Donald Ham insists he didn’t set out to become a pioneer for workplace equality. In fact, it was the opposite. When his then-employer, the Wrigley Company, declined his request for domestic partner benefits in the early 2000s, Ham figured the famed chewing-gum maker just wasn’t the place for him. But as he prepared his resignation and started making other plans, Ham discovered that his superiors were more amenable to change than he’d realized.
Ham shared his experience of being out at work, his role as an unintentional change-maker, and how he stays optimistic about social progress in the era of Trump.
Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Fast Company: When did you first come out, and did it impact your career?
Donald Ham: I never heard a word against being gay in my family growing up, but somehow I had gotten the message that it just wasn’t the way that “people like us” behaved. In the mid-’90s, the internet came along. You’d buy computer magazines and they would include a floppy disc with AOL software. I went on AOL and was absolutely enraptured by the technology. I had been interested in bodybuilding all my life; in retrospect that was probably a way to sublimate an interest in men. In an AOL chatroom, I got a private message asking if I was gay. For several weeks, I said no. Finally, I got the courage to say yes.
Special Report: What It’s Like To Be Out At Work In 2017
About a year earlier I’d had chest pains and was rushed to the hospital. I was 41 years old at the time. My father had died of a heart attack at 53, so chest pain was something I lived in terror of. They diagnosed it as anxiety, and I kind of knew what the anxiety had been about.
Shortly after [coming out to my close friends], I fell in love with a man I met on AOL and moved to Chicago to be with him. It was the first time in my life I ever had romantic feelings for anyone. That relationship didn’t work out, but it did get me to a place that had a vibrant gay community.
I ended up getting a job at the University of Chicago Hospitals [in the IT department]. The hospital was very pro-gay and had domestic partner benefits. After working on the Y2K issue in 1999, I chose to leave and ended up working for Wrigley as an emerging technologies analyst. When I was hired, I asked about domestic partner benefits. I got the standard line that companies gave, which is, “If we did it for you, we would have to do it for everyone.” I liked the job a lot. I loved the team I was on. I liked my boss. The money was good.
FC: So you didn’t push back right away. What led you to change your mind? Was it hard getting to that point?
DH: Being about 44 at that time, I had basically lost the ability to be shamed or to have much fear about it. I didn’t set out to be some bold pioneer. I just thought, “I don’t belong.” I felt like I was working for a company that liked me as a professional but didn’t seem to respect me as a gay man.
After about eight months, my partner had a chance to transfer to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a job. I walked in and said, “Look, I’ve got an opportunity to move with my partner. The domestic partner issue makes me feel like I don’t really fit.”
My boss said, “We don’t want you to leave. We can probably arrange something with you working remotely, but we don’t want to lose you as part of our team. I’m not going to accept your resignation right now, but let me see what I can find out.” The CIO, whose office was right next door to my boss’s, came into my office 15 minutes later and essentially said the same thing.
Shortly after that, I got a call from human resources asking me to come by that afternoon. [The HR rep] and I sat in his office for about two hours, and I talked to him about the nature of equality in corporations and inclusiveness and attracting and retaining the best staff. He listened very carefully and never gave me any of the standard lines. He said the same thing: “Give me some time.”
About two weeks later, in August of 2001, he called me and told me that in December they were going to offer domestic partner benefits to all of their North American employees.
I don’t claim to have been a bold pioneering change agent. I was just a guy that they knew as a person instead of as a label. They valued me as part of a team of professionals, and I was in a place where I was able to actually get the ear of someone who had the power to do something.
FC: It almost sounds like this was a change they were ready for. Did you get that impression?
DH: Wrigley is a good company. They’ve been a pioneer in treating employees fairly since the 1920s. They offered a form of worker’s compensation before it was ever a law, just because they thought it was a smart thing to do. Wrigley exemplified corporate social responsibility before anyone had coined the term. Every good feeling you may have had buying a pack of spearmint gum is valid. They actually were good, decent people who understood that you can make money and still treat people in a decent way. That’s certainly a trend now.
FC: What about the rest of your career? Have you experienced bias elsewhere?
DH: On LinkedIn, I’m a member of an LGBT professionals group, and that’s on my profile. Right now I work in tourism, for a company that hosts people on bicycle tours of the California wine country. They don’t have the slightest problem with that. We also have a transgender employee.
During my job at the University of Chicago Hospitals, I was completely open about it and it had no impact whatsoever. In many ways, I was lucky. If I had been out in Oklahoma before I left in the ’80s, absolutely I think that would have been an issue.
Places and companies that fail to embrace diversity are likely of the past. One example is Exxon-Mobil, which fought efforts to add domestic partner benefits to their equal-opportunity statement for decades [editor’s note: the company added LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination language to its official policies in 2015, after repeatedly voting down similar measures in the past].
I and almost every other gay soul I know will drive 10 miles out of their way to not buy a product from Exxon-Mobil . . . I think almost every company that’s primed for success now just accepts that equality on all fronts is table-stakes for being in business.
FC: Considering the changes you’ve witnessed over the past two decades, how do you feel about where we stand now, especially with Trump in the White House?
DH: I honestly see our current political climate as the last gasp of a dying breed. There’s a lot of money from the 1% thrown at that last gasp that has allowed it to happen. But the weight of demography and society is against discrimination.
Because my work has been looking at enterprises from the 50,000[-foot] level–not what what we’re going through right now, but what [businesses] should invest in for the next five to 10 years–I try and keep myself at that level about politics and the United States in general. I don’t think the extreme, aberrant behavior that we’ve seen enshrined in politics is normal. I certainly don’t think it’s sustainable.