By Jeff Fuller
In the spring of 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, both her fictional character on the TV sitcom Ellen in “The Puppy Episode” and the actress herself on the cover of Time magazine, with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.” As Ellen was coming out, an act that proved to be a watershed moment in popular culture, I was in my senior year at Davidson College, resisting my own sexuality.
Earlier that year, I had been seeing a campus counselor about some depression issues and frustration that I had been unable to date (women) throughout college. The counselor gently asked me to consider my own sexual orientation, but I dismissed it. I could not contemplate opening myself up to that. Culture and my own religious faith at the time prevented me from doing so.
After graduation, I started a job in Nashville as a customer support consultant with a small, innovative company that made call center software called TCS Management. They hired liberal arts graduates to train users on the software and work the help desk in Nashville. The job did not require deep technical expertise, but it required us to learn the software thoroughly and then teach call center managers how to use it.
TCS had several women in leadership roles and several openly gay employees, notable in a city as conservative as Nashville. The vice president of quality assurance was a lesbian and a leader in making the company open and welcoming to LGBT individuals. Influenced by Silicon Valley, the company culture was fun and relaxed. We could wear jeans while working at the call center, but we would dress up when meeting with clients for the software trainings.
As accepting a place as TCS Management was, there still was a lot of prejudice in the culture at large. I remember traveling to Detroit with Neil, an openly gay customer consultant, to observe him train some call center managers at the Chrysler Corporation. When the discussion went to forecasting call volume, the call center manager brought up how Ellen’s coming out of the closet caused a spike in call volume to the center. At the time, there was a great deal of pressure from the public against companies like Chrysler who advertised on Ellen. Many of these companies ultimately pulled their ads. When the call center manager was explaining this to us, his tone seemed a little bit derisive and I could tell that Neil was getting a bit uncomfortable. Nevertheless, he responded to the manager with grace and dignity and smoothly moved the conversation to a different topic.
I also remember when Kristi, one of the openly lesbian women who worked at TCS, invited a bunch of us over to her house in East Nashville. We met her girlfriend there, and I recall seeing a life-size naked painting of the girlfriend hanging prominently on the wall. In some ways, the naked portrait was fitting. The openly gay and lesbian people of that time and place were showing how to live openly, without shame, and yet with vulnerability at the same time.
TCS was a really fun place to work. We were co-workers, but a close-knit group of friends as well. Some of these friendships turned into romantic relationships and ultimately marriages. For me, however, I didn’t really know what I wanted. While times were changing, I still was not ready to be unashamed and vulnerable. I was still trying to fit in, to please, and to make my way in the world. However, being in an environment where openly gay workers were welcomed helped me see what kind of life was possible. Today, I am grateful to my “out” co-workers who modeled bravery, vulnerability, professionalism and grace.
Apart from being a Gay Generation-Xer, Jeff Fuller is an attorney, writer, travel blogger, historian, and military spouse. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Jeff went to college, graduate school and law school in the Southeast. He has called Atlanta home for the last decade but recently moved to DC to follow his husband on his military career. He occasionally blogs at journeyingjeff.com.