"Be anything you want kid ~ but NOT a hairdresser"

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24 June 2019

Why PRIDE still matters 50 Years later.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, widely regarded around the world as a seminal event in the gay rights movement. LGBTQ Pride was not born out of a need to celebrate our being gay, but our right to exist without persecution. Not that long ago, women and men were regularly fired or not hired because of their sexuality. For myself and so many others, Stonewall changed the trajectory of our personal and professional futures, and that of my industry.

The 1969 picture of me shows a precocious, expressive boy excited for the future. My parents saw something else in me that was only ever spoken of in code. I could be anything, but NOT a hairdresser. This was code, of course, for queer. While I didn’t pursue a hairdressing career (an honorable profession), I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a thriving communications industry with a unique capability to influence and inspire profound social change. My life depended on it.

Unlike many of my peers, I was fortunate to find a career with colleagues and clients who accepted and embraced me. I had a great boss in the 1990s who later told me that her supervisor had questioned her judgement for hiring me because she already had “one of those” in her department. “So?” was her brave reply. Thanks to her and others, I was able to thrive, eventually becoming the head of a multinational healthcare communications firm.

Our voices give us power. As agency leader, I have an opportunity – and an obligation – to be proudly and visibly out in the workplace. #UnlimitedPride.

“Aren’t you worried you’ll get fired?”

When I grew up gay men were called “fags” and “poofters” in polite company. We learned in our churches that we were sinners damned to hell. We were denied civil rights and told that we would never have a family. We carefully cultivated disguises to hide our true selves in closets of lies.

I came out in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The #LGBTQ community that I became a part of changed the course of a global public health crisis and saved countless millions of lives. While finishing college and preparing for a career, gay men like me were dying by the tens of thousands as our governments and society largely stood by. The stigma of the epidemic amplified long-standing discrimination and homophobia, including in the workplace.

Increasingly, our clients, companies and leaders understand that people are our most important asset. But we have a long way to go before every LGBTQ person feels supported by their employer. The collective sum of our individual differences, life experiences, knowledge, inventiveness, innovation, self-expression, unique capabilities and talent translate directly to a company’s reputation and business success. Employers that foster an inclusive, supportive workforce get the best from everyone.

As a leader, I work to ensure a welcoming environment by sponsoring our participation in #WorldPride events, building #diversity and #inclusion into our core values and championing a diverse workforce, #GenderEquality and working with clients advancing progress.

“I don’t hate gay people. I just don’t know any.”

One of my life regrets is that my brother found out I was gay from CNN, instead of hearing it from me first. The 1980s was a scary time for me and the millions of other gay men around the world – our friends were dying of AIDS with no treatments, no cures and no hope of a future. I was not an activist, but I was there at the marches and vigils pleading for help to stop the virus that was killing us.

Watching CNN on October 11th 1987, my brother was surprised to see me waving a pink triangle flag in front of the White House, alongside 500,000 other LGBTQ people and our allies who had marched on Washington that day. (President Reagan was not home; he had not yet acknowledged the AIDS crisis killing tens of thousands of Americans, primarily gay men.). The national march was prompted by two major events in the 1980s: the AIDS pandemic, the Ronald Reagan administration’s lack of acknowledgment of the AIDS crisis; and the Supreme Court of the United States ruling upholding the criminalization of sodomy between two consenting men in the privacy of a home. Its success, size, scope, and historical importance have led to it being called, “The Great March.”

An awkward telephone call followed, and I learned an important lesson about the cost of hiding our true selves from those who love us. My brother was upset not because I was gay (he had his suspicions), but because I’d been hiding such an important part of me from him – and he was the last to know. I’ve not hidden who I am or who I love from anyone since.

Visibility is incredibly important and meaningful. My parents always said that what helped them the most to accept my coming out as gay was meeting my friends. Their only frame of reference for gay people were hairdressers and a local nurse who was ridiculed for being effeminate (but sounded so fabulous to me). Meeting my friends helped them understand that I was part of a rich, loving and diverse community.

Since its very beginnings, the fight for equality has belonged to brave, marginalized people whose fierce commitment compels them to protest, march, volunteer, vote and donate. When we speak up about LGBTQ equality, we are creating change. This is particularly important in the workplace, where visible and vocal LGBTQ role models and allies in leadership positions can help ensure a welcoming environment and champion a diverse workforce.

While our clients may be way ahead of us advancing diversity and inclusion, as a society we have a long way to go before every LGBTQ person feels supported by their employer. Many LGBTQ staff, and trans people in particular, still face discrimination, exclusion, barriers and even bullying at work. In the U.K., 35% of LGBTQ employees are still in the closet, and this number goes up to 46% in the U.S. Data shows that many people don’t feel comfortable enough to disclose their identity at work, and those who do are often subject to varying degrees of discrimination.

Finding of Stonewall commissioned survey asking more than 5,000 LGBTQ people across England, Scotland and Wales about their life in Britain today

“I’m straight. Where is my pride parade?”

Our right to exist without persecution is not yet secure, so we must raise our voices as individuals, allies, and companies at #PrideMonth events, marches and rallies around the world. Our lives depend on it.

  • We participate in Pride to demonstrate our commitment to fight for social justice and support the lives of LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people.
  • We participate in Pride because the history of violence and criminalization of LGBTQ people continues to this day. There is still no U.S. federal law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Trans women, particularly women of color, continue to be victims of violence at alarming rates.
  • We participate in Pride because HIV/AIDS continues to be a major public health crisis around the world. #Stigma and #discrimination remain a reality for many people living with or at risk for HIV.
  • We participate in Pride because we can’t do it alone. These celebrations show LGBTQ people around the world that we are accepted and championed by so many.

Together, we have come so far. But there’s much more to be done.

Stonewall began shortly after midnight on June 28, 1969, when police officers raided a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in New York City and started hauling out the patrons. A small group of gay, lesbian and transgender people fed up with longstanding discrimination and harassment at the hands of law enforcement shoved back; threw bricks, bottles, punches. Their protest lasted six days and sparked a movement that is still building today.

I recently visited the Stonewall Inn, now a National Monument, and reflected on how those events changed my life: from the little boy who couldn’t be a hairdresser to the out-and-proud global executive that I am today. The greatest lesson I’ve learned along the way is the need to repay that debt forward by being a visible role model, building an inclusive workplace, and fostering the careers of diverse and talented communicators.#MeaningfulChange

Our industry’s capability to influence matters. Pride still matters. Being out and proud, at home and in the office, will always matter.

About The Author: Timothy Bird is global CEO of Health Unlimited, a global health consultancy and communications agency with regional hubs in New York City and London. A part of the Unlimited Group. 

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