By Phil Schraeder
Every year at this time, I think about the term “Pride Month” and what a beautiful, powerful expression it is.
It’s powerful because it describes a feeling. And not just any feeling. It describes a feeling that inspires. That uplifts. That drives us out into the world. That banishes discouragement in the face of adversity. That says, loudly and clearly, “You have what it takes to lead.”
While pride comes from within, like all feelings, it must be nurtured from without. And that’s what makes “Pride Month” so special: Its name alone nurtures the very thing it celebrates.
Its name resonates so much with me -- and I’m sure with so many others – because pride’s absence in my emotional experience for so much of my life makes me hold pride dearly now. My earliest memory still haunts me––a constant reminder of the moment when the bud of pride was nipped inside me as a child.
I’m four years old, in preschool. It’s costume make-believe time. I beeline toward a clothing bin. As I excitedly grab a dress, my teacher grabs my arm, squeezes it so tightly it hurts, lowers her face to mine and growls, “Don’t go in the girls’ bin. Go to the boys’ bin.”
I still remember wondering what I had done wrong. This memory is the earliest example of a dynamic that came to shape my youth. I became hyper-aware of social cues – what was “okay” and what was taboo – and I learned to keep my head down until I understood where the boundaries were. I dreaded the first day of school every year, fearing who I might have to sit near. Avoiding bullies as a child, I developed an understanding of the language and semiotics of the “straight” world and tried to create space for myself.
Pride can grow and be nurtured when given space, but the space I created was not a space to be my true self. It was simply a space to be left alone. A space where pride could not germinate.
Now, looking out my window and seeing Pride banners flying, I think of what a difference that sight might have made to me had I seen it in my own childhood.
This is why Pride matters and why we need it. It’s not acceptable that some of us are brought up to be our truest, most vocal, proudest selves, and some are brought up believing the best they can hope for is to go a week without being mocked.
I’ve been fortunate in many ways. One of them is that as I entered adulthood, our society reached an inflection point. The internet entered people’s homes, giving young people like me windows into myriad new ways of living and being. The culture started opening up––and I began seeing men like me in roles other than those that society and media had cast them in.
I started to understand that I could be openly gay and a businessman, where I had previously believed that I needed to choose one or the other.
I am a 43-year-old man, but I am only a 21-year-old gay man, because until I glimpsed a world where “gay” and “normal” – let alone “gay” and “success” or “gay” and “pride” – went hand in hand, I was simply a man in survival mode.
Now -- because I glimpsed that world -- I’m an openly gay CEO of a leading tech company.
We need Pride because, by shining a light on the LGBTQIA+ world, it offers more than the glimpse I got in the early nineties.
Yes, there are days when I’m the only gay person in a board meeting. Still, I’m in that board meeting and I’m gay. That may not sound like such a big deal because of how culture and society have progressed over the years. But to kids growing up and thinking about careers right now, it still might actually be a big deal.
Those kids need Pride to open their hearts to self-love. To validate that self-love. To validate who they want love. And, ultimately, how they want to live.
And we grown-up folks need Pride because LGBTQIA+ people in business have to be able to say, with all the confidence that pride can inspire: “This is who I am, and if you can’t respect that, we’ll have to work with someone else–– and that’s your loss.”
Talented, skilled LGBTQIA+ people in the business world still feel the need to look closely at a company’s values before applying for a position. There’s still that need for assurance that “someone like me has a place within the company’s values”––not just to work, but to thrive and to lead. This is what Pride can deliver. It’s not just about being out and visible and it’s even about more than being out and thriving.
Pride is about being out, thriving and having the freedom to strive for the top.