James Pepper, an openly gay managing director at Brundage, Story and Rose, a money-management firm, describes the dilemma of a closeted investment banker currently under consideration for a lucrative partnership at one of the Street's most prestigious houses. "If he were out, they might not feel comfortable having him as a partner. Yes, they will shut their eyes if he makes a strong economic contribution. But if there are five partnerships available and six people who make equal money, then they won't choose him."
There are exceptions, of course. When Joe Cherner was trading 30-year Treasury bonds at Kidder, Peabody in the eighties, his lover accompanied him to Christmas parties and social events. "My sexuality had very little to do with my job," says Cherner, who was president of his class at Columbia Business School. "I don't see where sexuality is or should be an issue. In my specific instance, I didn't have a problem being accepted." But Cherner left Wall Street after seven years.
Though gay bankers and traders may know one another by reputation, they by and large take pains to avoid one another at work. A loose social network of gay financial types sometimes hooks up at private homes and parties, but "when you run into someone that's gay during the day, you're not gonna ask them how their boyfriend is or anything," says one banker. It's not something you want to bring up." At Goldman Sachs, two partners in a long-term relationship were so worried that their secret would be exposed that they didn't speak to each other at Goldman's offices.
In 1983, a group of gay financiers at J.P. Morgan and Bankers Trust founded a professional association they called the New York Bankers' Group, with the idea that it would allow them to share experiences and contacts. In the group's early days, meetings were held at private homes, and many of the addresses on their mailing list read "Mr. and Mrs." because members were pretending to be married.
Today, NYBG has more than 300 members, 70 percent of them male, ranging from traders in their mid-twenties to retirees, who meet monthly at various Manhattan locales. The majority are in commercial banking, but there is a large investment-banking contingent as well. Ironically, even the president of the organization, a 27-year-old working for a foreign bank, declines to be identified.
"We provide a way to network with other people in your institution," he says. "Many people meet their boss's boss or a close co-worker who they didn't know was gay."
Though the group's president says NYBG members include senior executives at J.P. Morgan, Standard & Poor's, Bank of America, Bear Stearns, and Bankers Trust, the group's membership list is kept strictly confidential: NYBG internally publishes a networking directory that's available only to members.
Last December, 106 members attended the group's Christmas party at Flute, a swank champagne bar in an old speakeasy. NYBG events like this are "not cruisey," says one NYBG member who met his first boyfriend through the group, "but a lot of business cards are exchanged. There are a lot of good-looking guys, professional and well-off -- very high dating-and-relationship potential."
More important, he says, he has found the Bankers' Group to be a great way to find mentors -- though for the most part, their experience has convinced him that it wouldn't be advisable to be out at work.
Judging from their representation in groups like NYBG, Wall Street's lesbians are even less visible and organized than their gay male counterparts. "There so much competition that most of us feel fortunate just to be here," says "Gina," who works in the securities operation of a major firm. "Plenty of people with strong credentials would like to sit in my chair right now." A trader in her thirties, Gina is out to her family, friends, and neighbors but not to her co-workers, with the exception of her closest colleague, whom she told only after they worked together for years.
Personal lives are usually left alone, she says: "I wouldn't lie ever, but nobody has ever asked me, Do you have a boyfriend? or Are you married?" But since the firm sent around an announcement saying that it was beginning to extend health benefits to domestic partners, Gina has pondered whether to participate: "I'm not worried about being fired, but I have no doubt that I'd be treated differently given the quite blatant, openly homophobic culture in sales and trading.