The panel was introduced. A silence fell over the room. A silence that, despite the potential ability to be an arbiter of awkwardness for the average person, was at present far from it. Because for the group at the front of the room, silence was an old friend.
And that’s exactly why they gathered there Wednesday, June 26, on a sunny afternoon at the CMT offices in Nashville – to discuss taking the steps away from that silence, and into the future of the workplace. The panel, appropriately titled “Open for Business” was a part of CMT’s way of celebrating National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Month, which occurs annually in June. Throughout the month, the LGBT community embraces speaking out on many different scales, with everything from large parades, to small community conversations and panels.
That day, national news had spread from California to Tennessee – the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) had been defeated per the Supreme Court’s decision. After introducing the group of panelists, which included Bo Robertson of Fifth Third Bank; Josh Robbins, owner of BNA Talent Group and the BRANDagement and consultant for Out & About Nashville; Justin Wyatt, CMT Vice President of Consumer Insights and Research; and Pamela Sheffer, a program coordinator for The Nashville Oasis Center’s Just Us program, panel moderator and CMT Radio Network correspondent Samantha Stevens asked them how they felt about the day’s breaking news.
Robertson explained how personal it was for him.
“This is a very important day for me. I actually found out because my husband called me at 9 a.m. this morning and said ‘Hey, I think we’re still married!’” Robertson said.
The crowd laughed and Robertson smiled ear-to-ear, glowing with confidence of where he currently stands. Robertson explained that it was not always this way, and there was a time when he was younger where he had to overcome many struggles living as a young, gay man.
“I was terrified, and fortunately I made the right decision to keep moving, keep going ahead, keep educating myself,” he said.
Robertson chose to go into an industry that he described as “very conservative” – banking. He explained how, in his early years of banking, he chose not to be open about his sexual orientation. However, he eventually looked back on that younger version of himself and decided it was time for a change.
“It was really important to me that there weren’t other young men out there wondering if they had a future, or what was going to happen to them, so I decided I was going to be open about my sexuality,” Robertson said.
Robertson and fellow panelist Josh Robbins emphasized this same idea – the importance of working in an environment where one’s sexual orientation does not stand in the way of success. Robbins runs his own company and has been upfront about standing behind nondiscrimination policies from the beginning.
In January 2012, Robbins found out that he was HIV positive. Instead of hiding it in fear of losing clients, he made the decision to be open about it.
“My business hasn’t changed and it’s not because people want to do business with someone who is HIV positive, it’s because people want to do business with someone who thinks integrity and honesty are important,” Robbins said.
CMT’s Justin Wyatt touched on how being honest with his sexuality has allowed him to help others who may be struggling with the same issues he has. Prior to working at CMT and holding research positions with other networks, he served as a Professor at the University of North Texas, Department of Radio, Television, & Film. Wyatt recalled his efforts with the LGBT student group at the University of North Texas, where he offered to come speak to their group.
“I called them up and they said to me, ‘No professor has ever come to talk to our group before.’ They were so moved that I offered to come and talk to them, and I knew at that point it was important for me to be an ‘out’ professor for students of mine and to be a figure for them,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt also explained how being a figure for LGBT youth did not end after his teaching career. As a previous and current employee of a large-scale media company, he emphasized how grateful he is to have a job where he has the opportunity to influence what types of programming make it on air, and ensure that demographics are being fairly represented.
“I’m really able to help the future generation in a very tactile way,” Wyatt said.
Fellow panelist Sheffer also emphasized the importance of assisting this younger generation. As the Program Coordinator for Just Us, a program designed to serve young people, 13-21 years of age, who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or are questioning their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, Sheffer’s time is spent assisting youth facing similar challenges that her fellow panelists recalled facing. While she is extremely comfortable working with this demographic, her workplace, just like many others, had to ease into it.
“We’re learning as a business to truly practice what we preach – that we’re going to be open and affirming to everyone who walks through that door.”
With the recent defeat of DOMA, things appear to be heading in a positive direction.
“Everything’s moving in the right direction. I am really heartened by the younger generation and how their attitudes are so strongly different,” Wyatt said. “Because of this I know that, with time, things will continue to change for the better.”