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One of a handful of openly gay university presidents, Sean Buffington, who leads the University of the Arts, has been open about his sexual orientation for his entire professional life.
ERIC MENCHER / Inquirer Staff Photographer
One of a handful of openly gay university presidents, Sean Buffington, who leads the University of the Arts, has been open about his sexual orientation for his entire professional life.
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Gay CEOs in Philadelphia
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Gay chief executives come out winners

Despite difficulties in buttoned-down corridors of power, institutional and business CEOs aren't so willing to hide.

Alba Martinez, chief executive officer of the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, didn't know her father was gay until he contracted AIDS and died when she was 21.

To the world, Antonio Martinez, an administrator at the University of Puerto Rico, was a heterosexual family man. Only when his disease was diagnosed, in 1986, did he reveal his secret life. Six months later, he was dead at 55.

The traumatic event "reaffirmed my belief in being true to yourself," says Alba Martinez, 45. "I felt really sad that my father had to lead a double life. Nobody should have to go through life hiding who they are."

In the buttoned-down business corridors of Philadelphia and other large cities, an increasing number of gay CEOs are not hiding anymore. Some, like Martinez and Sean Buffington, new president of the University of the Arts, have been open about their sexual orientation for their entire professional lives.

They are in the minority. Coming out is serious business in business. Especially for a CEO.

It can stall, or even derail, careers. It can spark backlash from clients or shareholders or boards of directors. It can trigger consumer boycotts or alumni mutinies.

For gay CEOs who keep their sexual orientation under wraps, much of that fear is self-generated, says Kirk Snyder, author of The G Quotient: Why Gay Executives Are Excelling as Leaders.

"That closet has become very familiar," says Snyder, 47, who came out 15 years ago. "You're not fooling anybody. Employees take their cues from you. Everybody knows, but nobody talks about it. We can't live that way anymore."

Still, not a single CEO of a Fortune 500 company is openly gay, according to Snyder's research. He says he knows of five who are closeted, however, and he predicts that at least one of them will come out within five years.

Five openly gay CEOs in Philadelphia were interviewed for this article. An equal number declined. Despite being out to their companies and to the gay community at large, several said they weren't comfortable, or weren't ready, to be totally public.

One said she wanted the spotlight to be on her company, not on her, regardless of her sexuality. Another was advised by his company not to participate. All agreed it was more difficult to be out in the business world.

Difficulty aside, "I would never even consider working in an environment where I couldn't be open about who I am," says Martinez, former commissioner of Philadelphia's Department of Human Services, the city's largest operating department, and a former columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Martinez came out while attending Georgetown Law School. (An academic whiz, she began at 19.) Her partner, Roberta Trombetta, 40, an executive with the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania, is also a lawyer.

Gay CEOs "are more reticent to stand out in a crowd," says Bob Witeck, openly gay CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications in Washington and author of Business Inside Out.

"It's more important to represent the company than yourself. You don't want to go off script. You don't want to be perceived by a conservative board of directors as pushing an agenda."

Martinez says she does not judge other gay leaders on how public - or private - they choose to be. For her and numerous others, however, personal authenticity is essential for good leadership.

"You can't be in leadership and not be who you are," she says. "You lead by example. Leaders have to be truthful and open. I couldn't live any other way."

Neither could the University of the Arts' Buffington. One of a handful of openly gay college presidents in the United States, he is also, at 38, one of the youngest.

Born and raised in rural Maryland, Buffington was an altar boy for 10 years. He came out during his junior year at Harvard.

He and his partner of 14 years, Boston Globe arts editor Scott Heller, 46, were married in July in Lenox, Mass. They've been commuting since Buffington began his five-year, $200,000-plus contract in mid-August.

Buffington, an arts administrator at Harvard for 13 years, says he was totally up-front with UArt's search committee about his "marital status."

It was such a nonissue, he says, that Heller joined him for dinner with the chairman and vice chairman of the board.

Around the 2,400-student campus, "I have gotten absolutely no negative response," says Buffington, who hosts pizza parties to get to know students. "That doesn't mean people don't think it."

For a university president, being out presents special challenges. Boards of trustees, which tend to be older and conservative, fear it will hurt fund-raising, a huge part of any president's job.

Some fret over the image of a president attending university functions with his same-sex partner. Or playing golf with donors and not talking about the wife and kids. (News flash: Buffington, who stands 6-foot-2 and wears size 13 shoes, doesn't like sports.)

For public universities - UArts is private - there's the additional fear that conservative lawmakers will lobby state legislatures to reduce funding.

As part of a generation that grew up enjoying benefits hard won by older activists, Buffington says he doesn't sweat the gay stuff. Given the changing sexual landscape, he doesn't have to.

"It's easier now. There isn't the sense of a day-to-day insecurity or fear or anger. Being gay is in my consciousness every day, but it's not the defining sense of who I am."

Geography matters, too. Martin Sellers, 59, CEO of Sellers Feinberg, a health-care strategy firm in Center City, says it's easier for a CEO to be out in gay-friendly Philadelphia than in many other cities.

"You see a lot more [openly gay CEOs] than you used to," says Sellers, whose 15-year partner, Brian Dorsey, 41, is an actor and playwright. "If you turned the clock back 25 years, there might not have been a single one."

United Way's Martinez agrees. "The business community here, as I've experienced it, is very enlightened. Leaders understand they have a diverse workforce and a diverse customer base. You can't be exclusive anymore."

David Jefferys, CEO and founder of the marketing firm Altus Group, learned that lesson about 10 years ago. That's when he began adding gay-related businesses to the company's all-heterosexual accounts.

At the same time, he came out professionally, too. Today, 50 percent of Altus Group's business is targeted to gays, and Jefferys feels 100 percent whole.

"It doesn't feel like I'm living two separate lives," says Jefferys, 50, who grew up in tony Darien, Conn.

"Before, I had to have my private life hidden when I was at work. I had to play a lot of games. You can't have integrity without honesty."

Authenticity is what drives leadership ability, in Sellers' view. "It's what attracts people, what makes them interested in what you have to say. It's what forms trust."

Jefferys came out during his senior year at Villanova. He and his partner, dentist Ron Hayes, 40, have been together 12 years.

Mark Stiffler doesn't understand what all the noise is about.

Stiffler, 45, CEO of Synygy, an incentive-compensation company based in Chester, has been out since he was 16. He has two degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and owns homes in Gladwyne, Florida and Arizona.

"I'm clueless why anybody isn't out," says the Harrisburg native, who is single. "I've never experienced any problems. I think it helps to be educated and rich."

Stiffler says he's been hearing the same arguments for 25 years against letting one's rainbow flag fly. He's over it. Even if he didn't own the company.

"If you lose a job, it wasn't the right job. If you lose friends, they weren't really your friends. If your family doesn't talk to you for 10 years, oh, well.

"Things happen. How you react to them is within your power and control."

Spoken like a CEO. Gay, straight or otherwise.


Contact Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.

 
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