The only black formerly closeted gay US Air Force officer turned self-help author in town
My life has been an adventure of two halves that have brought me full circle in my quest to be authentic. The first half of my life was about coming of age in the US at a time when being black and gay were impediments to a fair shot at the American dream. Both required resolve and resilience to push through social barriers and overt prejudice.
I knew I was gay when I was a teenager, but that world and its challenges seemed a million miles away from the more immediate struggles of growing up black and poor in the tumultuous 1960s. I was 12 when Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. Washington DC and 10 other cities across America went up in flames that night. That was when, for the first time in my life, I realised race was going to be a very real thing for me.
Our neighbourhood, in the housing projects of DC had deteriorated around that time. There was a noticeable upswing in fatherless homes, teenage pregnancies, and gang violence. I had developed a sense of relativity for wealth and realised we were, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. My middle school guidance counsellor knew I was ambitious and encouraged me to apply to McKinley Technical High School, a magnet school for high-potential students located in a district on the other side of the city. It meant rejecting Spingarn High School, a lower decile school in a rough environment, where my older brothers went. If you attended McKinley, the assumption was you’d go on to college. From my earliest days, I considered myself college bound, with fantasies of being a physician and making lots of money. This vision certainly pulled me through my three years at McKinley and positioned me for university.
Before university, I didn’t know much about white people, other than what I gleaned from TV. I had a few white teachers, but never got to know them. Given my world now, I find it bizarre I never had a conversation with a white kid my age before university, although I came close. My mother was a maid, who cleaned homes for white people in rich neighbourhoods. Whenever my sister or I were sick and couldn’t go to school, my mother would take us to work with her because she couldn’t afford to take a day off. She would sit us in a corner of the room, in these rich fancy homes, and order us not to move. These white folk had fancy houses with big yards and, most importantly, CARS! My family never had a car when I was a kid.
I walked into a white world for real when I went to Muhlenberg College. It was 1973 and I was one of only five black students on campus. This number would grow to seven by the time I graduated four years later. I got called the “N-word” for the first time in my life by a white student at Muhlenberg; there were also two cops who’d pull up alongside me in their car every time I went jogging in the white neighbourhood, close to the College. They always asked me if I was lost and I’d say no, I’m a student at Muhlenberg. This happened for weeks. Eventually, they stopped hassling me, having made their point, which was that I shouldn’t get too comfortable in a white neighbourhood. It was my first real taste of the social norms which defined segregation and racism. There’s a term for that now – it’s called racial profiling.
Then came the big kahuna: Harvard University. I never dreamed I would get in and my family were both astounded and hugely proud when I did. The one-year master’s programme passed in a blur. In my 10 courses across two semesters, I earned nine A’s and one B+, then accepted an offer from the University of Pittsburgh to study for a doctorate in clinical psychology.
Thirteen years into my marriage, I realised I was living as an impostor. The irony of being a clinical psychologist who worked with people trying to figure themselves out while actively hiding being gay, wasn’t lost on me. And, on top of all that, I’d joined the military as an Air Force officer, working for an employer who didn’t hire openly gay people because it would “denigrate morale.” Eventually, I saw this crazy fallacy for what it was and worked up the nerve to sit down with my wife Kim for a tough, long overdue conversation. That decision to own who I was would kick off the second part of my life – being an openly gay man.
After I came out to Kim, but before I left the Air Force, I was selected by my commander to serve on the famous ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ working group, commissioned by the Clinton administration in early 1993. Bill Clinton ran on the promise that he would overturn the ban on gays serving openly in the military. Little did he know it wouldn’t be as easy as he thought, so the compromise solution – after nearly six months of back room deals between the White House, Pentagon and Congress – was a policy called ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ The essence of the policy was: You can be gay in the military as long as you don’t talk about it or act on it. Given that outed gay soldiers four decades earlier were imprisoned for being gay, this was considered progress in 1993, although not by today’s standards.
I was honoured to serve on that commission, although I lived in constant fear of being thrown out of the military with a dishonourable discharge if I outed myself during the process. Then, I chose safety over authenticity, as there were too many other lives implicated in my struggle to find and define myself.
My corporate life began when I left the Air Force. Chemical and oil company Amoco provided me with a comfortable landing pad, enabling me to provide for Kim and my two daughters while I got to grips with the business world. I used my background as a clinical psychologist and military officer to establish credibility as an expert on leadership development, and my salary doubled overnight. Five years later, I found myself negotiating with Prudential Financial for nearly three times my starting Amoco salary and ended up running their Executive Learning Centre in Connecticut.
The opportunity with Prudential enabled me to fulfil a life-long dream to live in Manhattan. I lived on the 23rd floor of a beautiful apartment tower at the intersection of 42nd Street and the Hudson River. I was there when 9/11 happened and witnessed it become a changed city, in a changed world. My apartment building was about three miles north of Ground Zero. I kept my venetian blinds closed in my living room for weeks after that day, as the smoke from the disaster zone was unrelenting.
By the following year, I’d grown tired of Manhattan. It was beginning to feel like it was pulsating too vigorously or maybe I was just slowing down. In March of that year, I was called by an Australian headhunter who told me Fonterra were recruiting for a new human talent director in New Zealand.
During my interview, one of their execs described the country as the “last bus stop on the planet”. Well, that remoteness has done wonders in helping to open my eyes, and my heart, to new ways of thinking about our very diverse world. I find Kiwis to be far more relaxed around things that are lines in the sand for many Americans — especially when it comes to politics and religion. Across America’s conservative heartland, there are people who believe, even if subliminally, that God is a white, gun-toting, conservative male who inherently favours the States.
I became a New Zealand citizen in 2008. I also started writing books and believe I earned the street creds to write about impostor syndrome, having lived a good deal of my life behind a mask. Since claiming New Zealand as my home, I have come full circle and found my purpose. The experiences which got me here led me directly to the path I’m now on: To help people live healthier, happier, more authentic lives.
EM-PA-THY: The Human Side of Leadership by Harold Hillman (Bateman Books, $29.95) is available in bookstores nationwide.