Out of the Corporate Closet

How African American gays and lesbians can gain ground in the workplace

When Melissa Theodore was looking for her first job out of college, she considered several accounting firms. When choosing which one to join, the New York University graduate was extremely cautious. She wanted to work for a firm that was considered one of the best. But as a bisexual, Theodore also wanted some assurance that her sexual orientation would not hinder her advancement.

As an African American woman pursuing a career in a white, male-dominated field, she felt she might experience some challenges. Theodore’s bisexuality now made her a triple minority. After a careful review of the policies and practices of the companies she was eyeing, Theodore accepted a position at Ernst & Young in 2006.

“I wanted to pick a firm where I knew I would be completely comfortable, because I have friends at other accounting firms who don’t feel like they can be themselves,” says Theodore, a staff accountant in the company’s International Tax Services division. “Ernst & Young talked about how inclusive they are of everything and everyone, and I was impressed by that.”

Still, Theodore, 27, admits she was a bit nervous about revealing her sexual orientation once on the job. If no one asked, she didn’t tell. “But then I found some friends who were a part of the company’s gay and lesbian group bEYond, and I started noticing people above me who were ‘out’ and doing well in the firm, so I became a bit more comfortable discussing with other employees that I am bisexual. So far everyone has been fine with it.”

Now a member of bEYond for almost a year, Theodore participates in a subgroup of the organization to address issues specific to bisexuals at Ernst & Young and participates on a committee to represent the firm at an AIDS Walk to be held this month.

Theodore is just one example of how workplace diversity is changing. At one time diversity solely meant having a black, brown, or female face in the corner offices of corporate America. Now, diversity includes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) employees. Their workforce supporters include many corporate giants: IBM, considered a top-level financial supporter of gay rights groups in the U.S.; Raytheon, a member of gay chambers of commerce in areas where it houses big production plants; and Microsoft, home of the GLBT employee group GLEAM (Gay and Lesbian Employees at Microsoft).

In fact, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC), the nation’s largest gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender civil rights organization, ranks these companies in its annual list of the “Best Places to Work for GLBT Equality.” The listing was first published in 2002 with only 13 companies scoring 100% on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, a measuring stick of company policies and practices that promote fairness and equality for GLBT employees. Today that list has grown to 142 companies, five of which are run by African American CEOs: Aylwin Lewis, Sears Holdings; Ronald Williams, Aetna Inc.; Kenneth Chenault, American Express; E. Stanley O’Neal, Merrill Lynch & Co.; and Renetta McCann, Starcom

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