Being gay and being a business owner used to be two extremely separate aspects of my life. I used to think that being openly gay was irrelevant to the successes or failures of my business. Now I know better.
Meanwhile, Pride Month has been embraced by millions of people, by pop culture, by local governments and, increasingly, by companies. I’ve loved watching Pride grow into a national celebration and discussion. In particular, I’ve been interested in how other businesses, executives and entrepreneurs celebrate Pride Month and their roles in the LGBTQ+ community. Because for me, it took a long time to feel comfortable calling myself a gay business owner. There is an important difference between a brand celebrating Pride and the actual experience of being “out” as an entrepreneur or executive. In fact, genuine pride can sometimes feel easier said than done — and we shouldn’t forget that.
Last night, I attended the Business of Pride awards dinner here in San Francisco with a few close colleagues. The dinner recognizes the Largest LGBTQ-Owned Businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area, a list compiled each year by the San Francisco Business Times and the San Jose Business Journal. Bateman Group has been included on every Business of Pride list since its inception in 2015, rising from 16th place in 2015 to 6th place this year. But, as important as this recognition is, it hasn't always been one I’ve celebrated publicly or shared with my colleagues.
I used to feel ambivalent about this award. To me, winning an award for being a gay business owner felt like winning something for being born with blue eyes or being nearsighted. It didn’t feel like an accomplishment or an achievement of any kind. I thought being gay had no impact on my company — in fact, I went out of my way to keep it that way. In hindsight, I recognize the steps I took to ensure my sexuality never became an obstacle. Some were conscious, like surrounding myself with fantastic people who I felt clients and prospects would be able to self-identify with more easily — in other words, heterosexual. Others were more implicit. Deep down, I viewed my gayness as a flaw that I needed to cover up.
Notice the contradiction there? I simultaneously tried to cover up my identity while telling myself it had no impact on my business, that being a gay entrepreneur wasn’t an achievement. I used to attend the Business of Pride ceremony alone and keep the trophies in my home office. It wasn’t something I felt comfortable sharing with my co-owners.
Now I know better. I know that my sexuality does matter. I know that we are prejudged before we even walk into a new business pitch or shortlisted for an agency review. As much as it pains me to admit, I know that my sexuality impacts my heterosexual business partners and each of my employees regardless of what steps I take to minimize it. But I also know that my colleagues are there to fight alongside me and to celebrate our successes and our failures together. I understand now the psychological price I paid for viewing the way I was born as something to hide.
Taking these lessons and using them to help others is something I feel very strongly about. I feel a sense of obligation to encourage younger gay and lesbian PR professionals not to treat their sexuality as a deficit that needs to be compensated for. Because at the end of the day, your sexuality is not the same as your eye color. Yes, it’s something you’re born with. But it’s also something that can elicit prejudice or judgment, no matter how far we’ve come as a society. That’s why today I’m thrilled to be attending the Business of Pride dinner with close colleagues and co-owners. It’s an achievement I’m proud of, and one that I will no longer hide.
Fred Bateman is founder/CEO of Bateman Group, which is based in San Francisco with offices in New York and Portland, Ore.