This article originally appeared in the The Advocate in February 2021.
New years always bring hope. Fresh starts. New possibilities. Progress. Although the pain, fear, isolation, and uncertainty of the previous year have not disappeared and the virus remains virulent, signs of progress sit in view. We have a vaccine. Our democracy stayed strong and standing in the face of violence and destruction. We have in front of us the possibility for healing, progress, and unity.
Our humanity as a world and nation has been tested, and I am reflecting on the history of our LGBTQ+ community as a source of inspiration and insight for this moment. Our community has strengths most relevant now; our history has chapters of hope, healing, and progress. We know what it feels like to have our humanity tested, challenged, and even questioned. And in the face of that, we know how to progress forward. I reflect on some of my own history and my company’s history in the pursuit of LGBTQ+ equality. It is in the reflection and in the remembering that we remind ourselves what we already know — and we can use that insight to heal and propel ourselves forward.
In 1992, I accepted a role in the P&G world headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio. This was a great career decision; it was also a personal decision that filled me with anxiety and uncertainty. I was terrified for the eventual moment when colleagues would learn that I didn’t move to Cincinnati alone, but with my then-partner (now wife) Cindy.
My fears were well-founded at the time, as the culture and world around us — the narrative we heard and absorbed into our beings — were very homophobic. Antigay rhetoric and bullying were commonplace in the early ‘90s (as still are in many places), and those of us who identified as LGBTQ+ struggled to find the peace and satisfaction that only emerge when you discover and experience a space to be yourself, a place to call home.
This only happens when you are seen, respected, and loved for who you are, not “in spite of” who you are. Back then, I doubted that I would ever find a place that felt like home. Back then, I never expected P&G to be the place and space that would provide me the support I needed to express and experience the fullness of my humanity.
Two months after Cindy and I arrived in Cincinnati, P&G added sexual orientation into the corporate nondiscrimination policy. It laid the foundation for changes that have now spanned almost three decades. At P&G, we have pursued LGBTQ+ equality in phases, in moments, and with key milestones worthy of celebrating. The hallmarks of progress have been many: the implementation of LGBTQ+ diversity training in the 1990s, same-sex partner benefits, transgender health benefits, parental leave equalization, public support of Pride, and marketing campaigns featuring LGBTQ+ individuals and themes. We acknowledge and celebrate the progress and the many individuals who drove that progress.
Change happened because we shared our personal stories, developed one-on-one relationships, and had the courage to be vulnerable. We pursued the benefits, policy, and culture changes that enabled more equality. We expressed the fullness of our humanity and expected to be supported and valued for that — not in spite of that.
Sharing our stories and our lives has built empathy, triggered conversations, and motivated progress. Our stories shine a light on the challenges and the joys. Our stories make us human and show our commonalities as humans. I recall the first time I shared my story at a P&G event — a story of rejection, redemption, healing, and the power of love. After the event, an employee told me that my story, shared publicly on that day, had saved the life of a person I didn’t know and may never meet; someone in the crowd of many who decided to choose life because my story gave them hope and helped them heal.
That happened a decade ago. Today, P&G has LGBTQ+ employee groups in 45 countries that serve more than 5,000 LGBTQ+ and ally employees. Today, we have lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer employees around the world who routinely share their stories as a way to both express their humanity and drive change. Through our storytelling, we have opened hearts and minds and shifted policy and cultures. Today, we do work within our walls and outside of our walls.
There is encouraging news around us: 93 percent of Fortune 500 companies have nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation; 91 percent have policies that include gender identity. A generation ago, companies were largely silent when it came to injustice and intolerance in our communities.
Today, we see companies stepping up to embrace and drive conversations on equality: racial and ethnic equality, gender equality, LGBTQ+ equality, and equality for those who are differently-abled. Corporations now see the connection, now understand that supporting employees is what unleashes their voices, their gifts, and their greatest work. The expansion of our humanity enables the expansion of our communities, companies, and countries.
Corporations have stepped up and stepped out to drive needed changes, and yet, there is more work to do. Most countries in the world do not have legal protections for LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. LGBTQ+ people often face hostility in our careers, and fear prevents many of us from bringing our whole selves to work. Fifty percent of us are closeted in the workplace, taking energy to hide who we are — energy we could be using to enhance our lives, organizations, and the world around us. More work to do. More progress to make.
In May of 2019, a new career chapter started for me. That once fearful, yet hopeful, twenty-something was appointed Chief Equality & Inclusion Officer at P&G. My journey, our journey, and the chapters of change I’ve driven with colleagues around the world prepared me to drive the broad platform of equality and inclusion across a corporation of 90,000 employees. I had built insights and courage that qualified me for a role — not “in spite of” my differences, but rather “because of” them. That journey prepared me for this role and this work. I found a home. A place that feels like home, a home that feels like family. I wish the same for you.
Shelly McNamara is the author of No Blanks, No Pauses and the Chief Equality & Inclusion Officer at Procter & Gamble.