It was “obvious” to most and “not a big deal” to others, but it took me almost a decade to figure out that I was not the person I thought I was.
A pivotal moment came in 2008: I was with my then-girlfriend on my way to work, and we stopped in a posh little West Village coffee shop.
A few important facts:
– I don’t live in the West Village.
– I’m not a posh person.
– I wasn’t “out.”
So when I ran into two former colleagues from Conde Nast, I was terrified. These were two of the highest-level executives who knew me, and knew that I didn’t live in the neighborhood. So why was I getting coffee with a woman at 7 a.m.?
My girlfriend expected to be introduced and acknowledged as my lover. I was trying to avoid the “guilty, I’ve been outed” look. These were the same two people who, almost a decade earlier, had accused me of being gay when I was adamant that I wasn’t. I believed that I hadn’t yet met my first true love at that point. So was I really gay?
Talk about walk of shame.
In truth, I wasn’t sure who I was. And I wasn’t sure what type of life I wanted. As a longtime senior executive in the branded, glossy New York City media world, I cared more about “my brand” or something. I’m not sure what I thought. I was just afraid. Afraid of an industry where there was no guarantee, even in the late 2000s, that being who you are wouldn’t end your career.
But let me take you back for a minute to 2001.
After my first, priceless “I Kissed a Girl” Katy Perry moment, the sky didn’t open up and strike me down. [pullquote]I cared more about ‘my brand’ or something. I’m not sure what I thought. I was just afraid. [/pullquote]I am not religious, and I didn’t have a moral issue with my newfound status. At the time, there was still a stigma about being gay. The gay celebrities who started to emerge, fit a particular stereotype that didn’t reflect the diversity of the gay women I knew. I couldn’t see myself in them, and I was afraid to identify with that lifestyle and that persona.
My first girlfriend, also in the media business, proclaimed she was bisexual. That was sort of the posture we both took — we’re not gay, we’re not those people, we’re bisexual. She took the “we’re more evolved than they are” position. If you have the opportunity to sleep with anyone on this planet who was single, why wouldn’t you?
Back in the late 2000s, while working at Scripps, I took the temperature of some of the senior executives. The majority of the management team, based in Knoxville, Tennessee, was white, straight, WASP-y and male. Early on, I asked a coworker if he thought it was OK to be “out” in this environment. He told me flat out that it would hurt my career.
Over time, I realized that there were other top execs who were gay but not public.
So I hid. I used funky pronouns to describe my relationships.
But I didn’t give any of my friends or media colleagues enough credit. To quote Jack, “They can’t handle the truth.” The problem wasn’t everybody else. The problem was me.
Before I moved to San Francisco and joined Federated Media in 2009, I didn’t really have much of a social media following. But once I became the COO of a company that built innovative social programs, prominent executives at big important client companies began to follow me on Facebook and Twitter.
I didn’t want the employees to know, and I definitely didn’t want the industry to know.
My rational side worried that my professional career was at stake: “So you’ve been lying to us for a decade? Should we believe anything else? Are you going to second-guess other things?”
For a long time I maintained two Facebook profiles: one for work, and one that I shared only with my closest friends.
I didn’t include anything truly personal in my public Facebook profile or feed. I didn’t “friend” my friends who were lesbians, especially people I was dating. I’d live in fear that people would invite me to events that had gay or lesbian in the title. While I could have justified taking a liberal approach to anything or everything, at the time I felt like I was showing my cards.
And then there was my mom.
My mom followed me on Facebook, and I was afraid that anything I did there would trigger questions. I just didn’t want to lie to her.
In 2010 my girlfriend wanted to change her relationship status on Facebook, and she was egging me to do the same.
I said, “You know if I do that my mother’s going to call.”
“So what,” she said, “Your mother doesn’t know about me?”
“Not only does my mother not know about you, she doesn’t know about all of yous.”
So I changed my status. I was now “in a relationship.” And like clockwork, the next day, at 6:15am, my mom called. I was laying in bed, next to my girlfriend when I picked up. “Hi Mom.”
“Who is he?” You could hear her practically beaming through the phone.
“He is a she, Mom.”
That was basically the extent of our conversation.
I immediately called my sister and told her that Mom would be calling. I told my sister I was gay years prior. My sister knew already, of course.
Slowly, I started letting people know. It was fun to have a secret for a while, but then it got tiring. Hiding is like lying — and it is exhausting.
I also didn’t like being labeled; I just wanted to just be me. It was about ‘coming out to myself,’ being authentic as my Zen folks like to say, and coming clean.
Really, no one else cares. Or the ones that truly care about me, will accept me for me, which is what matters most.
Being who you are won’t hurt you professionally, but in fact will probably help you. The more authentic you are, the better you’re going to be as a person, let alone an executive.
I’m glad the time has come. It’s about time.