In June, Jennifer Petter, the founder and chief scientific officer of biotech startup Arrakis Therapeutics, got an e-mail from a stranger. His name was Ramsey Johnson, a biotech veteran who works in clinical operations at Boston startup Phoenix Tissue Repair.
Johnson was writing about OUTBio, a networking organization for LGBTQ members of the biopharma community. He has worked arduously in his spare time to build the group, from scratch, over the last three years. He’d just read a blog post about how Petter, formerly Russ Petter, had announced her transition. Johnson wanted to get Petter involved in his organization.
“She is definitely the most ‘out’ biotech executive that I know of,” Johnson says.
Petter became a member of Boston-based OUTBio, and she and Johnson plan to meet for lunch in August. Reaching out to a C-level leader was part of Johnson’s effort to expand the reach and impact of his organization. Since it started in 2015 as an informal meeting of 11 people, OUTBio has built a membership roll of about 500, all without a website. It has grown just through word of mouth, emails, and Facebook and LinkedIn pages. It now puts on monthly networking events hosted by Boston-area biopharma firms big and small. It appears to be the only group of its kind, and size, in the country (it is also a finalist in the Commitment to Diversity category of the 2018 Xconomy Awards).
“OUTBio provides a validating space for a lot of people,” says Aaron Edwards, a former Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE) employee who was one of OUTBio’s first members. “There’s something very comforting about seeing it in action.”
The organization now sits at a critical crossroads. Johnson says OUTBio could soon incorporate as a nonprofit, and its mission could grow, but OUTBio leaders aren’t yet sure what that expanded mission should include. Should it raise more money to support the LGBTQ community in other ways? Be more of an advocacy group? These ideas are all on the table. Whatever the direction the group goes in, OUTBio wants to move carefully to make sure it listens to its growing membership.
“There’s no reason to take that step further and make it an organization that no one wants to be involved with,” Edwards says.
There is no question that progress has been made over the past decade in providing more support for the LGBTQ community through improved government and workplace policies and benefits. But the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation, which has been tracking the climate for LGBTQ workers nationwide for years, outlined some troublingly stagnant statistics in a report published in June. Some 46 percent of LGBTQ employees remain closeted at work compared to 50 percent in a 2008 report. One in five LGBTQ workers say they have been told they need to dress more masculine or feminine, compared to one in 24 non-LGBTQ workers. The broad takeaway, according to HRC deputy director Beck Bailey, is things “haven’t changed much.”
While non-LGBTQ workers polled in the HRC report overwhelmingly support their LGBTQ colleagues coming out, for instance, a majority of them still felt it was unprofessional to talk about sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace. There is no industry-specific data in the report, but people interviewed for this story also reported similar experiences. They said they felt a lot of personal support from their work colleagues, but added that each person’s story is different, and some might hesitate to come out at work, fearful of how it might disrupt relationships with their colleagues or impact their career. A gay ex-colleague once advised Johnson, for example, to stay closeted because “you never want it to be a reason you’re passed over for a promotion.”
“If you are an individual LGBT person you pick up on those kind of nuanced signals,” Bailey says.
Those issues and others can affect each person’s decisions on whether to communicate their sexual orientation or gender identity to work colleagues. But each case is different. Joseph Vogel, an Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY) employee and OUTBio member, says he never came out at work because he was never closeted at work. “It’s not something I try to hide,” he says.
Johnson, meanwhile, struggled coming out professionally, because many of his colleagues knew him as a straight, divorced father of two children. “They had no reason to think of me any other way,” he says. But in 2002, he had a “rip it off like a band-aid” mentality of telling everyone he knew that he was gay, beginning with family and friends, and then colleagues. It was becoming harder and harder to “keep male pronouns out of the conversation” when asked simple questions like what he did last weekend and just didn’t want to live that way anymore. Johnson started with his boss, then close colleagues, and then relied on office “gossip channels” to do the rest. He found only support from those he told.
The situation was different for the 61-year-old Petter. She struggled privately for decades, knowing she was different, yet tried to convince herself it would fade. She got married, had children, pursued her career, but had a breaking point where she realized she had to tell everyone the truth. Though just two syllables, getting the words “I’m trans,” out was tough for Petter the first few times she spoke to someone professionally. As Arrakis’s founder, she was concerned not just for her well-being, but others at the company. A lot of the “perceived value” of a company has to do with the management team, she says, and she didn’t want her transition to compromise that value. Perhaps potential pharma partners and investors might be hesitant to work with Arrakis “because of the unusual events around the CSO, me,” Petter says. She planned meticulously to avoid that. (Her professional transition story is captured in this blog post by Arrakis CEO Michael Gilman.)
“People have transitioned and lost everything. Absolutely everything,” she says. “Their family, their job, their career. So the cost then extends beyond yourself also to other people who are dependent upon you.” But Petter says she has been encouraged to see that people have been largely “unmoved” by her transition or, “if moved, filled with good will.”
Bailey says that social networking and advocacy groups can … Next Page »