LGBT acceptance in Silicon Valley tech community on the rise, but there is still work to be done

When Tim Cook came out in October, he became the highest profile in a series of technology executives to reveal his or her sexual orientation. Google[x]’s Megan Smith, now White House Chief Technology Officer; and Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir Technologies, are both openly gay.

“While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now,” the Apple CEO wrote in an opinion piece for Bloomberg Businessweek in October, shattering the “glass closet” in which LGBT businesspeople have previously hidden. “So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”

Cook’s announcement won praise from the gay community. And while many described it as a hallmark of how far acceptance of gays has come in a tech community that once shunned the lifestyle, still, some say acceptance of other sexual orientations — especially those who are transgender — still lags.

However, the decision to come out publicly, says Chris Sinton, former senior director at Cisco Systems, has had a massive impact on the LGBT community, which until recently, has had very few role models in the business world.

“When someone knows that the most valuable company on the planet is run by a gay man, that tells them that gay people are capable of contributing to society [and business]. And we haven’t had role models like that in the past,” said Sinton, himself a gay man.

Sinton has seen this evolution first-hand. Despite the progressive nature of the tech industry and the Bay Area in general — San Francisco has had the highest concentration of gay individuals in any city for decades — when he worked for Cisco in the 1990s there were no gay business leaders in sight.

“When I came to the Valley in 1989, I didn’t see a lot of people like me,” he said. “And working for Cisco Systems for a decade, I saw no one like me in the executive rank. No one.”

As a result, Sinton felt pressured to hide his sexuality from his co-workers. He made sure not to cross his legs at meetings, avoided talking with his hands and modified pronouns when talking about his personal life. This constant effort to appear straight, Sinton said, impacted his performance.

“It’s a matter of mental capacity. If a part of you is always thinking about modifying your behavior, how you speak or the pronouns you use, you’re just not fully there,” he said. “There was always a part of me that was calculating if I was behaving as heterosexual as I could be.”

The rise in executives publicizing their sexuality, however, has caused an attitude shift.

“It’s really exciting,” Jonathan Lovitz, director of communications for StartOut, a nonprofit network for LGBT entrepreneurs said. “The conversations we’re having about out CEOs and out business leaders and Fortune 500 companies run by gay people weren’t conversations we were having even five years ago. So it’s really great to see how fast this is ramping up.”

In addition to adopting employment non-discrimination policies, many large companies are taking their support efforts to a public level. Several large corporations in Silicon Valley now openly promote LGBT Pride Month each June. Apple, Facebook and Netflix, for instance, all included floats in San Francisco’s Pride Parade this year.

Acceptance has become expected behavior among business leaders — most actions or opinions deemed hostile toward gay people is considered a major foul. Amid public outcry, Mozilla fired its chief executive, Brendan Eich, in April after it was discovered that he donated to Proposition 8 — California’s ballot measure banning same-sex marriage. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, on the other hand, was commended for endorsing Washington’s bill to legalize same-sex marriage and publicly telling off shareholders who disagreed.

While changing societal views toward LGBT rights certainly contribute to changing corporate behaviors, for many companies there is a simpler motivation: it’s good for business. Creating an inclusive environment for LGBT employees allows them to work at higher levels of efficiency, which ultimately benefits the company’s bottom line.

“When you’re constantly worrying about things that have no impact on what you’re actually there to do, you end up being a less effective leader,” said Lorenzo Thione, an openly gay man and former principle program manager of Powerset and Bing at Microsoft. “[Being open] becomes a point of strength for these people to become better business leaders.”

There are also purely financial incentives to being inclusive: It’s good business.

“What company in its right mind is going to shut out 10 percent of the population?” asked Lovitz.

The gains in acceptance have been predominately at bigger companies like Apple and Google, but lesbians and transgender individuals still face homophobic attitudes, particularly in the startup community and among venture capitalists. With all the progress the LGBT community has had in tech, it remains severely underrepresented in the industry.

Technology “is not as diverse as it tries to be,” said Vivienne Ming, a transgender neuroscientist who does research on the American workforce and was recently named one of Inc. Magazine’s “10 Women to Watch in Tech.”

She explained that “positive bias” often exists within companies — people hire people who are similar — resulting in a less diverse workforce. Therefore, the tech world remains predominately male, straight and white, even if acceptance of different sexual orientations is growing in general, Ming said.

Without non-discrimination policies that larger corporations are required to have, there is nothing to prevent venture capitalists from choosing not to give someone funding based on his or her sexual preferences. As a result, members of the LGBT community often feel pressured to hide their sexuality in order to gain necessary capital.

Thione saw many peers struggle with this fear, particularly because venture capitalists are largely straight, white males.

“There’s so much of that ‘good ‘ol boys club’ happening in investment circles,” he said.

And whereas gay men may have come to feel more accepted in the tech community, transgender women say they still feel ostracized.

“Gay men are maybe better off than they were five years ago, but the obstacles for transgender women and men are enormous. The dynamic of being a women in business and being LGBT is also a double obstacle,” Thione said.

Ming certainly experienced this bias having raised capital as both a man and a woman.

“The same people a month ago who were asking you math questions no longer do, they ask you psychology questions instead,” Ming said.

Her research confirms the massive imbalance. While UCLA’s Williams Institute, which conducts research on the LGBT community, estimates the number of transgender individuals in the U.S. to be nearly 700,000, Ming’s dataset of 122 million professionals only identified 88.

“That means in a professional context, this community is so closeted … that they effectively have completely hidden themselves,” Ming said.

Government is of little help. Only 21 states have employment non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation. Of these, three only include sexuality, not gender identity, so transgender people are not guaranteed protection. Only 13 states protect the LGBT community from credit discrimination, meaning people can be denied loans if they identify as gay or transgender.

Ming says that is why the business world must continue to move toward diversity and acceptance.

“It’s an amazing place to be, at a point in time where [we debate] issues of inequality,” she said. “Now’s a time when we need to make a change. And we can.”

(Homepage image via Shutterstock)


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