Out of the closet, into the C-suite

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(From l.) Barry Lowenthal, Tim Cook, Lisa Sherman, Jonah Disend and Aaron Walton
(From l.) Barry Lowenthal, Tim Cook, Lisa Sherman, Jonah Disend and Aaron Walton Credit: Lowenthal: Courtesy The Media Kitchen; Cook: Courtesy Apple; Sherman: Courtesy the Ad Council; Disend: Courtesy Redscout; Walton: D Dipasupil/Getty Images; 2018 New York Pride March: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images. Composite by Ad Age.

Standing before a gathering of C-suite marketers from ad agencies and Fortune 500 companies at an Ad Council event in May, Jonah Disend recounted a painful story from his childhood. "When I was in ninth grade, I was told I looked like a fag," he said. "That thrust me back into the closet."

It was the first time that the founder and chairman of Redscout had ever shared something so personal in a professional setting. Y&R Global CEO David Sable, "an ally but a straight white guy, was moved basically to tears by that story," Disend says, with a mixture of gratitude and surprise. "It could not have been a more supportive environment."

At a time when the CEO of Apple is openly gay, that kind of reception may not be surprising. But conversations with LGBTQ agency leaders suggest an ingrained industry reticence toward LGBTQ assimilation at the highest levels, even in a trade typically viewed as more tolerant of differences than most. In the same year that T-Mobile, Target and Lyft sponsored events and built floats at Pride Week, DDB finally settled a harassment lawsuit brought by creative director Matt Christiansen, who alleged years of verbal abuse from a superior who, he said, mocked him for being gay.

There are clouds on the political horizon too. Rhetoric from the Trump White House often becomes directives, if not law—it has rescinded Obama-era guidelines protecting K-12 trans students, for instance, and the Justice Department argued on the bakery owner's side in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the shop did not have to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. Add to this Justice Anthony Kennedy's impending retirement from the Supreme Court, which threatens recent progress.

"Advertising is better than some industries, but we're not at a point where we should be giving each other high fives," says Aaron Walton, founding partner at agency Walton Isaacson. "There's still a long way for us to go to make sure that we don't get forced back in the closet."

The bad old days

In 1994, three years before Ellen DeGeneres' career nearly ended when she came out as a lesbian, and four years before the first episode of "Will & Grace" aired, Deutsch created a 30-second spot for Ikea.

The setup wasn't groundbreaking: A real couple—one neat, one schlubby—scrutinize furniture at a store. But the casting of two men gave Americans the first gay couple to appear during a commercial break. Some viewers called for a boycott, though the Swedish company never blinked.

In that climate and in the years before, silence was the safest option. Because many LGBTQ people can pass as straight if they refrain from talking about their private lives or lie about them, historically they've been forced to do so by leaders and organizational cultures that are uncomfortable or outright discriminatory.

Just as African-Americans in the industry have at times been admonished for being "too black" at work, the message to LGBTQ people has often been to avoid being gay at all. "In the '80s, I lived in fear of coming out and having it be a career killer," says Lisa Sherman, CEO of the Ad Council. "It took me a long time to get the courage to do it."

While that stifling environment helped maintain the status quo, it took a toll on people trying to toe the line—not just in their personal lives, but in their output. "LGBT and gay culture existed but was not celebrated in corporate America," Walton says. "The more I suppressed that part of who I was, the more I was not delivering everything I could deliver. It had bad implications for the work I was doing."

Years later, when Sherman came out, she says she became a bigger asset: "All of that energy that went into hiding and living a double life was now available to be used to do the best work I'd ever done and to be far more creative than I had ever been."

One of the reasons Sherman did eventually come out was encouragement from a mentor who was out (not easy to find), she says: the general manager of a CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh. She kept Sherman's secret until Sherman was ready to come out on her own.

Walton found virtually no role models for a young gay black man, so he took inspiration from the life of Bayard Rustin, the civil rights pioneer and pacifist who was shunned later in his life by many of his peers in the movement, in part because of his sexuality.

A dearth of out leaders meant straight allies often ended up filling the role of mentors. In 1992, Out magazine wanted to do a spread on Barry Lowenthal, now CEO of The Media Kitchen, and his partner. So he asked his boss at the time, Richard Kirshenbaum, head of KB&P, what to do. "He was so excited," Lowenthal says. "He said, 'No, you have to do it. I love it.' Richard helped make KB&P a safe space for me."

Present, tense

By almost any metric, the industry is a safer space for LGBTQ people than it was before. That's in part due to advances in society as a whole. "In this moment, it's one of the civil rights movements of our time. Poll after poll has shown that young people are so incredibly behind that push that they're looking to how brands relate to the community," says Brian Ellner, general manager, public affairs and issues advocacy at Edelman. "It's become a bit of a litmus-test issue."

The LGBTQ community is also more visible and arguably larger than before. According to Kantar Consulting, 7 percent of Americans consider themselves LGBT. Kantar also identifies an additional "Q-plus" group that calls itself heterosexual but blurs the lines of heteronormativity. The combined group encompasses 32 million Americans, or 13 percent of the country, compared with an often-cited but dated 10 percent figure predicted years ago by Kinsey.

The shift in culture is being felt even in traditionally stodgy boardrooms. "I would certainly feel comfortable ... to raise an issue if someone was being homophobic," says Tom Wong, head of fame at Mother London, "even if it was a client and I was pitching and they said some things that were out of line. Being able to do that is a change from 10 to 20 years ago."

And the industry has a reputation as a place of refuge for people who feel like outsiders. "Creativity and safety sort of go hand in hand," Lowenthal says. "Advertising has always been about new ideas and inclusion. Can we do better? Of course. But as careers go, the creative fields have always attracted people with different opinions."

Not everyone feels the benefit of that dynamic, though. Nearly half of LGBTQ Americans are still in the closet at work, according to the Human Rights Campaign, and many people feel pressure to conform to straight expectations of behavior. "You're in the service business where you're careful about how you represent yourself," Disend says. "You're not necessarily being encouraged to be out and proud with clients. The industry still feels quite bro-y."

The LGBTQ community is particularly vulnerable to certain kinds of prejudice. According to HRC, 63 percent reported experiencing discrimination in their personal lives. That makes it even more important for workplaces to be accepting and encouraging. Obviously, that's not always happening, because 47 percent have experienced discrimination at work, the HRC study shows. And in more than half the country, workers can legally be fired because of their sexuality, and only the good will of the C-suite at companies in states like Texas, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania keeps LGBTQ employees from being unceremoniously axed without recourse.

See it, be it

Like the women of the #MeToo movement or people of color who have been fighting for representation for decades, the LGBTQ community has learned that it needs advocates in leadership positions. Representation among the decision-makers is what will ultimately ensure a better lot.

"This whole conversation that we're having in our industry about diversity and inclusion is fundamentally a leadership issue," says Sherman. "We need the leaders of our industry to reflect our audiences and to drive the change both internally and on behalf of the clients who are entrusting us with their work. All of this starts at the top."

There is plenty to do. Leaders bent on improving representation can begin to build out reliable pipelines of young talent, recruiting from outside the typical pools of new workers and from underprivileged or overlooked communities. They can also cultivate workplace cultures that are more welcoming to keep those new recruits from leaving, which could help stem the brain drain affecting all levels of the industry. Ideally, employees who have been shepherded up the ranks become the next generation of LGBTQ leaders.

"Being able to look upwards and see somebody who's like you—from a similar background, no matter what that might be—who's in a leadership position is really important as an aim and a goal," says Wong. "You know that you can do it as well."

It also proves that a business isn't just offering lip service to notions of diversity. "Representation is everything for a whole spectrum of reasons," says Walton. "If a company's leadership is inclusive of LGBTQ leaders, it sends a message of inclusivity to new talent and to others looking to move up in the organization. LGBTQ community members need to know they can rise to the highest ranks being their authentic selves."

Courting trouble

Meanwhile, opponents of equality have been out in force, chipping away at civil rights protections and peace of mind wherever they can, whether in the bathroom or the bakery. "Holding hands in much of America is still a political statement. It's still an act of civil disobedience," Lowenthal says. "I hope I'm alive when that's no longer true."

But the culture war is taking its toll, especially on members of the community who are just now coming of age. "Every time there is an anti-LGBTQ statement made, like banning transgender Americans from serving in the armed forces, we see a significant rise in calls from young people to suicide hotlines," Ellner says. "You see an uptick, timed like the stock market, anytime President Trump makes an anti-LGBTQ proclamation."

Just three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the country, due largely to a shift in public opinion, which many believe was fueled by marketing campaigns that told authentic, relatable stories about LGBTQ people. "It's about visibility. More people need to be out," Walton says. "I'm never going to hide that I'm black. It must be accepted and acknowledged. The same must be said about the gay community. The more people are out there and showing that it is OK to be who you are and thrive and be successful, the better."

But now that Kennedy, the linchpin of the 5-4 marriage decision, is stepping down from the court at the end of July and Trump is nominating his successor, there's a very real possibility that hard-won victory will be overturned. Marriages could be annulled and families broken up, some observers warn.

In the face of such possibilities, LGBTQ leaders have a responsibility to be "vocal advocates around human rights, rights for people of color, women's rights," says Kel Kelly, founder and CEO at Kel & Partners, a PR and social media agency. She says they must exercise their authority to turn away business that doesn't share their values. "The only way we're ever going to win equal rights for all, with no little asterisk," she says, "is if we have LGBTQ leaders and allies across industries speaking out."

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