How many gays and lesbians are there on Wall Street? James J. Cramer, the seemingly omnipresent and omniscient hedge-fund manager, can't name any. Jessica Reif Cohen, the top-ranked analyst of entertainment and media stocks, doesn't know any gays at her firm, Merrill Lynch, which has nearly 10,000 employees in New York City alone. Within the broader community of research analysts, "there's only one person I even think is gay," she adds: a middle-aged guy who supposedly lives with his mother, a fact that has provoked gossip at his firm because "almost everyone else is married with children." Elizabeth Goldstein, who recently left Bankers Trust after six years as a star on the trading desk, says, "I can't think of anyone. I'm sure they exist, but it's very, very, very, very quiet." When a trader talked about attending a lesbian wedding, she recalls, "People's mouths were wide open. It was totally foreign to their experience."
Welcome to turn-of-the-century Wall Street. In a city where openly gay professionals are commonplace in such industries as media, advertising, and law, Wall Street remains a notable exception -- one where the prevailing mind-set seems more characteristic of 1959 than of 1999. Like the military, the financial world promulgates an unwritten policy of "don't ask, don't tell," which affords gays and lesbians a chance to prosper, and even rise to prominence, but only if they deliberately obscure their personal lives.
"Living in a liberal, diverse environment like Manhattan, you realize that banking isn't really part of that," says one closeted banker. "It's a different world. My boss and my boss's bosses live in very sheltered communities in Westchester and Connecticut. They don't live in the Village or the Upper West Side. They find it very difficult to manage sexual diversity."
For young gay Wall Streeters, he says, "it's very common to have gay friends, party on the weekend, live in Chelsea, then put on a suit and take the subway to work on Monday. No one needs to know you spent Saturday night at the Roxy."
This enforced invisibility is all the more remarkable given the fact that gays are actually all over the Street, working as traders, brokers, securities analysts, money managers, and investment bankers at such major houses as Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, CS First Boston, and Salomon Smith Barney as well as at a slew of smaller private-investment firms. Many hold positions of considerable stature. Two of the street's best-known firms, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette and Drexel, Burnham Lambert, were founded in part by gay men; three others include gays at their very top levels.
Walter Schubert, the founder of the Gay Financial Network (gfn.com) and the only openly gay member of the 1,365-member New York Stock Exchange, estimates that there are thousands of gay financial professionals in New York and perhaps tens of thousands nationwide. A gay Wall Street organization called New York Bankers' Group boasts 300 members; more than 100 were on hand for a Christmas party last December. Still, the membership list is kept strictly secret, and six of the group's eight board members are not out at work.
For many gays and lesbians, Wall Street is a not-so-quaint throwback -- a testosterone-drenched frat house complete with ritual hazing. One man came to work to discover the word faggot Magic Markered on his office wall; another found nude pictures from a gay magazine glued to his computer. For most, however, the pressure is more subtle. "It's like high school all over again," says one mid-level trader. "You hear people talking and joking and whispering, and you're sure it must be about you."
One gay banker recalls a group meeting with his boss (who was a managing director) and another vice-president to discuss a prospective client. Paging through the company's annual report, his boss opened it to the photo of the company's president. "God, this guy looks like such a faggot!" he exclaimed in disgust, looking directly at the employee, who wasn't out at work. "No offense," he added sarcastically. An investment banker says she was told she was being passed over for a promotion because "the firm wanted to uphold a family-values image."