I was recently asked by a student, “How do you think being gay has impacted your career?” It was a great question that got me thinking about my journey from coming out in law school to becoming one of the only openly LGBTQ deans to ever lead a law school in the nation.
I came out at a time when there weren’t many visible LGBTQ leaders to look up to. Coming from a Catholic family in Michigan, I just didn’t have access to many people like me to look up to. That was also true as I entered law school. I purposely chose a school where I thought I could be more myself and finally come out. Luckily, I found friends and a few faculty members who helped me grow comfortable enough to take those first steps out of the closet. Finding the people who had the strength to be visible and proud helped me on my own journey.
But being gay in a predominantly straight male profession has its challenges. The first internship I had at a law firm was incredibly hostile to LGBTQ people. One of the partners eventually pulled me aside and told me, “You should probably start bringing a girlfriend to company parties — people are starting to talk.”
I left that firm.
I instantly became much more aware of the level of acceptance at my next internship or job. After graduation, I ended up at a wonderful law firm that had an openly gay partner. Having an LGBTQ person in leadership completely shifted the tone of the firm and made me completely comfortable to be myself. The partner even began mentoring me to help me succeed, which helped me see the value of being out in the professional world. If he could succeed, so could I.
That initial impact of seeing an openly LGBTQ person in a leadership role has stuck with me throughout my career. Throughout my work at a law professor and administrator, I have always tried to meet and help all the queer students I could. I did my best to remain visible, proud, and helpful to those just beginning their journeys, as someone thankfully did for me.
The impact of visibility was driven home when I ran for local office. I decided to run for city commissioner after the mayor went on an antigay tirade. If I wanted to change the tone that he was setting, I needed to be the example of what LGBTQ leadership could look like. During my run to be city commissioner, I never shied away from being out. In fact, I went to California to marry my husband during the campaign. We won — and it changed the tone and trajectory that the bigoted former mayor tried to set.
All of these experiences are why I'm so proud to be incredibly outspoken and open as the dean of Golden Gate University. I remember the impact that having an openly LGBTQ person in my profession made on me and want to pass that along. But we still have so far to go. Many times, we run into the “rainbow ceiling,” where systemic biases impact the ability to move into a leadership role in our professional lives. A new report indicates we are routinely “frozen out of” top management jobs. This is even truer when it intersects with the biases against women and communities of color.
Things are slowly changing. We see groundbreaking members of our community like Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Laverne Cox, and Adam Rippon unabashedly being their authentic selves. The impact of visible leaders and high-profile figures is hopefully being felt by the current generation of LGBTQ youth coming into their own.
But we need more.
We need a day when I’m not “one a few gay deans ever” or Mark Takano isn’t “the first nonwhite openly gay member of Congress.” I want to one day lose track because we’re so well represented. I want to see us on the Supreme Court or as president. And I truly believe those leaders of tomorrow are out there, drawing strength from those who have come before. Just like I did.
ANTHONY NIEDWIECKI is dean of Golden Gate University School of Law.