“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

I’ve worked in banks for over 20 years and understand the range of issues people have with them. This week, though, I participated in an event that was unambiguously good. It was something that made me particularly proud to work for a bank. And something you could be part of, too.

Out on the Street

Out on the StreetThe extraordinary event was called the “LGBT Leadership Summit” and it was organized by a group called “Out on the Street”.

Out on the Street is the first lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) leadership organization created for Wall Street by Wall Street, and brings together LGBT and straight ally leaders from the international financial services industry to discuss vital issues, network, and collectively set a forward-looking agenda for the community on the Street.”

It was at Goldman Sachs’ headquarters and I was sitting with a few hundred people from dozens of financial services firms. We were in a beautiful auditorium, listening to fascinating panels: CEOs explaining why they cared; activists and lawyers discussing the issues; and lesbian executives talking about their day-to-day experiences.

Did you know...?

I was surprised to hear political conservative Ted Olson talk so eloquently about his reasons for arguing for gay marriage in front of the Supreme Court. A recent LA Times profile provided more detail:

“Olson says he doesn't think his politics have changed, though he concedes that he has ‘learned a lot’ about himself from the current case. He believes gay marriage is a conservative cause.

‘There are libertarian conservatives, fiscal conservatives and social conservatives,’ he said. ‘I feel conservative in terms of limited government, individual responsibility, self-sufficiency — that sort of thing.’

‘Why would [conservatives] be against individuals who wished to live together and have a stable, loving, long-term relationship?’”

And I learned about what corporations were doing. For example, one of the topics discussed throughout the day was gay marriage. I'd had no idea how many firms were providing so much support for it:

I was proud that my firm was one of over a dozen banks that signed that brief. And, listening to gay rights activists, I was amazed to hear them say how corporations were “way out in front” and “taking the lead” in prohibiting discrimination in the workplace.

But I was still wondering: why would they? Why would CEOs go to such lengths to support Out on the Street and LGBT issues?

When corporations are in touch with their humanity

Yes, they mentioned it was good for business. How important it was, for example, to attract the best talent no matter their sexual orientation or race or gender. But they also mentioned various difficulties: lost customers; pushback within their own organizations; friction with other firms.

Towards the end of the day, Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, explained how he came to be such a visible supporter. It started when he was co-chariman of a group of NYC CEOs and same-sex marriage was being discussed among the group. Lloyd made a short video describing his position, and that video attracted more attention from the media and other groups. He didn’t see it as an extraordinary contribution but as taking part in a cultural shift that was overdue.

He joked that “If I’m on the right side of history and people give me credit, I’ll accept it.” And he wondered “How would you make the case for the other side?” Like Ted Olson, he talked about seeing the joy of two people getting married in states where gay marriage was approved. “Why would you want to take that away? Whom does it hurt?” 

Over the course of the day it was clear many of these business leaders didn’t aim to be out in front on LGBT issues but they also wouldn’t shy away from it. When people asked them why they would be involved despite some of the negative consequences, it kept coming back to a phrase that’s not often associated with corporations:

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Everybody’s issue

I used to think LGBT issues didn’t have anything to do with me because I’m not gay. Yet when I heard stories from panelists and learned about what they go through I felt differently. Women who’d been out for decades and yet still feel like they’re having to explain themselves every day, multiple times a day. Gay parents describing the awkward situations for them and their kids.

By the end of the day I understood that LGBT issues at work aren’t limited to people who fit neatly into the acronym. And it’s not just about gay marriage or benefits. It’s about creating a more humane workplace. About not discriminating and letting everyone bring their true selves to work.

That’s something we can all want. Something we can all contribute towards.