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Profiles in Pride: Michelle Chen’s journey to live more freely in her own skin

Surrounded for the first time by a supportive culture and a community of LGBTQ+ friends, this software engineer is unlocking the key to self-acceptance

By Candace Whitney-Morris

Michelle Chen knew she was gay long before she came out. Growing up, she found it hard enough to admit to herself, let alone to say it out loud for others.

In high school, people would tease her with questions like, “Are you sure you’re straight?” Ever since grade school when she had to defend her choice to wear “boy’s” clothes and keep her hair short, she had to be quick on her toes, ready with reassurances. She’d reply, “Oh yeah, I’m straight! I have a crush on so-and-so. Don’t worry.”

Chen wasn’t ready to come out in high school, and the small town she grew up in wasn’t ready for her to come out, either. Neither were her traditional, Chinese parents.

“Any sexuality that isn’t straight is not accepted at all,” Chen explained of her family’s beliefs. “You have to conform to what everyone else looks like. You have to find a husband, have kids. That’s just your purpose.

“Even my parents believed that female children were lesser than male children. Navigating that space was really difficult for me growing up, because not only were they like, ‘Oh you have to have kids,’ but they were like, ‘You have to marry a Chinese man.’”

Chen decided to take her time before telling them that she was gay; she’d move away and get a job first.

In the meantime, the hiding was taking its toll: deep down Chen grew full of self-loathing, hating that she couldn’t conform to people’s expectations and suspicious that something was wrong with her.

The first taste of self-acceptance came during college where she met and befriended other lesbians. One summer, she traveled to New York City and experienced her first Pride parade.

“I saw everyone dressed however they wanted to dress; no one felt ashamed of anything,” she said. “I knew right then that I wanted to live my life this way, that I wanted to be as happy as these people.”

A fellow college student encouraged Chen to think about interning at Microsoft and then referred her and helped coach her through the interview process. The same year that Chen decided to come out, she got the internship and headed to Seattle for the summer.

“I was so excited, partly because I knew Seattle was super gay,” she said, laughing. She hoped that meant she could live more out in the open.

“When I came to Microsoft, I felt like I had found my place,” she said. Right away, Chen joined GLEAM, the LGBTQ+ employee resource group at Microsoft that, among other things, provides mentorship to new interns who identify as LGBTQ+.

She interned again the next summer, and now one year later, she works at Microsoft as a software engineer. Although Chen didn’t originally know anyone in Seattle, she quickly made friends through GLEAM and in her neighborhood of Capitol Hill. “Now, almost all my friends are queer, and I see most of them every day.”

“When I came to Microsoft, I felt like I had found my place.”

The same year she started at Microsoft, she decided it was time to come out to her mother. As she dialed the phone, she gave herself a pep talk: “OK, Michelle, now’s the time. You are going to come out.”

Chen’s mom answered with, “I heard you got a septum ring.”

Michelle ChenTaken off guard, Chen said, “What? Who told you that? How do you know these things?”

Her mom responded that she had her sources. “There are people in this town that tell me things.”

Chen was so frustrated that she just blurted out, “Oh, did they tell you I’m gay, too?”

“Wait, what?” her mom said, shocked. It took a minute for the news to sink in.

Chen recalled, laughing, “I mean, it was kind of nice because it took the focus off the septum ring.”

But then her mother said something Chen will never forget: “Oh, no, no, no. You should change. I can’t believe it. This must’ve been something I did wrong.”

Although Chen was not expecting an approving response, “it was still pretty shocking to hear from my own mother,” she said.

It has been a few months since that phone call, and while Chen and her mother maintain contact, she told her mom that she can’t visit her in Seattle until she’s comfortable with her daughter’s sexual orientation.

“It’s not something I can just sweep under the rug anymore,” she said. “I’d rather be happy than hide my true self.”

Chen doesn’t regret waiting to tell her parents, and she hopes to encourage others to take their time.

“I had to get outside of my small town and see that being LGBTQ+ is not a bad thing. It’s not shameful. There’s nothing wrong with dressing the way that you want to dress.

“There’s nothing wrong with who you are.”

Meet more Microsoft employees who are changing hearts and minds and advancing human rights.
https://news.microsoft.com/life/topic/pride/

See how Microsoft is celebrating Pride 2018 and how you can be an ally.
https://www.microsoft.com/pride/

Learn how Microsoft and its LGBTQ+ employees push for change across borders.
https://news.microsoft.com/life/pride/

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Not a cliché: when being ‘out and proud’ is a call to action

One of Microsoft’s directors of government affairs kept his authentic self quiet and closed off for too long. Now, he’s working to make that path easier and safer for fellow LGBTQ+ people.

By Candace Whitney-Morris

John Galligan spent half of his adult life as a closeted gay man, a time he describes as not truly living. In fact, he said he didn’t start to live his life until his early thirties.

“I was trying to be something I wasn’t,” he said. “And that slow release of power and energy, it’s exhausting and was always affecting my work. Being very good at acting like something I wasn’t . . . it’s the art that I’d perfected.”

That all changed when Galligan met his partner, now husband, 20 years ago, who helped him accept who he was, to live as a gay man proudly, and to even confront some of his own prejudices about what he assumed people could or couldn’t handle. “I thought I was protecting people by not confronting them with who I was,” he said. “I was wrong.”

The past two decades with his husband have been a journey not only of love and fun, he said, but also in helping Galligan be more accepting of his own sexuality, who he is, and who he could become.

Galligan is now out and active in his community. He’s also a senior director for Microsoft’s global government affairs team, working to protect and advance the rights of all people, including those who are LGBTQ+ and who don’t feel safe or welcome.

Across the globe, the cultural views and tolerance around being gay still vary widely. Galligan’s team focuses in part on making sure LGBTQ+ employees are safe and supported within the walls of their workplace wherever they live.

“Microsoft can be a safe place for people to bring their authentic self, even if the outside world is hostile to them, even if their friends and family might not accept them,” he said. “They can come to a place that will accept them not just for who they are but also for who they can be.”

“I thought I was protecting people by not confronting them with who I was. I was wrong.”

Because Galligan knows what it’s like to not live his truth at work, he’s determined to help Microsoft support the rights of its employees and live up to its values of empowering every person on the planet—even when the outside culture is slow to adapt and when equality for LGBTQ+ people is lacking.

Before moving to Seattle, Galligan and his partner lived in Singapore, where there are still laws criminalizing homosexuality. And while these laws are rarely enforced, he did feel the discomfort of living in ambiguity. “The middle path is in some ways the most uncomfortable because it doesn’t challenge you to actually go out and confront systemic intolerance.”

That’s why it’s important to him that he doesn’t get too comfortable—that he remembers what some LGBTQ+ people and employees face and does what he can to help. Working in a company where the culture is attuned to human rights near and far reminds him of what inclusion feels like and what to strive for in his advocacy.

“Microsoft can be a safe place for people to bring their authentic self. They can come to a place that will accept them not just for who they are but also for who they can be.”

“I’ve never felt, in any way, excluded [at Microsoft]. I think that’s a tribute to the company, but I also think that’s a tribute to the tens of thousands of people who continue to move the company increasingly toward a diverse and inclusive environment.”

Galligan reminds himself all the time that there’s still so much to fight against. But when feelings of powerlessness threaten to steal momentum, he focuses on the power of individual contribution.

“I think the most weak and ineffectual thing we can do is to not think about what can be done on an individual level. I may not be able to change laws, but I can be proud of who I am and show others to be proud of who they are.”

He hopes that being a visible, comfortable, and confident gay man will inspire others to also be themselves and to take up the fight, because “being out and proud is not a cliché,” he said. “It’s a call to action.”

“Everyone can make a contribution, even if that contribution is to be yourself and use whatever influence you have to make the world and workplace more inclusive, more diverse, and more welcoming for everyone.”

Meet more Microsoft employees who are changing hearts and minds and advancing human rights.
https://news.microsoft.com/life/topic/pride/

See how Microsoft is celebrating Pride 2018 and how you an be an ally.
https://www.microsoft.com/pride

Learn how Microsoft and its LGBTQ+ employees push for change across borders.
https://news.microsoft.com/life/pride/

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How Microsoft and its LGBTQ+ employees push for change across borders

It lends support when possible through empowering employees such as Cathy Balcer, GLEAM chapter lead in Singapore, who joined with other companies to promote “freedom to love” nights all over the city; Andrea Llamas, GLEAM lead in Mexico, who helped Microsoft officially join a local network of companies that are LGBTQ+ friendly; and Nidhi Singh, Roland White, Bibaswan Dash, and Mike Emery, who helped launched the first GLEAM chapter in India, which garnered 100 employee members in its first week.

Aside from pushing for social change and increased protections, around the globe, Microsoft is also working to drive inclusion in the technology industry for all, including people who are LGBTQ+.

Women account for 24 percent of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs, according to the Economics and Statistics Administration’s 2017 numbers.

Chen was initially worried that she would have be closeted to survive a corporate work environment. But when her teammates showed genuine interest in her life and weren’t at all bothered by her sexuality, she decided she was never going to hide her real self for a job again.

“If you’re LGBT and minority, you’re in a double bind. If you’re in a minority and LGBT and a woman, you’re in a triple bind,” said Rochelle Diamond, chair of the board of directors of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals.

That’s why Microsoft supports organizations like Out Leadership, which works to fill more C-suite level jobs with LGBTQ+ talent. Microsoft employees attend events like the Lesbians Who Tech summit, which connects lesbians and helps them build a network of colleagues, associates, and friends in the industry in addition to championing the representation of out lesbian women in the field.

It was that very summit helped spark Chen’s own personal awakening.

“Shortly after I started, I was out to my immediate team and manager, but I was living as a software engineer who also happened to be gay,” said Chen. “It wasn’t a part of who I was at work, just kind of like a fun fact about me.”

Chen had heard about the Lesbians Who Tech summit and wanted to check it out. She was trepidatious when she asked her manager, unsure how taking time off work solely to understand how what it means to be gay in the workplace might be perceived. To her delight, her manager was all in.

“My being queer was seen by management as important and worth the funding to explore what that meant for me,” she said.

When Chen started at Microsoft as an intern, she initially worried that she would have be closeted to survive a corporate work environment. But when her teammates showed genuine interest in her life and weren’t at all bothered by her sexuality, Chen decided she was never going to hide her real self for a job again.

“Now, I try to include this perspective in every discussion I have. I want to be the representation that I was so sorely missing growing up.”