Tuesday, May 25, 2010

An email from a closeted investment banker

Just over a week ago, a reader sent me the following email:

Dear GB,

I always enjoy reading your blogs and appreciate your unique perspectives. I am writing today as I was hoping to have your quick advice for my unique situation.

I am from an Asian country, but I moved to the US a few years ago for a job transfer. I have been working for a major investment bank in institutional sales since graduating from university. I am gay and have been closeted throughout my life, and I try to be as careful as I can to stay that way.

As you know, the financial community is still very conservative and I do not know anyone who is openly gay or who even looks gay in my work environment. Therefore, I am very nervous about the impacts from both my employer (investment bank) and clients (asset managers) if I ever come out or become outed.

Career wise, I have been somewhat successful so far, and my future is looking OK. However, I am getting more and more nervous as people around me are increasingly more curious as to why I am not married or do not seem to date girls too much.

I am worried not only because my managers and co-workers are very homophobic, but my clients also tend to comment negatively about gays. While I work for an American investment bank, my report line is to Asia where things are still a lot more traditional and conservative. And, my client base also involves both Westerners and Asians. Therefore, I think my situation is more complicated than those who only work with the Westerners.

As I am tired of being worried about someone finding out about my sexuality, I often feel that career change might be a good way to get out of my current situation. But, I am not sure if I have any transferable skills outside of this industry since I only have equity sales experiences without an MBA.

Going onto MBA and getting into a new industry, where sexuality is less of a problem, would be an option. However, people tell me that I am too old for top MBA schools because I would not only waste tuition ($150,000) + 2 years of income, but I would also end up in less attractive job position, and making a lot less money. So, I am not sure if that would be a wise option.

I have also thought of just getting married to a girl and try to suppress my feelings like many other gay/bi guys do. However, my conscience would not let me do so.

In the past few years, I have thought of all sorts of possibilities, but I always got confused and ended up keep doing what I have been doing. However, I am increasingly frustrated and often get depressed.

Since you seem to have great knowledge about (a) how things work in investment banking industry, (b) Asian culture and (c) coming out issues, I was hoping to hear your opinion.

My apologies for the long email, but I would very much appreciate it if you could give me a quick advice. Thank you so much.

Best regards,

I was on holiday in Paris with boyfriend T when I received this email. Nonetheless, I immediately sent him a quick reply suggesting that he tries to think about how he can build confidence as a gay man, and asking him whether he has a boyfriend. For a guy in that kind of situation, a good boyfriend would be a real asset, because he would be able to give the reader a lot of emotional support. His reply was as follows:

Gaining confidence as a gay man is definitely something I would like to work on. I have tried this before but my fear of losing career, friends, and reputation has been too big. No, I have never had a boyfriend. Because it is difficult to go to gay bars as I am so afraid I could get outed by someone, the only place I can search guys has been online. I have tried multiple dating sites, but it is not too easy to meet guys for friendship or long term relationships. It is already difficult to be a minority without native level English skills, to be working in a Caucasian male dominant investment banking industry with high level of homophobia. So, I would need a great level of courage and confidence to come out here. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so much again for your attention to my email.

Reading his email again, I'm glad that he hasn't forced himself into marriage with a woman. That path isn't likely to lead to long term happiness for either of them, and is particularly unfair on the woman if she doesn't know in advance that her fiance is gay.

More importantly, it's time to point out that the fundamental premise that investment banking is intrinsically homophobic is completely wrong. The key word that all banks are talking about these days is diversity. Googling for the names of a few top banks in conjunction with the word 'diversity' I found the following web sites:
Deutsche Bank diversity
Our commitment to diversity At Deutsche Bank ... goes beyond age, gender, disability, religion, ethnic origin or sexual identity. For us, a diverse culture is not just desirable: it’s an essential part of the way we do business ...
Bank of America (Merrill Lynch) diversity
Has affinity groups for "Asian, Black, people with disabilities, Hispanic/Latino, women, military veterans, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, ..."
Goldman Sachs diversity
We strive for excellence. To be the best firm ... we hire ... across the full spectrum of gender, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, culture and level of physical ability.
Morgan Stanley diversity
Member of both the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, and the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce NY.
I'm sure that further googling would find equivalent information from the investment banking divisions of all the other global banks, but that would make for a boring post! So as a first step, perhaps the reader should make contact with the people at the bank that he works for who're involved with his bank's diversity programs. Similarly, given that he said that he works for a major investment bank, I'm sure that there'll be a network of gay employees that he could join if he wants to.

It's worth pointing out that this culture of valuing diversity also extends to some bank clients these days. I've heard of a straight salesman being asked by a client about the diversity policy of the bank that he works for, and luckily for this salesman, he was able to give a good answer because he knew about some of the work that his boss did in connection with his bank's diversity programs.

Regarding the networks of gay employees inside investment banks, it's true that relatively few of the people who're involved with those networks work in front office roles like institutional sales, which is where this reader works. With that kind of job, the reader will be working on the trading floor, and there's no doubt it can be a tough environment. But even on a bank's trading floor, I've known gay guys have successful careers provided that they have sufficient confidence. A couple of years ago I wrote a post about something that happened to one gay guy I know. That story proves that it is just a question of confidence.

Another point that I haven't mentioned before is that the people who matter in investment banking really don't mind if someone is gay, with one caveat that I'll mention below. There may be homophobic guys working in less important roles, but in terms of the top guys, I've met enough of them to know how they think. They focus on making money for their banks for hence for themselves, they focus on getting deals done, and they frequently dedicate themselves to their careers. There's no room in their mindset to worry about someone's sexual orientation, but the caveat is that I mentioned above is that if someone is gay, then the fact they're gay mustn't matter to that person either.

Unfortunately the reader isn't yet in that category, because from the way he wrote the email to me, he's clearly very uncomfortable being gay. The fact that he worries about it is his weakness, and because it matters to him, it could be seen as a serious flaw. This is very much what I call the confidence mirror. Being gay doesn't matter, but being worried about being gay means that you must be under-performing as a banker because there's a portion of your energy that is devoted to something that's irrelevant. Having said that, it's difficult to be a successful institutional salesperson, so given that the reader is capable of that I'm sure he's capable of succeeding in his gay life too.

So it really is as I said in my original email response to him. He simply needs to work on building his confidence as a gay man. He doesn't ever need to come out to his clients or colleagues, because his private life is only a matter for him and as I said above, being gay IS irrelevant to his job. However, he needs to be confident enough so that if someone mentions to him that they saw him going into a gay bar, he'll be able to admit it without feeling that he's losing face. He needs to be confident enough that if someone asks him why he's not married, then he'll be able to say that he's been "... looking for a partner for while but hasn't found anyone suitable yet", and then follow up by saying something like "I'm never been that interested in women" if someone offers to set him up on a blind date with a woman.

If he has trouble in taking any steps to develop his gay confidence, then I would suggest that he finds a good psychotherapist for some private counselling sessions. The first steps are always the hardest, but my guess is that once he's on the right path, he'll gradually find it easier and easier to be a happy gay man :-).

Does anyone else have any thoughts for this reader?


Volodya said...

This usual logical construction "if not gay bars, then online" always appears a bit annoying to me. There are various community groups for gay men, and in fact joining something that clicks well with this guy's interests (like reading group, or outdoors group, or whatever else rings his bell) would both make it more likely meeting a special someone he could see living with and meeting similar people in general which is good for becoming more confident (I am sure that some people whom he might meet in clubs if he went to a club illustrate gay stereotypes that would make him stay in the closet!)...

Latelygay said...

GB, your precis of our friend's dilemna and how he could approach it strikes me as 'spot on'.

Any solution or remedy has to be right for the individual, but there are reliable givens in a situation like this.

For example, no one can survive in a closet without punching some vent holes. We all need to breathe after all. We can teeter on the edge of the pool for as long as we like, but we will never know what the future holds without taking the plunge. At first the cold of the water may be a big shock to the system, but that moment will pass and then we can make our first strokes. Who wants to sink and drown after all.

What I always counsel to people facing big conflicts like this is the need to break the problem down into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Right now, the work perspective seems to be crowding his view like an elephant in the living room.

Fix things at home before even thinking about work.

This guy seriously could do with loving himself a bit more and taking pride in being the gay man that he is.

Very easy to say, I know, but these are among the baby steps we need to take.

The good news is that this guy is reaching out, albeit in a virtual way, but he seriously needs someone to share his concerns with on a one-on-one or group basis and I can bet there is just such a support group in his area.

So, courage mon brave!

ps. yes, forget about work for now, but in the meantime just bear in mind the following about your industry colleagues. They include men that like to be spanked or whipped, that wear tights, that are impotent, that have drug/gambling/money problems and, yes, that are gay!

pps. my own website (latelygay.com) might be worth a visit, based as it is on my coming out when I was 40.

Anonymous said...

I work on the equity trading floor in an investment bank in London. While the culture may be different between a flow desk and a structured products desk (where I work), and between NYC and London, I have never come across anyone who so much as flinched when I came out to them. People have a good sense of why they are there, and that is, to make money. I know several other gay guys who work in front office roles on the floor as sales, trading or structuring.

People also like to "figure you out", so being clear about your sexuality will actually make them more comfortable to be around you, rather than trying to hide it or being ambiguous. I think I would also be curious and uncomfortable if one of my colleagues was cagey about some part of their life (say, if someone refused to tell me what they did over the weekend).

I have to admit, I had my own prejudices and I found it very difficult to tell a muslim colleague that I had a boyfriend, but when I did, he just made a joke about how terrible it is that we're all young and successful but tied down and we laughed.

I guess the reality is that coming out is never as big a deal as you think it will be. Some of us were lucky enough to find this out in high school or university. It's easier in those environments, where you feel that even if your friends have bad reactions, you can turn to other friends. Coming out in the workplace is a higher hurdle for the reader as he has to work with the same people on a daily basis. Perhaps the reader could come out to his friends first (if he hasn't already) and finding acceptance there will give the reader the confidence to come out to his colleagues.

Was Once said...

Life is too damn short, you could get hit by a car tomorrow...and never would be fully realized and developed human being.

For now(for him) really being gay is a mental concept eating away at him, which will quickly make him into a least likely candidate for any relationship that will last.

And money(salary) and the stuff that comes with it..which we all know comes and goes....might spin him into looking into why money is ruling his choices in life. On your death bed you will look to those you love rather than your Jaguar.

What I am really am getting at is... live a life of truth. Truthful first to yourself, and then truthful to the world.

Anonymous said...

I have the same background (asian, banking, gay) as this guy. And I had the same thinking. But early last year I simply got fed up of living a lie. I came out to one of my closest friends from childhood and he was so surprisingly supportive. I have been coming out one by one to the people that I am close to. It is difficult because we dont want to lose anyone who we care for. But I have realized that the barrier has always been in my mind. I had been assuming.

My advice to this guy would be - If you know someone who is gay, try to come out to him. How you feel about it afterwards will tell you what you should do.

Joe said...

I am an Asian gay guy working in banking also. I am working at fixed income buy-side desk for my institution. In my office, some people know me gay, some don't. But it actually doesn't matter. The most important thing is like what others said: I make money! For me, being gay is a drive to get tough everyday. I told myself because I am gay I need to be the best to beat those gossips. Being gay also makes me work without carrying any family baggage. I can focus on my job 100% and no worry about kids/wife, etc. All I want to do is trying my best to make myself irreplaceable and let my boss knows that there are only two options: (me+gay+good profit) or (others+whatever+not so good). At the end, believe me, money counts. I'd be very happy to know the guy from the Email. Maybe we can get lots of deals done. If both of our companies don’t like us being gay, let's sue them. It's just another way to make money. ... LOL

Eric Whitney said...

Not to be blunt, but unless the poster gets a major attitude adjustment, he's doomed to being cycled out with the attrition that occurs when guys turn thirty-ish and the new blood is snapping at their heals. He'll attribute it to his being gay, and many will nod and cluck sympathetically. But it will be because he's weak, and these places are hell for guys who are weak. Now's a good time for him to take stock, forget about the money for a second, and decide if he can get mentally organized and unafraid. he needs to decide if Investment Banking is really the world where he can be happy.

A gay dude in the firm where I worked was tormented by an asshole homophobe on a new team he had joined. After a few weeks of this, the team is out for drinks, he pulls down his pants, says to the asshole "you're so obssessed with gay sex, suck on this" and jams his crotch in the asshole's face. to his credit, the asshole, WHATEVER HIS PERSONAL FEELINGS ABOUT GAYS, was smart enough to put the team and the firm first, and managed to roll with the following six months of jokes at his expense. they both have strong careers.

another friend, totally closeted, got outed slowly and painfully at work, with denials and blushes and endless jokes about pussy that just got pathetic over time. so people started to hate him, his work started to suffer. he now is happily out, teaches high-school math, and is convinced that trading floors are no place for gays. ironically, now he's strong, mentally organized and could probably handle it. but then he wasn't, so the other traders ate him alive.

Anonymous said...

As a gay M&A front-officer, I'd add that although there certainly are "diversity initiatives" at all of the major banks, they are there for a reason. At my bank, I firmly believe that I would be hampering my career progression by coming out. In the same way that other minorities (read: anyone who is not a white male) find it hard to breach the glass ceiling, my sexuality would likely delay my promotions.

Perhaps I do need to change banks, but for now, I'm fine with being closeted at work and open with my friends outside of work.