The benefits of authenticity: why coming out—and supporting those who do—is good for business

This week Ian Thorpe revealed he was gay in an interview with Michael Parkinson. A few months back, Michael Sam and Jason Collins became the first openly gay men to be drafted into the NFL and NBA respectively. And New Zealand and many other nations have legalised gay marriage. So progress is certainly being made in the area of gay rights, at least in the developed world. But there’s still a long way to go. And as John Browne’s book The Glass Closet, ASB’s response to Thorpe’s news and OUTLine’s 100% OK campaign show, the business community can lead the way. 

​Browne, who was chief executive of BP from 1995 until 2007 but resigned after he was outed as gay in the press, regrets he didn’t come out earlier. And as he writes: “Whether you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or straight, it’s better for you, your business and the economy when you bring your authentic self to work.” Despite greater acceptance of the LGBT community, he says it is estimated that 41 percent of LGBT employees in the US and 34 percent in the UK remain closeted. And considering there was not one openly gay chief executive among the Fortune 500 companies in 2013, he says the lack of role models and continuing prejudice in the business sector ensures those numbers will remain high (the website offers an opportunity for some of those people to share their story and many of them have). 

A similar scenario exists in professional sport, which Browne says lags behind other areas in terms of gay rights and inclusion. Thorpe says he contemplated coming out prior to the 2000 Sydney Olympics but decided against it because of the detrimental financial consequences suffered by other gay sportspeople and the impact it may have on corporate sponsorship (even if it’s intended to be a bit of a laugh, a recent KFC ad featuring a few Super 15 players still seems to show a sense of wrongness about men finding rugby players hot). But Browne would no doubt be pleased to see that ASB is one major company that’s taking the high ground and affirming its “commitment to diversity and to supporting athletes, teams and other groups regardless of factors such as sexual orientation, gender identity, race and ethnicity”. 

“It’s wrong that modern athletes continue to feel the need to hide their sexuality due to fears over the potential impact on their commercial sponsorship arrangements,” says chief executive Barbara Chapman in a release. “As an organisation, we sponsor individuals and teams because we are proud of what they do and we will continue to do so irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Financial considerations should never be a factor for an athlete deciding whether to be open with their sexuality. Openly gay role models are few and far between in sport. It’s important then that corporate sponsors like ASB articulate clearly that factors such as sexuality, gender identity, race or ethnicity will have no bearing on sponsorship contracts. With this in mind, I think it is incumbent on all corporate sponsors to state their commitment to diversity in all their sponsorship contracts.”

ASB, which sponsors New Zealand Football, ASB College Sport, Tennis Auckland and the New Zealand Falcons gay rugby team, is now including clauses in all sponsorship contracts affirming this commitment to diversity. And in his book Browne points to a number of corporations that are embracing change and shows why actively courting LGBT employees, rather than simply tolerating them, is good for business.

But it’s not just major corporate sponsors who can help. OUTLine, a support service for what it calls the “Rainbow community” that’s been active since 1972, has been taking steps to remove prejudice, creating allies for the gay community in Auckland and, over time, making it easier for people to come out. 

In 2010, Auckland council staff and people from or working with the Rainbow community gathered to form a group called the Rainbow Door and asked the question: what would the world’s most livable city look for the Rainbow community? From there, the 100% OK/Tino Pai project, which asks businesses and associations to offer a show of support, was born. 

As the website says: “Being an ally is a crucial step to help make sure that Auckland is an inclusive, friendly place. Even the smallest step goes a long way in making someone feel valued, supported and comfortable. It can be easy for someone who has no issues with the Rainbow community to misunderstand the level of acceptance that there is in the world, and that their opinion may not be the dominant one.” 

Allies of diversity can simply change a profile picture, wear a colourful wristband or display a sticker on their car or shop window to show their support (you can get the wristbands at these locations and all donations received from them go to OUTLine). It’s also asking people and businesses to show their support by posting a photo on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and tagging it with #100percentOK (it claims to have 30,000 allies and the Facebook page currently has 2,850 fans). 

“It can be hard speaking up for anyone, but even one sentence can make the world of difference,” says Toni Duder from the 100% OK project. 

While it’s mercifully rare that Kiwi businesses would openly ban gay customers (in the US, the decision by Big Earl’s restaurant to do that backfired when it was labelled a gay bar on Yelp and the same fate befell homophobic Oklahoma restaurant owner Gary James), the number of people opposed to the marriage equality bill when it came before parliament show there’s still a big chunk of New Zealand society that isn’t okay with it. 

Maybe those people just need to listen to this brilliant piece to camera from an enlightened US news anchor. 

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