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VIDEO: Financial executive comes out in TED talk

February 9, 2015, 3:10 PM UTC
TED@State Street, London, 2014
Morgana Bailey speaking at TED@StateStreet salon, November 18, 2014, Troxy, London, England. Photo: Paul Sanders/TED
Photograph by Paul Sanders — TED

Forget, for a minute, a top American CEO, Apple’s Tim Cook, is gay and that 36 states permit same-sex marriage. Coming out still can be deeply scary, especially away from the coastal metropolises – fraught with fear of rejection, of being stereotyped, isolated or misunderstood.

Imagine, then, the guts to come out on stage, in a TED talk hosted by your company, before an audience of colleagues, supervisors, and clients.

HR exec Morgana Bailey did. The Vice President of Human Resources in Global HR Information Systems at State Street Corp., the financial services firm, works in Kansas City. She came out as a lesbian in an emotional TED Talk@State Street event in London, posted online last month. “Hiding is a progressive habit and once you start hiding, it becomes harder and harder to speak out,” she said. She had even hidden the topic of her TED Talk from her colleagues. “What have I been hiding for 16 years? I am a lesbian. I’ve struggled to say those words. I was paralyzed by my fear of not being accepted.”

As a student studying abroad in London 16 years earlier, she had realized that she was gay but had done into “hiding” ever since. After seeing research that showed closeted lesbians and gays living in homophobic communities are at greater risk of suicide, homicide and heart disease, she learned about the opportunity to do a TED talk in London (it was hosted by her company and would be posted to the TED site). She realized this was her chance. “I’d been waiting for that moment,” she said.

She fought back tears twice in the 10-minute talk, which took place in November and ended with a standing ovation.

TED@State Street, London, 2014Photograph by Tracy Howl — TED

In an interview with Fortune, Bailey said that her TED talk — which took place in November — was “life changing…When I landed in my home state, I literally felt lighter and freer. I feel completely different.”

She said her colleagues have embraced her. Those who were in the audience were “absolutely fantastic.” One told Bailey the speech was an inspiration to come out as bisexual. Others said it helped them understand their children. She emailed her five direct reports right after the speech and received emails of support back. “You are you, and you are ours,” one emailed back.

A couple of colleagues told her they were inspired to stop hiding their own secrets, such as being a cancer survivor.

When she returned to work, Bailey quickly got support to start a Kansas City chapter of the gay rights group, Global PRIDE, and Friends, State Street’s 350-member, employee-run LGBT and allies network. Their first meeting will be this month. The chapter will do volunteer work, host speakers, and work on recruiting. She also was invited onto a global State Street committee promoting diversity. “My main goals are to develop, attract, engage and retain a diverse workforce, to provide networking and professional development opportunities, and to strengthen ties with the local LGBTQ community,” she said. It will kick off a new program soon, Global ALLY, to rally new supporters within the company.

When Bailey returned to Kansas City, she said the marketing team from Boston organized a Q&A session with her, wanting to know what State Street could have done differently. Missouri is one of dozens of U.S. states that do not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But State Street, along with about two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies, do include “gender identity” nondiscrimination protections, according to research by a gay rights group, The Human Rights Campaign.

“It wasn’t about the company,” Bailey said. “It was on me to make myself known.”

Many LGBT corporate employees self-censor and suppress themselves at work. In her TED talk, she cited a statistic from a 2013 Deloitte study: 83% of LGB employees surveyed change aspects of themselves so they won’t appear “too gay” at work — even when their company has diversity and inclusion policies. Too many people believe hiding “is critical for long-term career advancement,” she said.

In 2014, she told the crowd, a friend’s father who was a member of Kansas’ House of Representatives voted for a law that would let businesses refuse to serve gay people, for religious reasons. “I was never honest with them about who I am, and that shakes me to the core. What if I had told her my story years ago?”

Now Bailey is ready. “By facing my fears inside, I will be able to change reality outside.” She has found, she said, “a community of professional peers to learn, share and grow with in my journey as a LGBTQ employee and person.”

Watch Morgana Bailey’s talk here:

Jill Hamburg Coplan is a business writer whose work has been published in BusinessWeek, Inc., Bloomberg and many other publications.