White-collar coming-out: being out in corporate America has meant success for some gays and lesbians. Most wish others weren’t so closeted

Shelley Freeman

Executive vice president and regional president, Wells Fargo Age: 45 Residence: Los Angeles Hometown: Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Relationship status: Partnered with Joni Rim, 13 years

Shelley Freeman’s father had three pieces of advice for his daughter before she ever set toot in the corporate world: Be nice to everyone. Arrive before your boss and leave after he or she is gone. When someone resigns, volunteer to fill their job duties.

Freeman heeded those words of wisdom before striking out on her own. After graduating from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, she worked briefly as a copywriter at the publisher Harper and Row (now Harper-Collins) before starting as an operations assistant at the now-defunct E.F. Hutton. A couple decades later, she’s executive vice president and Los Angeles metropolitan regional president at Wells Fargo, the fourth largest U.S. bank.

For Freeman, who came out in her early 20s, openness and honesty about her sexual identity are fundamental. “It’s a terrible thing to feel like you have to check a part of who you are at the door every day when you come to work,” she says. “Part of what makes my work experience so satisfying is that I can be myself and that l can have honest relationships with other people at work.”

Secondly, she says, it sets an example to others too scared to come out for fear it will derail their career. “We do live in a world where there are people who have notions about gays and lesbians that are based on long-held biases,” she says. “I think that when people who are held in high esteem come out it changes the way some people think about us, and changing even one mind is worth it.”

Freeman says her sexual identity is just one of her many facets. “I’m also a woman, Caucasian, Jewish, and a Democrat,” she says. “All of these dimensions mid others as well, I’m sure, contribute to who I am and my beliefs and my values. My corporate identity–and my identity in general–comes from these places. I do have a sense of what it feels like to ‘not belong,’ and I think it has perhaps made me more open and inclusive, so that others don’t have to have that feeling.”

An active community leader, Freeman is a hoard member of Los Angeles organizations Jewish Home for the Aging, Center Theatre Group, Jewish Family Service, and AIDS Project Los Angeles. Her partner, Joni Rim, is retired and dabbles in real estate. Freeman and Rim have no plans for children, but they have two labradoodles, Maggie Mae and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Freeman counts herself fortunate at Wells Fargo. “It’s really about how it feels every day to be a gay person here, and it feels perfect,” she says. “Even back when Wells relocated us to San Francisco, they relocated ‘us,’ not ‘me.’ You can go back more than 20 years and find that Wells Fargo–way before it was cool or even OK–was providing significant philanthropic support to the gay, lesbian, and HIV/AIDS communities.”–Dan Allen

Pablo de Echevarria

Senior vice president of marketing, Perry Ellis International Age: 44 Residence: Miami Beach, Fla. Hometown: Oviedo, Spain Relationship status: Partnered with Joel Magnani, 21 years

Pablo de Echevarria speaks excitedly about a recent Perry Ellis promotion in which the fashion company brought in stars from Showtime’s Queer as Folk to tour department stores. He was astounded at the diverse audience standing in line for the event. “It was mostly straight people coming who were really into it,” says De Echevarria, the company’s 44-year old vice president of marketing. “Those people were sleeping outside waiting to meet Brian. I thought that was really great.”

De Echevarria breezed through the University of Denver in just over three years and was about to start in Harvard University’s MBA program when his father asked him to return to Spain and help run the automotive parts division of the family business. “I hated it,” De Echevarria says with a laugh. But he admits that managing more than 30 stores totaling about 250 employees for four years, beginning at age 29, was a good experience.

There was another positive to his move hack home–De Echevarria met his partner, Joel Magnani, on a Spanish beach in August 1982. “I thought it was just a summer fling,” he says. But the pair began two exhausting years shuttling back and forth between Paris and northern Spain.

The couple moved to New York City in 1984 when Spanish designer Adolfo Dominguez asked De Echevarria to open his U.S. operation. He was thrilled at the unexpected turn of events that brought him into the world of haute couture and top designers. He moved on to Perry Ellis (and a home in South Beach), and his relationship with fashion has lasted more than two decades, as has his relationship with Magnani.

“What I always say is, realize that you will fall in love and that you will fall out of love. And if you work hard at it, you will fall in love again,” he says, adding that he and Magnani have been in the “in love” stage for the past decade. “It’s really worth it.” The pair tease their straight friends, many of whom have been divorced: “We say, ‘You heterosexuals, you are so promiscuous. You have no family values whatsoever.'”

De Echevarria sees a “cultural regression” in the United States, one that has led to the threat of an outright ban on gay marriage. That’s an inexplicable, demoralizing, and downright depressing thought, he says: “All of a sudden, we are going in the wrong direction. This is the first time it has happened in my life. It has always been progress. But right now, with this atmosphere in the country, we are truly going backward.”–C.J. Prince

Sarah Siegel

Director, IBM’s GLBT sales and talent program division Age: 38 Residence: Montclair, N.J. Hometown: Stamford, Conn. Relationship status: Partnered with Pat Hewitt, 11 years

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in a job by far,” says Sarah Siegel of her position at IBM in New York City. “And it’s not just because I’m serving GLBT people. It’s “also because it’s a start-up. That is intoxicating in a corporate environment–to do a start-up that actually works.”

Siegel and Joseph Bertolotti–a fellow executive at her New Jersey office–eat, think, breathe, and sleep the buying habits of gay-owned businesses and gay decision-makers at Fortune 500 companies. They must answer the question, How can IBM convince that niche to buy its products or services?

Something’s working with their strategy. In 2002, Siegel and Bertolotti’s division counted tens of millions of dollars hi sales.

From 1993 to 1996, Siegel was working for a joint venture between IBM and Sears. During that period she attended a gay and lesbian workplace conference in Chicago that forever changed her career path.

One speaker sung the praises of the the untapped–and very lucrative–gay and lesbian consumer market. Her interest piqued, Siegel returned to work determined to help push IBM into file overlooked segment.

By 1995 the computer giant signed up as an exhibitor at a gay and lesbian business expo at the Javits Center in New York City and flew openly gay and lesbian employees out for the event. “Everyone could taste that this was the beginning of something big,” she remembers. Soon afterward, Louis Gerstner Jr., then the company’s chief executive, authorized a task force to study potential niche markets for IBM, including the buying habits of gay and lesbian businesses.

Siegel credits much of her success to the open-minded ness of the IBM culture. “I needed to believe people would rise to the occasion,” she says. Siegel and her partner, Pat Hewitt, met at a GLBT Chicago synagogue 14 years ago. It took about 18 months before they started dating, but “there were a lot of hungry looks from afar,” Siegel says with a smile. The couple will celebrate their 12th anniversary in July.

As open as she is, Siegel still sees other white-collar workers opting to stay closeted. As a result, corporations are losing many of their best and brightest. “People leave rather than be themselves in all their glory,” she says. The only way to change things, she says, is from within: “We need to stick around until we actually are among the leadership.”–C.J. Prince

G. Jon Raj

Director of advertising, Visa Age: 34 Residence: El Cerrito, Calif. Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y. Relationship status: Partnered with Jacob Dolinsky, four years

For the past three years, Jon Raj has attended the Super Bowl with corporate clients. He makes sure to bring his partner, Jacob Dolinsky.

“He and I are quite the unique couple at these events,” says Raj, 34, himself an avid sports fan who played softball in the 2002 Gay Games in Sydney and plays in a softball league in San Francisco. “But even the very macho sports jocks that work for the sports companies treat us as if we’re any ordinary married couple.” He admits, however, that he has to drag Dolinsky to the sporting event.

Raj says that being out as a gay man at the credit card giant was an important decision for him, but he doesn’t criticize others who remain closeted. “It’s essential to feel comfortable hi the workplace,” he says. “If that means you are out, that’s fine. If that means you are more discreet, I think that’s fine too. For many people, their jobs are their livelihoods, and they are not in any position to risk their incomes.”

He adds, “I’ve been really fortunate to be able to make the decisions I have made. Not everyone is so lucky.”

Raj, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., didn’t have a direct shot up the corporate ladder. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he joined Teach for America, a nonprofit recruiter of educators for poor urban and rural public schools. After teaching for two years Raj took a job in Teach for America’s marketing department. He discovered his knack for advertising. A few years and ad agencies later, Raj became Visa’s director of advertising in 2000.

From his office in San Francisco, Raj heads the company’s online advertising division, and he has had a hand in creating such memorable Visa commercials as the 2002 spot in which NFL safety Jason Sehorn races Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson, the racehorse Lightning Bolt, and NASCAR driver John Andretti.

Raj and Dolinsky, who works in the high-tech industry, recently bought a house near Raj’s parents. The couple, who met on Match.com, plan to start a family soon and are considering adoption.

When he takes stock of the corporate world, Raj is pleased with the increasing number of openly gay employees. “I definitely have seen it in the younger generation, and I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “They simply have a better perspective on the issue. They are able to look past sexual orientation and look directly at the individual, and that gives me hope.”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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