‘A Horrifying Reality’: An Oral History of Coming Out on Wall Street

Illustration by Brian Britigan

Illustration by Brian Britigan

How times have — and haven’t — changed.

At 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969, New York City police attempted to raid the Stonewall Inn, a bar serving the gay community.

Instead of allowing orderly arrests to take place, Stonewall’s patrons, led by three transgender women, Jackie Hormona, Marsha Johnson, and Zazu Nova, protested. Violence broke out. The moment escalated into a gay liberation movement that sparked the now-famous gay pride celebrations across the United States and beyond.

The Stonewall riots made the queer community in New York visible 50 years ago. Throughout the decades since, finance professionals have been waging their own struggle for open and full acceptance of LGBTQ people in a conservative industry.

This month, New York City hosts WorldPride. In recognition of the landmark event, Institutional Investor interviewed individuals about their experiences of coming out in the financial services industry. Here are their stories, told as an oral history.

The 1980s

Michael Tracy, financial adviser and vice president in investments, Wells Fargo Advisors: I came to New York to start my career in finance around 1980. I first worked at American Express. In 1986, I moved to Citigroup. While there, I was managing about 30 brokers. One day one of them said he wanted to speak with me and my group manager.

He said he was going to cry, that he just got his death sentence. He was diagnosed as HIV-positive. I showed so much knowledge about the HIV situation that he said, “You must obviously be gay yourself.” In the process of trying to be helpful, I was outed. My direct boss and her boss had no issue with it. I was also very pleasantly surprised at how well prepared HR was at Citibank at the time. This was very early in the AIDS crisis. There were a lot of unknowns.

Peter Staley, a former J.P. Morgan banker who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the ’80s, speaking to the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)’s oral history project in 2006: Every night was ACT UP and every day was Wall Street, and it was tearing me apart. That and the fact that there was Black Friday on Wall Street in the fall of ’87 and the market became very hard to trade. I was beginning to lose money. So by March of ’88 — or was it February, March? — my T4s crashed, with the Dow, I like to say. And I said, “Well, it’s time to take care of yourself.” So I walked into my boss’s office and told him I had AIDS and needed to go on disability, and they knew in Tokyo five minutes later. It’s that kind of market; the news goes fast.

Tracy: I knew a number of gay men in the late ’80s and early ’90s who married a lesbian or a woman who didn’t care about a sexual relationship. They did it so they looked like a happy married couple and could move up the corporate ranks for their next promotion.

Michael McRaith, managing director, Blackstone Insurance Solutions: When I was in my first months as a young lawyer and looking for pro bono opportunities, there was a desperate need for lawyers to help prepare wills for people dying of HIV and AIDS. In that experience, I confronted young men, my age and younger than me. [McRaith was 25 at the time.] I would visit them in their apartments, and they had very few belongings and didn’t have families in their lives. They needed to complete a will to leave whatever they had to a friend. One case I remember was this young man who could barely sign his own name. He didn’t even have someone who could witness his signature. I called my older brother to witness it for me. That experience motivated me personally to become more transparent about who I was. Once I had shared it with my family, then as a professional matter, I was open almost immediately thereafter.

Tracy: It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that there was any chance of a drug regimen that could halt it. Everybody lost a number of friends. It was your daily habit to pick up The New York Times obituary section to see who died. I lost three clients to AIDS.

September 14, 1989: Staley, along with several other members of ACT UP, protest at the New York Stock Exchange against Burroughs Wellcome, a pharmaceuticals company.

Staley: [Burroughs Wellcome was] under just tremendous public pressure by the time the stock exchange action happened. So it was kind of the last push that just pushed them over the edge. . . . We had fake $100 bills made up that had, on the back of them it said, “Fuck Your Profiteering. We Die While You Make Money.”

So we all piled in at 9:25 a.m, walking right past security, and the five of us walked up the stairs of the balcony. . . . We waited for the bell and chained our, put the chain around the banister, all handcuffed ourselves to it, got the whole banner unrolled, which said, “Sell Wellcome.” And at 9:29 and 50 seconds, we jumped up and put the banner over and all let off the foghorns. You couldn’t hear the opening bell, and it was extraordinary. The place, just for a second, just went dead quiet except for the foghorns as everybody tried to figure out what was happening. And they then started going into a rage as they realized what was happening.

The picture was taken; this was a gigantic news story. And they could scream all they wanted, but we were going to be on the front page of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

McRaith: I think, as a society, we owe so much to the people who came out during the course of the HIV and AIDS crisis. Those men and women insisted on being out and open about who they were so that society could account for this meaningful segment of the population who had previously remained in the shadows — or, as we say proverbially, in the closet.

The 1990s

Geoff Godwin, chief operating officer, AIG’s U.K. property and casualty insurance business: I’ve been in the industry for the past 25 or 26 years. When I first joined the industry, it didn’t feel like a very welcoming place if you were not fitting the mold. Being gay, it was a pretty scary place to come into many years ago.

Erika Karp, founder, Cornerstone Capital Group: I think I was the first lesbian on a Wall Street trading floor about 25 years ago. Being closeted generally is really painful and takes up an enormous amount of energy. It’s a terrible waste of talent and humanity and creativity and productivity. It took me about a year to go through the process. I finally came out, and I will never know if it did any damage to my career. But I don’t think so. I would even argue that I wouldn’t be where I am were it not for coming out, because I have been able to direct all my energy into my purpose.

Robert Fenyk, senior mortgage loan officer, Investors Bank: As far as coming out is concerned, I had this incredibly positive experience. I was in my twenties and working at Merrill Lynch as a trainee. I was very much in the closet anyway. Nobody knew except a couple of guys, who teased me in a fun way.

Merrill Lynch let me go [the firing was unrelated to Fenyk’s sexual orientation], but as a result of being out socially at that point, I had a rich network of people I could turn to. I had a friend call me and say, “There’s a job waiting for you, and it’s at the one and only gay-owned and -operated broker-dealer, Christopher Street Financial.” I walked into the doors of Christopher Street Financial on March 15, 1994, and I was given a job immediately. I ended up working there for eight years. I had the most magical time of my adult life there.

Karp: I met the woman that I knew I was going to marry. I put a little money in the bank. I had been made a director — I was at Credit Suisse at the time. Stuff goes around fast when you work on the trading floor. I took aside three of my closest colleagues, off the floor, and said, “Look, I want you to hear this from me. I’m gay.” That’s all I had to do. That was it. Notwithstanding the anxiety associated with doing it, after I did it, it was very gratifying. That’s around the same time that Ellen DeGeneres did her outing thing. That was genuinely helpful to me.

Jennifer Hatch, president, Christopher Street Financial: I was out because somebody outed me. Even when I think about it now, my heart starts to race. I was at Bear Stearns. I don’t think it impacted my career. I do ultimately think I felt a little relieved. It was a different world. No stores were putting up rainbows. It was just a horrifying reality. It was not celebrated. My friends were supportive, and I think that the 98 percent of my colleagues who were men were amused. If I wasn’t young and cute and female, it would have been more difficult.

In 1997, Hatch acquired Christopher Street Financial. The idea that I could work with my people and be myself and do the thing that I love doing, which was to advise on financial issues, was really a dream come true.

Tracy: In 1996, I was featured in The New York Times for my Merrill Lynch brokerage — “Welcome Mat Is Out for Gay Investors.” The interview went very well. It was very positive. What was one of the big surprises was that my straight clients called me the next day, saying, “We’re so proud of you.” I was also shocked that not a single senior executive called me to say congratulations.

1996: The Defense of Marriage Act, which defines a marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman, is signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership, on his first finance job in 1998: My first boss was a homophobe. He called people in the office “faggot.” It was not a welcoming environment.

1998: Joe Daniel, a former investment banker for Dresdner Bank, becomes the first person to file a lawsuit against a major firm for discrimination based on sexuality. According to a New York Magazine story from the time, Daniel “approached Dresdner’s personnel department, asking whether the firm could extend the same health benefits to the domestic partners of gay employees that it provided to the spouses of straight ones. A few days later he was laid off in an abrupt ‘downsizing’ of his department. Daniel was the only person fired.”

The 2000s

Karp: I would say I was out for seven or eight years before I heard an actual bullying comment. I was in London on the trading floor working at UBS at that point. It came back to me that one of my colleagues had said as I was walking by — I didn’t hear it — he said it to a group: “How did that dyke get pregnant?” At the time I was pregnant with my first daughter. I brought it to HR, but I ultimately decided not to formally pursue it. He wasn’t promoted that year, though.

Georgi Balinov, managing director of investment banking in fintech, Bank of America: I started on Wall Street in 2005. That was straight out of college. I would have been 23 years old, something like that. As you can imagine, it was very early days in the journey that we have been on in acceptance, in comfort, and in the industry embracing diversity as including sexual orientation.

I was not open about my sexuality when I started at the firm. It probably took me a good several years to where I got to a point where I felt the challenge of being a committed member of the team for the long term and not being out and open. It was an easy and completely seamless process. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by very well-educated, very open-minded, worldly people, and that was certainly the case back then.

Fenyk, who began working as a contractor with Raymond James Financial in 2001: They’re pretty small and based in St. Petersburg, Florida. That’s a far cry from being based in New York City. There were cultural differences. When I was producing and doing well, they were fine.

In 2008 or so, I was going through a crazy breakup. I didn’t find out until later that my partner, or ex-partner at that point [who was also a Raymond James client], had contacted compliance and said, “Do not let Robert perform any trades without my permission, and please watch that he doesn’t take money from my accounts.”

My ex basically did something on purpose to hurt my career. They just had a lack of understanding around it. Suddenly he became to them a high-net-worth client who I was putting in danger, but he had been my partner.

My takeaway is that there was a lot of insensitivity around my situation and there was a lack of acknowledgement that two unmarried men were in fact partners.

Fenyk was fired, and filed a lawsuit against Raymond James in 2009. He was awarded back pay in arbitration.

James White, head of diversity and inclusion, Lord Abbett: Ten, 15 years ago, we talked about the business case for diversity, which showed that teams that are more diverse tend to outperform. That didn’t drive the change. Now we are talking about the business case for diversity as well as the social case for diversity. It’s a business issue, but it’s also a social one.

The 2010s

June 2013: The Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act.

Balinov: The thing that really flipped the first domino was the Windsor decision, which struck down DOMA. It was a big game changer.

Hatch: While for a long time we were the experts in creating structures that worked for couples that were in long-term commitments and owned assets together, you had to do major work on estate planning. Marriage equality really changed that situation.

June 2015: The Supreme Court issues a ruling allowing same-sex marriage. At the time, several corporations, including many financial institutions like BlackRock, Bank of America, and UBS, sign onto an amicus brief in support of the decision.

Sears: That was the first major time that companies put their money where their mouths were and collectively spoke up about it. That was the first time that companies had put their name to something. Companies like Bank of America had to go to their boards of directors and change their bylaws, which had said that weighing in on social justice was not acceptable. That was a major watershed moment. From there, I would make the case that the corporate community has been the single largest contributor to LGBTQ equality.

Karp: I was honored to give a speech to the U.N. General Assembly when the marriage equality question was going on in the Supreme Court. When you’re in the big general assembly room, there is protocol. As you go up to the stage, what you’re supposed to say is, “Excellencies, delegates, honored guests, and ladies and gentlemen.”

The phrase “ladies and gentlemen” bugs the shit out of me. I find it to be exclusionary. So I’m walking up the big steps and I’m thinking about what to say. I get to the podium, and I said: “Excellencies, delegates, honored guests, and colleagues of all genders.” You heard a gasp in the hall. And then I did my thing.

Hatch: At the end of the day, it was Governor [Andrew] Cuomo and the companies who were very forceful in saying that we need marriage recognition in order to support our employees.


Balinov: The fact that Institutional Investor is doing a piece on this topic in and of itself is how you should think about the journey that we have all been on in the industry.

White: We’re focusing so much more on advocating for the communities we feel may be underrepresented at the organization. We talk a lot about words to describe the community, language that’s seen as derogatory, and how to be an ally. If people know how to talk about a community in a workplace, they’re able to be more inclusive.

Godwin: It can be quite challenging for queer people to be themselves in the workplace. We find that sharing personal stories and bringing people in from outside AIG to share their experiences of what it’s like to be different can really drive fundamental mind-set change to how people perceive even people on their own teams.

William Littleton, former vice president, Goldman Sachs: On June 5 he filed a lawsuit against the firm alleging sexual identity discrimination. I joined Goldman in 2010. Before I joined, I made a promise to myself that I would be out from day one.

The first explicit instance of discrimination was in 2014. I was supposed to be on a product pitch call with a client, and a few minutes before the call, the moderator IM’d me and told me someone else would be handling the call, which was strange. I learned a few weeks later from a separate colleague that my moderator excluded me from the call because they had thought I sounded too gay. When I escalated this to my manager, I laid out the situation and she basically said, “That sucks” — and that was it.

I was completely shocked and blown away. You’re swallowed up by this massive organization, this machine, that didn’t just permit but empowered my supervisors to retaliate against me.

David Gottlieb, Littleton’s lawyer, partner at Wigdor: I think William’s case is really emblematic of what’s going on in the industry. They say they support people bringing their authentic selves to work. William’s own experiences completely undermine that proposition.

Littleton: I never in a million years thought I’d be involved in something so public and so terrible. After I’ve seen what happened at Goldman and what happened to me, I don’t only owe it to myself, but also to my community. This is about the LGBT people who came before me and those who will come after me.

According to Gottlieb, Littleton has found work at another bank. He is awaiting a response from Goldman Sachs in the suit.

Sloane Ortel, a consultant who formerly worked for the CFA Institute: In December 2017 she shared her story of coming out that year as a transgender woman working in finance with Institutional Investor. This month she reflected on how things have changed since then. I think the anxiety around the way that I present and move through the role is much less. I don’t have any qualms about checking someone who misgenders me. Situations where somebody uses the wrong pronoun or is a little insensitive that would have been really anxiety-inducing for me have receded into the background. The hair is also better. The hair is also way better.

I’ve been included in searches for various jobs and gotten tossed out for reasons I perceived to be questionable. I think there is a degree to which people are uncomfortable or tend to assume that I’m not a financial professional. Walking through the world, people assume I’m like an art teacher or something. I have some work to do to sort of make it seem like I can still play at the same level I was playing at.

In general, I am delighted to be out. I am delighted to be queer as fuck. I’m incredibly proud of that.