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I Came Out As a Gay Man In the 80's. It Was the Best Thing I Ever Did For My Career. If you're ready, workplaces are readier than ever to embrace your differences.

By Phil Bohlender Edited by Frances Dodds

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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When I started my first corporate job in 1982 in Houston, with a Fortune 100 Company, I had no intention of coming out as a gay man. After all, nothing happening to the LGBTQ community at that time would support such a risky action. I started my job at a time when the AIDS epidemic was just coming into the forefront of the national news, and the reactions to it were extremely negative. There was a massive backlash towards the LGBTQ community, and in particular to gay men.

As if the AIDS epidemic was not enough to dissuade me from coming out, there was the fact that I had no legal protections in terms of my employment. In Texas at that time, I could have been terminated for coming out with no opportunity to appeal the decision. The last thing that I should have considered before I came out was the company's 16-week probationary period that stated an employee could be terminated for any reason at the discretion of the manager.

I remember everything about coming out except the thoughts that led up to saying the words "I am gay" to a colleague. It was more about the feelings. I knew at the moment that I came out that I had to release the pressure of hiding a part of myself.

Related: The LGBTQ+ Community Has $3.7 Trillion In Purchasing Power ...

After I came out to my colleague, in front of other colleagues, I thought I was most certainly going to be fired. With that in mind, I walked directly to the manager's office and asked if I could meet with her. I started my talk by telling her that I had just come out to some of my colleagues and that I fully expected to be terminated, but I wanted to tell her myself. She told me she was grateful that I came to her office to talk with her.

More than 38 years later, the way she she responded to me on that day in 1982 is still vivid in my memory.

She told me that I would not be fired and went on to say what an outstanding job I had been doing in my short tenure. I worked for that company for 18 years. At the time that I came out there was no such thing as Diversity and Inclusion. For many of my colleagues, I was the first openly gay person they ever met.

Diversity means being different

The definition of Diversity that has stood the test of time is being different. We can all find ways in which we are different from each other. These are a set of the most common differences:

  • Disability
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Sexual Identity

I had the opportunity to get involved in one of the foundations for the current day Diversity and Inclusion movement in the 1980s when I was asked to participate in a focus group meeting that was being facilitated by a consulting firm that specialized in implementing Diversity and Inclusion initiatives in the workplace.

As a result of the final report from the focus group meeting, the company's senior executives approved to move forward with establishing the first-ever Employee Resource Group dedicated to the LGBTQ and Ally community.

Related: Be Intentional About Diversity

I was in the right place at the right time when I worked for several more Fortune 100 Companies. I had the opportunity to participate in developing their LGBTQ and Ally Employee Resource Groups, both as a member and as an executive sponsor. My experiences in working with those ERGs later supported me in serving ERGs that focused on Women and Hispanics.

Today Diversity and Inclusion are as much a part of the corporate structure and culture as operations, sales, and finance. In many Fortune 100 Companies, there is a C-Suite Executive role specifically dedicated to overseeing Diversity and Inclusion.

Diversity and Inclusion is a strategy that pays off when companies can attract and retain diverse top tier talent who work to achieve superior financial results. LGBTQ talent is more likely to seek employment in companies that have a strong commitment and track record to Diversity and Inclusion policies.

Come out, stay out, be out

While the decision to come out is strictly a personal one, there is increasing support for Coming Out, Staying Out, and Being Out professionally. There has never been a time, in the history of business, when so much attention was being given to training on Diversity and Inclusion.

It is most evident when companies like Starbucks make a significant commitment and investment in this training topic. On May 29, 2018, they closed all of their stores in the USA so that their associates could attend a program dedicated to increasing awareness around unconscious biases.

Related: If You Treat Diversity Training as a Checkbox, Your Company Will ...

The evolution of Diversity and Inclusion now includes Equity. This movement towards enhancing and improving the work by including Equity signals a brighter future for those choosing to live their lives differently, an openly.

Here are three strategies that might be supportive in considering your decision about coming out professionally.

  1. Act Boldly: Demonstrate unwavering self-confidence.
  2. Break Stereotypes: Challenge other people's biases.
  3. Consider Outcomes: Visualize achieving success!

My experience as a corporate leader and now a business entrepreneur has taught me that my performance is consistently enhanced by my ability to show up 100 percent. My decision to Come Out, Stay Out, and Be Out as a gay man continues to be the right one for me and my career.

Phil Bohlender is a global leadership-development and business-transformation consultant who worked for multiple healthcare companies including Aetna, Humana, and Cigna over his 35-year corporate career. As an openly gay man, his roles included leader, consultant, mentor, coach, author and speaker.

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