The corner closet: Why there are so few gay and transgender executives in corporate America


After graduating from Stanford University in 1983, Jeff Gennette joined the executive training program at Macy’s. He says public disapproval of homosexuality made many in the gay community wary of identifying themselves at work, especially during the AIDS/HIV crisis. Not Gennette, even after he was warned that his openness about his sexual orientation could hamper his career.

“It was a scary time to come out and be who you are,” he said. “Not seeing other gay people who were above me in rank, I knew it could potentially hold back my career. But I didn’t find that at Macy’s.”

Gennette got his start in the Macy’s men’s department on the Stanford campus. He became president of the nation’s largest department store chain in 2014 and its CEO in 2017, clearing a path through a minefield of existential threats in the retail world – online rivals, discount chains, fast fashion and the COVID pandemic.

Still, it took decades for change at the top. Gennette says the corner closet nudged open in 2014 when Apple’s Tim Cook, the leader of one of the world’s most iconic brands, declared “I’m proud to be gay.”

“What Tim Cook did was nothing short of revolutionary,” Gennette said. “A leader of his stature and the authenticity of his message were so moving to so many gay Americans and allies.”

But progress has remained slow since Cook became the first publicly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, particularly in industries outside of fashion, media and entertainment. There are just two others today who publicly identify as gay aside from Gennette and Cook: Dow’s Jim Fitterling and Land O’ Lakes’ Beth Ford. 

The LGBTQ+ ranks are paper thin in the rest of the executive suite as well.

A review of leaders at America’s 1,000 largest companies by data firm DiversIQ found just 10 out of thousands of named executive officers identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community including Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of retail and people and Sue Nabi, CEO of the beauty brand Coty. 

About 3.3% of Americans similar in age to these CEOs say they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to polling by Gallup. That means those companies would need to add 155 LGBTQ+ executives to achieve parity in the C-suite.

“At the end of the day, I never saw it affect my career,” Gennette said of his decision to be public about his sexual orientation. “That has not been the experience of everyone.”

LGBTQ+ rights movement transforms workplace

The gay rights movement has led to substantial changes in the workplace in a relatively short period of time, says Lee Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

As more LGBTQ+ employees opened up about their identities and formed employee resource groups and as lawsuits upped the pressure, corporations extended benefits to same-sex couples and created anti-discrimination policies in the 1990s. Advocacy groups sprung up to promote “out and equal” in the workplace.  

Today, with increased self-identification, particularly among younger Americans, companies face changing expectations from incoming workers. According to a Gallup survey last year, 19.7% of people in Generation Z – those born from 1997 to 2004 – identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender compared to just 3.3% of Generation X, which was born between 1965 and 1980.

And transgender rights are now being recognized by a growing number of companies.

“Between more policies, more benefits, better networks of people, we’re just seeing people being more open than there have been before,” Badgett said.

Gay and transgender employees bump up against 'lavender ceiling'

But with too few mentors, sponsors and allies, there’s still pressure to hide sexual orientation or gender identity at work, she said. That means no family photographs on desks, no wedding rings, and no plus ones at company events. 

For some, it’s a question of physical safety. They live and work in areas of the country where being their whole selves at work could put them at risk, especially as conservatives push legislation targeting the gay and transgender community.

Then there’s the risk of bumping up against the “lavender ceiling,” which keeps gay and transgender employees from jobs they qualify for and from doing their jobs at the level they are capable of, said Badgett, author of “The Economic Case for LGBT Equality: Why Fair and Equal Treatment Benefits Us All.”

People who belong to multiple underrepresented groups, such as Black gay or transgender women, face even bigger hurdles.

“People sometimes go back into the closet as they move up the ladder because they’re not sure they'll be accepted at that level or at that level they have to avoid any controversy or any behaviors perceived as not leadership quality,” Badgett said. “That’s where biases might emerge.”

Anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination still common

Workplace discrimination is still a factor even after the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that civil rights law protects LGBTQ+ workers.

The majority of the nation’s largest 500 companies ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and more than one-third ban discrimination based on gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. 

But LGBTQ+ people still face “persistent and widespread” discrimination at work, including being harassed, fired or not hired, according to UCLA research. The rate was twice as high for people of color than white workers and five times as high for those who were out as LGBT.

LGBTQ+ professionals are eight times more likely to feel that they've been treated unfairly at work because of their sexual orientation, according to research from Coqual, a think tank that conducts research on workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion and advises corporations. (17% compared to 2%)

Higher rates of concern and anxiety are compounded by race and gender. For example, 41% of Black LGBTQ professionals feel out of place at work because of their race or ethnicity compared to 32% of non-LGBTQ Black professionals, Coqual found.

“There are these reasons to cover one's identity and that becomes a challenge for some companies who are looking to do more,” Coqual CEO Lanaya Irvin said.

People’s comfort level with being out at work varies across generations, companies and leadership levels, Irvin said.

“You put yourself at risk in the event that being an out leader creates an additional headwind,” she said.

When Irvin worked on Wall Street, she was often the only gay woman in the room. She was also the only Black woman in the room.

A watershed moment came in 2015 when Irvin rallied more than 30 financial services firms to sign onto a U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief in support of marriage equality. Firms suddenly could see all the LGBTQ+ talent they were overlooking.

Today she’s invited to speak to LGBTQ+ executives in the finance world. “Wall Street is unrecognizable compared to 15 years ago, 20 years ago,” said Irvin, who spent more than a decade at BofA Securities.

'Companies have a role to play'

Even as companies look to hire and promote more LGBTQ+ talent, non-binary and transgender people continue to encounter stigma, exclusion and discrimination.

“This has got to be a moment where it’s much harder to be a transgender person in the workplace because of all the work being done to limit the rights of transgender youth in schools,” said Meghan Stabler, senior vice president at BigCommerce and a transgender rights advocate. “That’s got to make a difference in terms of the decision about being open.” 

This spring, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that makes it a crime for someone to use a bathroom that doesn’t match their assigned sex at birth in many public buildings. An earlier version of the proposal included a variety of businesses, too. 

Elected officials in Texas, where Stabler lives and works, recently banned minors from changing the sex marker on their birth certificate and extended a ban on transgender people’s participation in high school sports to include collegiate competitions.

Although distressing, Stabler sees the political debates as evidence of progress compared to her youth when transgender experiences simply were not seen by the broader public.

Before transitioning as an adult, Stabler was a “visible male executive that was used to jetting around the world, spending time on a company’s G4 airplane.” But she was unhappy, unsettled and suicidal.

After Stabler told her boss that she planned to live her truth as a transgender woman and lesbian, she was promised support but instead was demoted and her salary was cut.

She remembers being told, “We’re doing this for you” and “It’s better for you.” As an executive, Stabler regularly had meetings with corporations from Lockheed Martin to Motorola. In her lower-level marketing job, she was out of sight. “Someone like you could scare off potential clients,” she was told

Stabler says she was grateful she wasn’t fired like many of her peers. 

“Having climbed that corporate ladder, I was cut out from that corporate ladder,” she said. “To myself, I had been living a lie. Yet to everybody around me, they saw him. They saw his truth and his leadership and his capability. And then the moment I transitioned, those that used to look at me, started to question my authenticity and truthfulness.”

It took her several years to climb back up the ladder – and to find a company that prized her business talents without muzzling her advocacy for transgender rights. 

Today just two openly transgender CEOs run major U.S. public companies, United Therapeutics’ Martine Rothblatt and Coty’s Nabi, according to DiversIQ.

“Companies have a role to play,” Stabler said. “I don’t think there should be an allotment, but I don’t think people should discard people because of who they are, who they love and how they identify.”

'Inclusion is not optional anymore'

Rosanna Durruthy, LinkedIn’s vice president of global diversity, inclusion and belonging, is lesbian, Black and has Cuban-Puerto Rican heritage − all identities that, at different points in her career, gave her “a sense of being alone.”

“There were people I worked with that, after leaving the company, we came out to each other. We didn’t know,” she said, reflecting on jobs before committing to being out at work.  “Even your allies are people you have to fear knowing the truth about you.”

As a human resources leader, Durruthy now understands that people often choose convenient, but incomplete, explanations for leaving a job rather than admit isolation or discrimination played a role. She said companies that don’t deliberately gauge the experiences of workers with a variety of identities will not identify or correct exclusion in their culture. 

That means people will not contribute to their full potential, nor share ideas critical to connecting with increasingly diverse consumers, a loss for organizations as more studies link diverse leadership to better business outcomes and returns for investors.

“Inclusion is not optional anymore. It’s not possible to be an effective leader without being an inclusive leader,” Durruthy said. “The organizations that are going to be the most effective, that win for their customers and employees, master the art of our differences.”

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