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In corporate America, sexual preference just isn’t a big deal nowadays. Maybe the looser corporate culture of Silicon Valley has finally permeated the corporate culture of the old economy. Or perhaps people are more tolerant about personal lifestyles. So it doesn’t come as a complete surprise that some of the nation’s biggest corporations are at the forefront of the gay rights movement. A little more than half of Fortune 500 companies have nondiscrimination policies covering sexual orientation. And 27 percent offer benefits to same-sex couples, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization. “Corporate America has been the unsung hero in the movement for gay and lesbian equality,” says Elizabeth Birch, the group’s executive director and a former in-house attorney at Apple Computer Inc. But while the closet door has been open now for a while, not everyone thinks it’s a good idea to come out. Some lawyers and executives still worry that revealing their sexual orientation could still hurt their careers. For instance, top Ford Motor Company executive Allan Gilmour said in a 1997 Fortune article that he had kept his homosexuality a secret until two years after his 1995 retirement. He said that he didn’t want the adjective “gay” in front of every mention of his name. He’s not alone. Older lesbians and gays like Gilmour are more likely to stay in the company closet than younger ones, say many gay in-house lawyers. “There seems to be an informal network among us where we know which companies are gay-friendly and which ones are not,” says Leslie Allan Lugo, in-house counsel at American Airlines Inc. in Forth Worth, Texas. The in-house attorneys interviewed for this story were eager to paint a positive picture of their experiences as openly gay employees. Even so, it was hard to find gay lawyers who were willing to speak about their experiences — a sign that, despite recent attitude adjustments, a stigma still attaches, in many corporate legal departments, to being gay. Of the 12 former and current in-house attorneys who spoke, only one felt that coming out at work had actually hurt his corporate career. That attorney, who asked for anonymity, says it was one of the reasons he wasn’t promoted. He declines to give any further details other than to say that he left the company in question several years ago. But others said their sexual orientation hasn’t hindered their success. In fact, they say, it’s been a nonissue. Naturally, there are nonissues and nonissues, and some cases seem to follow the military’s don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy. “People here know that I’m gay, but I don’t walk around making announcements. I’m just a regular person … I don’t hide anything. But I’m not out on a mission for any causes either,” says an in-house attorney at a major communications company who also asked not to be identified. David Levine, the general counsel at the itsy-bitsy Entertainment Company in New York, says that not only did management respond positively when he came out at work three years ago, but “the chairman of the company was relieved that I had a life and was happy — I had never spoken of anyone in my life and he was convinced I was miserable and lonely, which wasn’t the case.” His relationships with his co-workers also improved, he says, since now he’s able to join in when the office discussions turn personal. Often workers already are out, but not to their current co-workers. A lot of gay in-house attorneys were out of the closet in previous jobs, or to their friends and family. So for them, it was just a matter of letting colleagues at new jobs know. Or not, as the case may be. Herb Leiman, for example, never officially came out at the Long Island Lighting Company, where he spent 26 years as in-house counsel (he was assistant GC by the time he retired). Still, his homosexuality had long been public knowledge at the company by the time he left in 1995. “It was never a cataclysmic moment of bursting out of the closet … . It was just sort of natural,” pipes in Leiman’s longtime partner, John Hirsch, who got to know Leiman’s colleagues. Leiman simply stopped hiding his homosexuality from his colleagues once he’d been at the company a number of years, and he and Hirsch began socializing with other couples from work. Still, Leiman says he always remained discreet about it at work. In all his years at LILCO, he only used the term “gay” twice, he says. Sometimes, gay lawyers come out when a natural opportunity to do so presents itself. John Sullivan, the GC at computer equipment maker Imation Corp., in St. Paul, Minn., says he came out at his previous in-house job at Cray Research while working on the company’s plan to offer domestic partnership benefits in the early 1990s. Two years later he was promoted to the general counsel position at Cray, which has since merged with Silicon Graphics Inc. But for a few gay lawyers, the issue of their sexual preference only arises, if at all, by accident. Norma Nielson, for instance, says that her sexual orientation has come up just once at her current job as in-house counsel at a holding company in Bermuda. Nielson’s daughter, Katrine, spends her afternoons in the company lunchroom doing homework along with other employees’ children. One day, when she was introduced to a new girl in the group, Katrine, who was 10 at the time, responded by saying, “Yeah, I’m the kid with the lesbian mom.” Nielson, who says she heard about the exchange from other mothers, says that Katrine was on a “change the world” kick and told everyone she could about her mom. Neilson’s reaction? She says she told Katrine that there’s a time and a place for everything — including telling strangers about her mother’s sexual orientation. Susan Mandel is a free-lance writer living in Arlington, Va.

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