbian.

The media business – at least the camera facing part – is not so different from men’s professional sports. While any number of business and creative executives are gay (the term gay mafia didn’t come out of thin air), people who are in front on the camera are more limited. Count off three or four folks who are publicly out  (Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen Degeneres, Jane Lynch) and the list becomes mostly off-camera people or people who are not so publicly out.

Fortune 500 execs? The list is thin, in fact even thinner than the list of CEOs who are female or people of color. None known at present, though P & G alum Susan Arnold may be the first to publicly break the barrier. Others may have broken the barrier less publicly – BP’s CEO Robert Browne, as in Gulf Coast disaster, allegedly accelerated his transition from BP for fear of being outed.

Career advancement in business for many parts of the US can be perceived as slim and dim for people who come out depending on geography, sector, and where they are in the organizational pecking order.

In my own case, albeit 15 years ago when I worked as an Senior Vice President for a San Francisco-based Fortune 15 corporation, I went in the space 40 days from being asked to run a $100 million project to being told I “didn’t have quite the right stuff” one month after I listed my male partner (now spouse – thank you California) in the “Christmas Wives List” that was circulated among senior managers. I was told it was OK to be gay  “as long as I didn’t wear it on my sleeve” – whatever the heck that meant. I left that firm and while my life has been different than anticipated, it’s also as a result of that decision to be out been much richer and fuller than ever hoped. It’s also given me an authenticity that I bring to my work coaching executives and working with leadership teams that is amazingly effective.

Welts and Lemon’s moves are gutsy. Courageous was the first word that came to my mind when I read the news. There is no guarantee they will be well-received by the organizations they run or the people with whom they work and you can almost hear some of the wheels turning. That trade between the Suns and Knicks? Nixed; who wants to sit down in a room with Welts? The shot at prime time weekday news anchoring? Staff is “uncomfortable” working with Lemon.

While there are all sorts of barriers everywhere, the reality is that unless you knock them down they stay up. It’s been true of barriers against the Irish (stupid), Jews (sneaky), Catholics (too secretive and Pope-controlled), French (too effeminate), women (too emotional), fat (lazy), blonde (dumb), divorced (unstable), etc. Pick any group anywhere at any time and someone at some point has had a barrier erected against them based on some prejudice from somewhere.

Here’s the cut to the chase. In a increasingly competitive world, you want your most skillful and talented people in charge, running things, and in your organization if you want to be successful. It’s a shame that public business figures frequently aren’t able to be matter of fact about the fact that they’re gay or lesbian as easily as if they’re Italian or left-handed.

But this is big news, just as any number of other “firsts” such as Muriel Siebert, Irving Shapiro, or Ursala Burns are big news as they busted through barriers.

Change,  as Sam Cooke might note, “is gonna come.” The announcements by Rick Welts and Don Lemon are simply steps in a long walk forward.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy ofKnowledgeCrush.

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