TALKING TO CO-WORKERS: Being Authentic Makes a Difference

Guest Blogger: Scott Davenport

I count myself a lucky guy – at least as gay men go professionally. I’ve never worked at any company that wasn’t officially and culturally comfortable with gay men and lesbians in the workplace. But it still took courage and effort to be out at work – and it always meant doing so even though I hadn’t put “come out today” in my outlook calendar!

When I was first coming out, I began singing with the Gay Men’s Chorus in Washington, DC. I worked at a high-powered corporate consulting firm, and was fresh off getting my MBA at Wharton. But I wasn’t yet out at work. This was the early 80’s, and I wasn’t that sure of myself – both as a gay man and as an out professional. So I kept things to myself at work and channeled my burgeoning pride into my singing.

But one day, a colleague asked me to lunch. It turns out she had been in the audience for one of the concerts and was a lesbian, so this was her way of coming out to me and of arranging for me to come out to her. We had a great lunch that day as we shared stories of our respective girl and boy friends. It started a wonderful friendship and a great business relationship. It was, in fact, the beginning of my GLBT work network.

The really nice thing, though, was that my act of “gay pride” – singing in the chorus – helped me create a foundation for the future. It was a baseline of safety and support that I was able to draw on through-out my career.

When 5 years had passed and I was finally out to all my consulting colleagues, it made things amazingly easy for me at work when my partner and I decided to have children. The people that had gotten to know me – the real me – were so supportive. My boss at the time, one of the senior partners of the firm, threw the baby shower, and my daughter’s birth was announced in the firm’s newsletter – just like those of all my colleagues.

That was great while I was with the consulting firm, but eventually it was time for me to make the move into the corporate world. Yet while the prospect of finding the right place to work -- a place that would be welcoming to who I was (a gay dad at that) – seemed daunting, I now knew it mattered.

And once again, that foundation of support came through for me. I got a call from an old consulting colleague who had gone off to found Capital One, and he wanted me to join them. What a great prospect -- an opening to be part of a vibrant, growing company that wanted to revolutionize its industry! And even better, they knew me, and I knew them.

So when I asked my old friend what it was like for gay people at Capital One, he told me about one of his SVP’s who was a lesbian. It turned out that when she had a commitment ceremony with her partner, the entire senior management team attended. It was a great endorsement, and I knew Capital One was the place for me.

But while I knew some of the folks there, I certainly didn’t know everyone. After all, this was a company that in the first 5 years I worked there grew from 2,500 staff to over 10,000. In my role, I worked cross-functionally with people from all over the company, in cities like Richmond, Tampa and Dallas. Singing in the local gay men’s chorus wasn’t going to help me this time.

Instead, as I grew within Capital One, it meant constantly and frequently coming out – over and over again. Because, every time I met with someone new, I had to establish a relationship – and ideally an open and authentic one at that. What better way than to share what we have in common, and more often than not that was having kids.

However, as soon as I talked to a new team-mate about my children’s latest escapade, he or she would ask about my wife. The first time this happened, I was flummoxed. Somehow it had slipped my mind that the other person didn’t know I was gay. What to do? Well, I think the first time I just hemmed and hawed and adroitly shifted the subject.

I knew, though, that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Instead I developed a patter if asked about my “wife”: “Oh no, I’m not married. I’m gay. My partner and I have been together 17 years and we have two kids – a daughter who’s now in 2nd grade and a son who’s in Kindergarten.”

The first time I tried this, it came out a little shaky. My colleague stopped for a second (while the mental wheels turned in her head!), and then gave me a big smile and said, “Oh that’s great. Wow 17 years – when did you meet?” And then we went on and got to know each other some more. Somehow, that flood of information – and the fact she could make sense of it all – defused what could be a difficult situation. More importantly, she felt pride in her reaction, and I felt good about being authentic.

After a while, it got easier and easier, which also mattered for me, as these situations always seemed to come up when you least expected them. The honesty also meant a new colleague could trust me, and maybe most importantly, by putting a human face on being gay and being a gay parent, I had chipped away at homophobia.

Ultimately that’s the lesson here. Being honest about who we are and telling our stories – even when we least expect to and even in the workplace – builds a connection in people. That connection tears down walls and builds support. It’s also how I know we will ultimately win the freedom to marry.

***Scott Davenport is managing director for Freedom to Marry and previously served as managing vice president for enterprise risk management at Capital One Financial Services.