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Gay? It's OK ... unless you're the boss Add to ...

Bruce Goudy spent his early years at Ernst & Young in fear.

With his career in its fledgling stages, he attended company functions solo and only conversed with co-workers in guarded disclosures.

"I was very cautious about who I told and who I didn't tell," says Mr. Goudy, a Toronto-based partner with the global audit firm. "It was a fear of the unknown. Can I really trust that my bosses' view of me will not change once they know that I'm gay?"

Mr. Goudy probably wasn't the only executive whose mind flickered back to those closet days last week, when BP CEO John Browne announced his resignation, after a British court determined he had lied about a four-year relationship with a Canadian man.

While his homosexuality was widely know in British social circles, he never officially came out, even flat-out denying it to a Financial Times reporter several years ago.

Since Mr. Goudy broke in with Ernst & Young in the early 1980s, corporations have taken huge strides in recognizing the rights of gay employees.

BP promises sexual-orientation protection for its workers, as do nine out of 10 Fortune 500 companies. Yet not one of those companies is headed by an openly gay CEO, demonstrating that barriers still remain to the advancement of gay executives in today's corporate culture.

In the 1990s, when most corporations were slowly starting to recognize gay rights, Mr. Goudy decided to drop his inhibitions. For the last 3½ years, he has spearheaded Ernst & Young's initiative to attract lesbian, gay and transgendered recruits.

"We think sexual orientation in the workplace should be a matter-of-fact thing," Mr. Goudy says.

"You should be able to tell your co-workers what you did on the weekend without having to worry about your job."

Most corporations now claim they have stamped out discrimination based on sexual orientation. More than half of Fortune 500 companies provide domestic-partner benefits to employees in same-sex relationships. In Canada, Procter & Gamble, IBM and CIBC have all established committees of employees to advise them on sexual orientation.

But there are still plenty of reasons for not coming out, and some gays and lesbians say that rosy company lines don't match life on the job. A Leger Marketing poll last year revealed that almost 30 per cent of 1,525 Canadian office workers said they had seen hostile behaviour toward gay or lesbian co-workers, and 60 per cent said they believe it can be career-limiting for gay or lesbian employees to disclose their sexual orientation at work.

"There is homophobia and bigotry in all ranks," says Jim Freeman, a vice-president at IBM, who is gay. "Corporations can say the door is open all they want. I still have colleagues at IBM who refuse to come out."

Those colleagues may actually be in the majority. Kirk Snyder, a business administration professor at the University of Southern California, spent five years researching gay issues in corporate workplaces.

While he found that more and more people were coming out, he also found that "for every out gay in a corporation there are another five in the closet."

The higher workers climb in a company's hierarchy, the more scrutiny is paid to their personal lives, and being gay can still be a red flag for those doing the promoting. The unspoken attitude is still "that you can be a gay employee, but for God's sake, don't be a gay vice-chairman," said a former senior manager. "I can't in my wildest dreams imagine going to a function with a vice-chairman of a bank and their gay partner."

Discrimination can also depend on a company's geography. In oil and gas, Lord Browne's field, high-ranking executives must deal with oil-rich nations in the Middle East, some of which deem homosexuality a crime.

When Mobil merged with Exxon to form the world's biggest oil company in 1999, shareholders voted to cut a Mobil policy providing domestic partner benefits for homosexual employees.

"If I worked there I'd have to think very carefully about whether or not I wanted to remain there," says Mr. Freeman, the IBM vice-president.

And the memory of past corporate homophobia still remains fresh in the minds of older employees. John Browne started at BP in 1966, when discrimination was more overt. "Browne was of a generation that prefers not to advertise these things," Mr. Freeman says.

Young or old, gay executives won't soon forget the Browne resignation. With the upper strata of corporate management all over the world still void of their ranks, many lament the role model Mr. Browne could have been.

"When the day comes that there is an out-of-the-closet CEO of a Fortune 500 company," says Mr. Snyder, the California professor, "it will be a watershed event. Browne could have done it. He could have been a hero."

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