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Burson-Marsteller hosts panel on coming out in the workplace
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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On National Coming Out Day ( Oct. 11 ), Burson-Marsteller, fittingly, hosted a panel discussion entitled "Coming Out & Being Out in the 2017 Workplace" that Burson PRide ( the company's LGBTQ employee resource group ) co-founders Matt Miller, Colette Cunningham and Kate Ondra co-hosted. ( Elizabeth Okey is also a co-founder but was not in attendance. ) Miller, Cunningham, Ondra and Okey run the Chicago chapter of Burson PRide.

Eric Benderoff ( Burson-Marsteller director of consumer and brand marketing practice ) moderated the event, which featured panelists Deb Mel ( 33rd ward alderman ), David Munar ( Howard Brown Health's president and CEO ), Aaron Brost ( Ro-Bro Marketing & Public Relations president and founder ) and Robert Fortney ( Ashland Avenue Consults CEO ).

Benderoff opened the discussion by asking each panelist when and why they decided to come out at work or in their personal lives.

Brost recalled that he came out when he was 23 to three women colleagues during lunch at the Billy Goat Tavern. He noted that announcing he was gay to other people gave him a sense of relief. Brost added that all of them started to cry, told him they were happy for him and they already knew he was gay.

Fortney explained that he came out right after Stonewall while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moving from a small town to Madison was deliberate, said Fortney, so he could live as an openly gay man in the 1970s. Fortney said it started with a sociology course that led him to a meeting of the local Gay Liberation Front ( GLF ). That GLF meeting was the first time he came out to anyone. Fortney noted the phenomenon of having to come out again and again because the assumption for many people is cisgender, heterosexual identity.

For Mell, coming out began at age 17 to friends and later to her family ( when her mom asked her about being a lesbian ). Mell said she was very happy her mom felt comfortable talking with her about her sexual orientation. She noted that both of them told her brother and sister and later her dad ( who was out of town at the time ). Mell came out at work for the first time to her immediate boss ( who was also gay ) in Washington, D.C., while working for a congressperson.

In terms of coming out to the wider world, that occurred when Mell was arrested ( alongside hundreds of other people ) and jailed for 11 hours in 2004 at a protest in front of Cook County headquarters right after Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She was later acquitted of all charges. Mell explained that her dad ( then Alderman Richard Mell ) rushed down to the protest and told everyone how proud he was of his lesbian daughter.

Munar said most of his career has centered around HIV/AIDS work. He noted that coming out as HIV positive was much harder for him than coming out as gay due to the stigma that still surrounds the disease.

Benderoff asked Munar about how the workplace and the work he does has changed since the early years of HIV/AIDS. Munar explained that perceptions have changed because the epidemic has shifted due to drugs that make most HIV positive people undetectable. He said it is not necessary for people to come out as HIV positive in the workplace due to biases that still exist in certain segments of society.

In terms of healthcare diversity initiatives, Fortney ( who has 23 years of hospital leadership experience ) said it is all about personal connections and being honest and true about one's sexual orientation and gender identity to healthcare professionals so they will get proper medical care and treatment.

As for awkward moments, Mell noted the times she encountered conservative state representatives who said hateful things about the LGBT community on the house floor in Springfield during the marriage equality fight. She explained that she would introduce her now ex-wife to these representatives with queries about how they were spending their weekends or holidays and share what she would be doing with her then wife so they would see her as a person and not the enemy.

Brost said that while working in the marketing department of a corporation in Deerfield, he was the token gay person and would get asked things like "So tell us what gay men think."

Fortney noted that during nursing school he got a job as a nursing assistant at a state-run facility in Wisconsin. During this time, a female friend of Fortney's told him she has a lesbian sister and did not have a problem with it but did not want to hear about her sister's romantic relationships. The friend told Fortney that her sister was mad at her due to this issue. To illustrate why this friend's sister was mad at her, Fortney said to her that he did not want to hear about her kids or husband and at that moment his friend got why her lesbian sister was mad at her.

Munar noted the things he hears from patients at Howard Brown about the anti-LGBT comments they have heard in other settings concern him greatly.

As for how allies can be more supportive, Brost said they should call out bad behavior when they see it while Fortney noted allies have to be willing to engage LGBT folks in conversation in the workplace. Mell explained that allies can support LGBT groups and Munar said making corporations commit to diversity and inclusion for LGBT employees and encouraging them to support groups that are fighting for minority rights across the board.

A Q&A session followed the panel discussion.

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