Stay In That Closet

For years we have been told by members of the gay community about the discrimination that they face in a variety of contexts, including the workplace. The gay community repeatedly clamors for inclusion of sexual orientation in non-discrimination laws, citing the hardships they face as a consequence of their sexual orientation. For those of us who watch "Melrose Place," we all know about how Matt Fielding received grossly unfair treatment at his hospital because of his open homosexuality.

While some people may have justified reasons for excluding homosexuals from certain employment fields--such as the military--few people would argue that discrimination against gays is justified as a general principle. Regardless of one's position on homosexuality, it is difficult to dispute the fact that gays face unique difficulties, such as the discrimination that the gay community claims to be widespread.

Now we are being told something entirely different. Two Harvard Business School (HBS) graduates, Annette M. Friskopp and Sharon L. Silverstein, link coming out to success in the workplace and overall happiness. Now what was that old adage about the impossibility of simultaneously possessing and consuming a single cake?

Friskopp and Silverstein reached their conclusion after conducting surveys and interviews of HBS graduates beginning in 1990. Those polled were asked to compare their success in the workplace to that of their heterosexual co-workers. A majority of respondents told Friskopp and Silverstein that they felt that they were equally or more successful than their straight peers.

The conclusion that the two researchers reached contradicts everything that the gay community has been telling us about workplace discrimination. It also contradicts the conclusion that intuition would lead us to reach. Despite shifting (or rather collapsing) moral standards, homosexuality is still widely frowned upon. Such disapprobation inevitably translates into a certain amount of workplace discrimination. While this discrimination is by no means an argument for giving up intelligent moral opposition to homosexuality, it's a reality that we can't ignore.

Now along come two HBS women telling us that coming out has no negative repercussions and may even improve one's success in the business world. This is simply ridiculous. One problem that immediately arises relates to sampling error. Respondents to the survey--all of them HBS graduates--were asked to compare their performance in the business world to straight co-workers, most of whom were probably not graduates of one of America's most prestigious business schools.

So what did Friskopp and Silverstein essentially do? They took gay graduates of Harvard Business School and compared their success with that of straight people who lacked an HBS education, an HBS diploma and the personal traits the Business School requires of successful applicants to its M.B.A. program. Given all of these facts, it should not be surprising that the gay HBS graduates came out on top. But is it because of their being gay, or is it because they are talented and intelligent graduates of a top business school?

By disseminating their misinformation about gays and lesbians in the workplace, Friskopp and Silverstein are encouraging people who are perfectly happy with being closeted to come out and reap the "benefits" of being out. This is dangerous, because many of these individuals will encounter hardship and discrimination as a result of disclosing their orientation.

The siren call of Friskopp and Silverstein is one that gay and lesbian professionals would do well to ignore. Many people who are themselves as gay or lesbian later realize that they were mistaken in their self-labelling. It is far better for a gay professional to remain closeted, leaving himself open to the possibility of later fitting in and leading the life of a straight person, than to publicly and vocally commit himself to being a member of a group that by its own account faces discrimination at every turn.

David B. Lat's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.