Our Head of People, Jennifer Leahy, volunteered to share a personal message this year to honor LGBTQIA+ Pride Month and affirm Rocketrip's commitment to building an inclusive, anti-racist company culture that values authenticity and self-expression.
I “officially” came out in 1997.
It was three months before Ellen DeGeneres appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with the words that would move the needle significantly in breaking down walls of silence and stigma in Hollywood and beyond: Yep, I’m Gay. I remember looking at that cover and tearing up with a sense of pride and hope. Maybe things were really changing for the better.
That was my junior year in college, and I was living at home in Staten Island, doing a paid credit internship in NYC as a Technical Recruiting Intern for a small tech consulting firm. During those months, I immersed myself in self-discovery and study, writing my semester thesis paper on gay people in the workplace.
My findings, in short: life as an “out” gay employee in the U.S. was not typically a rosy one. Gay people whose sexual orientation was known or perceived often reported feeling marginalized at work. Some people experienced blatant bigotry and discrimination.
My research did, however, give me a small silver lining: several gay people who were open about their sexuality with their co-workers expressed experiencing less anxiety, more happiness, and reported being socially accepted and integrated into their workplaces. The idea that being honest, authentic, and proud of who you are could lead others to respond positively and mirror this self-acceptance, was a hopeful concept for me.
My thesis was, of course, equally naive and overly simplistic. It took me joining a global financial firm as an Associate in a Human Resources leadership training program the next year to understand more deeply how much pressure there can be to “fit in.”
I was young in my career and sought to be judged on my abilities and performance, not my sexual orientation. I was impressed by this firm’s outward commitment to diversity and inclusion — they even had an LGBT affinity group! However, after a short time, in spite of my personal convictions and acceptance of myself as a gay woman, I found myself dodging questions that might reveal my sexuality.
“So, Jennifer, do you have a boyfriend?” During lunch discussions about weekend activities with husbands, wives, fianceés — all stated to be opposite-sex partners — I caved under the fear of what people might think if they knew I was gay. I often stayed quiet, even finding myself doing the occasional pronoun changes.
Why? This was a progressive company, with a global department dedicated to diversity! I was in HR, for goodness sake! But subtle behaviors and presumptions quietly conveyed to me, “We are all straight and unfamiliar with anything else. You’re straight too, right?”
I learned first-hand that creating a truly inclusive culture is about more than diversity teams and affinity groups. It should not be incumbent upon employees to be crusaders of acceptance for their individual identities. Instead, it’s incumbent upon organizations to create a culture that celebrates differences and doesn’t establish an implicit “normal.”
It would have been easier to be open and feel comfortable sharing my sexual orientation, if my colleagues had not presumed that my date was male, or, certainly, if there were other openly gay, more senior members of the team who talked about their family lives. I imagine it feels similarly alienating for Black employees who hear organizations talk about being open and inclusive, and yet find themselves in meetings surrounded by only white colleagues and senior managers.
Inclusive cultures encourage authenticity. Authenticity leads to feeling a level of connectedness that allows creativity and innovative thought to flow. It means being able to bring the wholeness of everyone’s unique experience and perspective to the solving of work challenges.
Many of us need to think differently about what it truly means to create a culture and an environment that actually feels inclusive. I know our organization has been doing a lot of introspection and taking action steps to get better at this. This is vital for individuals and for businesses. It is now my goal and my privilege to help engender cultures of authenticity.
I am the VP of People at Rocketrip and yep, I’m gay!