Sometimes, even the most careful precautions misfire: In a scene out of a Paul Rudnick comedy, "Keith," an executive at a major investment bank, agreed to an after-work date with his boyfriend at a bar near his office. The boyfriend suggested the location, which he thought was a "gay lounge." It was, but just one night a week. That evening, it drew a mixed crowd.
When Keith arrived early for the rendezvous, the scene was set for a farce. He immediately ran into a straight associate who asked Keith to join him and a friend for a drink. As the trio talked, Keith noticed his boyfriend enter the bar and move quickly toward him.
Keith knew what would happen next. "It suddenly occurred to me that he was going to give me a kiss," Keith recalls. "I wanted to put up my arms to block him. My reaction was horror, which is appalling." Sure enough, the boyfriend kissed him on the lips. It was a chaste, closed-mouth "hello" kiss, but nonetheless, the straight financiers appeared shocked. On cue, they began talking about women, as if to prove their heterosexuality bona fides.
"It was a very awkward moment, and I was just happy to get out of there," recalls Keith, who points out that he faced no repercussions. "The bottom line is, I don't have a problem being myself. The danger in this business is being myself too loudly."
For a long time, walter schubert felt the same way. Now 42, Schubert grew up in a conservative, Republican, Irish Catholic family in West Orange, New Jersey, where "it was just not okay to be gay," he says. "I lived for many years with an inordinate amount of shame and guilt." He hadn't planned to follow his grandfather and father to the floor of the exchange. He really wanted to be a diplomat in the foreign service. But in 1977, when Schubert was a sophomore at Skidmore, his father was told by doctors that he had only six months to live. Walter, then 20 and the oldest of six children, quit school to learn the family business at the Big Board.
"My role was to be the provider for my mother, brother, and sisters," he recalls. "I didn't hesitate." A year after his father's death in 1979, Schubert became the youngest member of the New York Stock Exchange. He was 23.
"I knew from the start that I was going to have to face this, but I couldn't construct a successful career being an openly gay man on the floor of the exchange. In 1980, it was a very conservative, conformist place that didn't like anyone who was challenging to the status quo. To step out, to be even slightly different -- people weren't going to go for that."
Trying to fit in, Schubert dated many women and was even engaged to be married -- twice. But the pretense wore him down. "I was becoming unhappy, self-destructive. I started to sabotage my success. By the mid-nineties, after fifteen years of taking care of my family, I thought it was time to live my life."
In 1993, he began coming out privately to friends and relatives, though he remained closeted at work. But by 1994, the rumors of his homosexuality were spreading wildly. "It was becoming an open secret on the trading floor. It was pretty uncomfortable," he says. Finally, a colleague confronted Walter directly. "When I was asked on the floor, rather than being sheepish, I said yes. Twenty-four hours later, I was 'the gay guy.' Since then, I've been trying to get back my whole identity. It's been a hard journey."
When he came out, he held a meeting with his employees, many of whom feared that the firm would lose its customers. Schubert himself had the same fear. He told his people he'd understand if they wanted to leave. None did.
Others who have found mainstream firms too stifling have struck out on their own. In 1994, Robert Fenyk, who spent two unhappy years as a broker at Merrill Lynch, switched from Merrill to Christopher Street Financial, which promotes itself as the only gay-owned-and-operated brokerage and financial-advisory firm in the nation. At Christopher Street (actually located on Wall Street), clients and brokers can talk freely about financial-planning issues specific to homosexuals -- tax laws, pension benefits, and how to pass estates on to partners. Founded in 1981, the company was recently taken over by a group of investors including Jennifer Hatch, a 38-year-old veteran of J.P. Morgan and Bear Stearns. It recently opened an office in Fire Island Pines and is planning other branches in Short Hills, New Jersey; Los Angeles; and four to six other cities in the next eighteen months.