After St. Petersburg's C1 Financial CEO Trevor Burgess rang the opening bell and posed outside the New York Stock Exchange with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders on Aug. 14 to celebrate his banking company's first day of trading, he received a message from Jason Grenfell-Gardner, the chief executive of drug company IGI Laboratories:
"And then there were two."
As far as is known, Burgess and Grenfell-Gardner are the only publicly gay chief executives of publicly traded American corporations. Both said they weren't aware of any others.
There have long been gay chief executives at U.S. corporations, including some who lead relatively open lives. How many remains a subject of speculation.
Burgess, 41, never expected his sexuality to be an issue. "I've always believed people should accept me for who I am, and I'm not going to apologize for that," he said. "Being gay is just a fact, like height, or eye color."
Older corporate executives often felt compelled to be far more cautious, and for good reason. Homosexuality was long deemed a psychiatric disorder, and in many places, homosexual acts were crimes.
Earlier in his career, Burgess spent 10 years as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley. He said he was openly gay, and the subject was never mentioned and posed no obstacles to advancement. "I realized there were plenty of gay executives there," he said. "They just weren't out. People would ask them if they were married, and they'd say, 'I'm married to my job.' Everyone knew they were gay, but it was never acknowledged. The whole concept of the closet was a new phenomenon to me. I saw how it affected all aspects of their lives. That never appealed to me."
That's not to say that he has not experienced discrimination. When Burgess was a student at Dartmouth College in the early 1990s, a fraternity brother wrote an article in the conservative Dartmouth Review that referred to Burgess with an anti-gay slur. "Within one week, I resigned from my fraternity and became president of the gay and lesbian student association," Burgess recalled.
Burgess met his husband, Gary Hess, 18 years ago, when he lived in Boston. They married in Massachusetts in 2008. The two have a daughter, Logan, who is 5. "I've had the benefit of a comfort structure that has supported me in my work," Burgess said.
Neither Burgess nor Grenfell-Gardner of IGI Labs would probably be in the public eye now had Burgess not approached Todd Sears, the founder of Out Leadership, on the eve of the initial public offering of C1 Financial, the parent company of C1 Bank.
Several of Burgess' friends pointed out that once his bank went public, he'd be one of the first publicly gay CEOs. "I didn't really think it was a story," he said. "But I did feel a sense of obligation to the generation behind me. We have good gay role models now in professional basketball and football, but there just weren't many in business. I thought if I could be helpful to somebody, that would be great."
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After an article about his bank holding company going public appeared in the New York Times, Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the successful Supreme Court challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, sent Burgess her congratulations. "That meant a lot to me," he said. "She's the real hero. I'm just a guy running a bank."