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What it’s like to be a gay executive…

Outrage Magazine chats with Jim Freeman, IBM’s Asia Pacific VP for hybrid cloud, who is one of the still very few out LGBT executives… in the world.

Jim Freeman wasn’t out of the closet in 1981, when he became part of IBM in the US. At that time, he said in an exclusive interview by Outrage Magazine that he was “always in fear” since one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity not to be known by people was what was common, if not the norm.

This continued into 1983, when he was promoted as a manager; and which proved to be somewhat of a challenge in 1984, when IBM issued an official statement against discrimination of LGBT people within the company.

“I was (heading an) engineering department,” he recalled, adding that in those days, the department was mainly (if not completely) composed of males. “And I had to read the (pro-LGBT) statement to them.” Jim said he remembered being so scared.

The people he oversaw then eventually knew he’s gay, and “they said: ‘We don’t care.’” But while that may have been heartening within IBM, Jim said it was still different outside that context. “It was okay to be gay but not (to) broadcast this. That was how it was then.”

Things have changed, obviously.

Nowadays, “you can talk about it (being LGBT) and not worry that someone in the room can do damage to you,” he said.

And now as IBM’s Asia Pacific VP for hybrid cloud, Jim is one of the still very few out LGBT executives… in the world. To marry his being gay with his executive role in IBM, he is also an executive sponsor of IBM’s Diversity and Inclusion Program, and so gives talks “about the benefits of inclusivity in companies,” he said.

But – perhaps worth stressing – just as it is with non-LGBT people whose sexual orientation and or gender identity is but a part of who they are (their SOGI do not define them), Jim said that “my ‘main’ job is to promote hybrid cloud,” he smiled. “I’m an executive. I just happen to be gay.”

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IBM is, of course, one of the MNCs (multinational corporations) that are “out” (using the LGBT expression) about their support for equal rights for all. And Jim can be considered lucky for being part of a (more) welcoming work environment.

Now doing business in 170 countries with over 380,000 employees worldwide, IBM Corporation’s push for equal access to opportunity may be traced back earlier… in 1953, when then company president T.J. Watson Jr. issued IBM’s first equal opportunity policy letter that called for equal opportunity in hiring “regardless of race, color, or creed”; just as it mandated that in the building of manufacturing plants in southern US, there would be “no separate, but equal facilities”. This development was at least a year ahead of the Brown decision that ended “separate but equal” in public education in the US; and over a decade – 11 years, to be exact – before the Civil Rights Act in the US.

In 1984, sexual orientation was formally added to the company’s global EO policy; and then in 2002, the company extended this global policy to include gender identity and expression (e.g. a trans person may not be discriminated for wearing the clothing befitting his or her gender identity).

For IBM, other LGBT-related highlights include: the launch of the Lesbian and Gay Task Force in 1995; providing of same-sex domestic partner benefits for US employees in 1997; launch of the LGBT Supplier Diversity program in 1999; launch of LGBT/Diversity Business Development Program in 2001; introduction of About You Indicator (voluntary self-identification) in 2006; and publication of the 1st IBM LGBT Annual Report in 2010.

Jim said that “what has taken a while (to catch up) was the taxonomy… the vocabulary, so that the mainstreaming of the concept was what was challenging.” For instance, the Supreme Court of the US only decided on marriage equality in 2015, even if – it goes without saying – there were already numerous LGBT people in committed relationships.

IBM is proud to claim that it provides salary and benefit equity for LGBT employees in countries where it operates. BUT – and this is a big ‘BUT’ – this is unless specifically prohibited by local law. And so the domestic partner health care benefit program is in place for over 80% of the employees worldwide.

Jim said that for countries that have no specific policies re LGBT – e.g. marriage equality – IBM has a “response”. In the Philippines, since January 2016, the company already allowed LGBT employees in the Philippines to enroll their domestic partners as qualified dependents and beneficiaries for the same benefits entitled to an employee’s spouse. Marriage equality has yet to reach this country’s shores. With this, the Philippines became the first IBM ASEAN unit to start doing this.

For the 20% that may be argued to be missed by IBM’s pro-equality efforts, Jim said that “we don’t put individuals at risk.” Nonetheless, he stressed, “there are ways that (we) can show our support.”

The support, Jim said, can start with boosting the morale of LGBT people in the (or any) company.

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One time, while Jim was carrying out his duties as a top-ranking IBM employee, a client from a company that was giving IBM approximately $100 million in business “joked”, ‘What would IBM do if we asked them to fire you because you’re gay?’

That – obviously – made Jim think: ‘What will the company I work for do, indeed?’ “It threw me out of my game,” Jim said.

Jim said he was “disturbed” by that joke; and when he returned to his office, his immediate boss noticed this. She asked him what was wrong, and he shared the homophobic “joke”.

Without batting an eye, Jim’s boss said: “We’d walk away.”

“That (answer) gave me back my esteem,” Jim said.

And it is this kind of commitment to its people that Jim said gives people empowerment. In the case of LGBT people, even “those who are still closeted”.

And so it is this – i.e. empowerment – that Jim said he also hopes to instill in others, starting with his being taking pride in his being an executive who happens to be gay.

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