“What does your husband do?” Undoubtedly the man who asked me thought it was a harmless question.
The year was 1999 and I was in the final round of interviews for a job I really wanted—chief communications officer at the Estée Lauder Companies. It may have been an overly personal, perhaps even inappropriate question, but this was a family business. The name on the door belonged to this individual’s mother. And, it was a reasonable guess. I wore a ring. I was committed. But not married. The guy behind the desk wanted to know the real me. More than what was on my resume, he wanted to understand what got me out of bed in the morning and what kept me up at night.
I paused, suddenly feeling off balance. I fidgeted. My mouth went dry. This was a long time ago by any measure, but especially in gay years—well before the dawn of lipstick lesbians.
Sally Susman on fighting labels:June 18, 201903:38
At that very second, his secretary knocked on the door and apologized. The Israeli Prime Minister was on the line.
“Excuse me a moment,” my host said, as he stood to take the call from the conference room next door.
As I waited, I did the emotional math. Was telling a lie ever worth it? Did I really want this job if I couldn’t have in on my own terms? I tried in vain to slow my heart rate. My mind jumped back to a conversation I had with my parents many years before. I could see my mom telling me “There are no liars in this family,” as she pointed her finger in my direction—a frequent occurrence as an overly active child with a formidable imagination.
“Now where were we?” he said upon his return. His voice was thick with the confidence that comes from years of being in command.
“You were kind to ask about my home life. I’m so fortunate to have a wonderful partner. Robin and I have been together for two decades. She and I are raising our daughter and we’re supportive of one another,” I said. In my calmest voice. As cavalier as I could.
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He took a deep breath. I could tell he was evaluating my response. Evaluating me. He shifted in his seat and looked me square in the eyes.
“You’ll make a wonderful head of communications,” he said. “You speak clearly and from the heart.”
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Coming out—being fully out, both personally and professionally—has been the most productive thing I’ve ever done. I made the choice, time and again, to pursue honesty at any cost. And, it has made all the difference. Without the tough, sometimes heartbreaking, conversations that I’ve had over the years, I probably would not be where I am today. With a loving wife and daughter, a career that motivates and inspires me, and a posse of friends that are my lifeline.
Here are a few of the lessons I learned that day in the offices of Estée Lauder and the many years since:
1) Be forthcoming. Hiding in a closet or being vague makes you seem shifty and unreliable. People trust people they feel they know.
2) Share your story. I keep a photo on my desk of Robin and me on our wedding day. We’re in white dresses, at the hot dog stand in front of City Hall. It’s a window into the way we live. Casual and civic-minded.
3) Be generous. Remember that many people feel marginalized at different times and for a multitude or reasons: race, gender, ability, age. Take a moment to listen to others and make them feel welcome.
4) Never stop coming out. There’s always another door to open, a deeper way to know oneself, another chance to allow yourself to be vulnerable and to grow.
As anyone in the LGBTQ+ community will tell you, it’s not always easy. Sometimes it takes all our strength just to hold on for another day. But it’s worth it. We risk everything—our families, our futures—and when we land on our feet, we are stronger and purpose-driven because of it.
Sally Susman is Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer. Before joining Pfizer in 2007, she held roles at Estée Lauder Companies and the American Express Company. Sally serves on the board of WPP plc, a world leader in advertising and marketing based in the U.K., and as co-chair of the board of The International Rescue Committee.