One-Time Catholic Columnist Now Pioneer for Gays in Workplace

Article excerpt

It is the end of the workday at a Manhattan-based corporation, and nearly 100 senior-level investment bankers and managers drift into a posh meeting room for an after-hours presentation. Hints of trepidation and curiosity fill the air as well-dressed men and women take their seats, many of them paging through the paperback book that has been placed on each of their chairs. They look expectantly toward the front of the room as guest speaker Brian McNaught introduces himself, promising strategies to help the company improve its productivity and retain the best and brightest personnel.

McNaught, however, begins his workshop with a surprising confession.

"I know nothing about finance," he said.

While McNaught may know nothing about finance, he knows more than a thing or two about how workplace dynamics affect a corporation's productivity, specifically, the interpersonal dynamics between coworkers with diverse sexual orientations.

Designated "The godfather of gay diversity training" by The New York Times, McNaught, author of the book Gay Issues in the Workplace, is the leading consultant on gay issues for corporate America. He has spent his 30-year tenure as a sexuality educator giving presentations to the largest U.S. companies, including Lucent Technologies, J.P. Morgan/Chase and Hewlett-Packard, as well as scores of colleges and universities.

During the course of this particular workshop on gay issues in the workplace (name of the company withheld on request), McNaught skillfully transforms the room's atmosphere from one of diffidence to one of thoughtful engagement. The central issue for discussion is what gay, lesbian and bisexual people need from their coworkers in order to be fully productive members of the workplace.

According to McNaught, even the most articulate corporate nondiscrimination policy isn't enough if it doesn't translate from paper to the atmosphere on the trading floor.

"You have great nondiscrimination policies here, but not everyone knows what they mean," McNaught said. "Often there is a gap between the policies themselves and management's ability to speak up, defend policies or explain them to other people."

He picks up a rainbow-striped silicone bracelet, placed on each person's chair in recognition of the company's celebration of Pride Month (June), and holds it up for everyone to see.

"You have this bracelet here--does anyone know why it is rainbow colored?" he asks the audience. They shake their heads. "This is what I'm talking about--people are being asked to support something without even understanding it," McNaught said.

So what does it mean to understand, support and affirm a gay person in the workplace?

McNaught uses the example of a typical Monday morning conversation in the office.

"Everybody's asking everyone else, 'How was your weekend?' 'What did you do?' And nobody asks the gay person," he said. "It's not because they are hostile or evil or mean; they're afraid of the answer. Our anxiety stops us from being comfortable enough to participate in the simple everyday conversation about the weekend."

Just as heterosexual people may be reticent to ask the questions, said McNaught, gay people can be hesitant to answer them.

"Even in 2005, even in New York City, you don't want to answer your colleague's question 'How was your weekend?' because you fear that your life is going to change," he said. "Many of your gay colleagues are not 'out,' and many of them are thinking 'If I tell them I'm gay I'm going to lose everything.'"

If there's more than a hint of sincerity behind that comment, it's because McNaught's words are rooted in personal experience. At one point in his own life, 30 years ago, McNaught himself was on the verge of losing everything, including his own life.

In 1970, McNaught, one of seven children born and raised near Detroit, graduated with a degree in journalism from Marquette University in Milwaukee. …