Stella Hess: My Personal Call to Duty

by Stella Hess, Treasurer of The Dallas Way

The year is 1982; I am 32 years old and working as a closeted GAY woman in corporate American.  Closeted for two main reasons: first, I am the daughter of a fundamental, hellfire and brimstone Baptist minister; and, second I am very ambitious and want to move up in my career,  and I am deathly afraid I will be fired if anyone finds out I am a lesbian.  Working as an AVP in a local mortgage servicing company that is owned by a Bank, the environment is very conservative and dominated by straight white men.  Hence my fear of termination or career suicide.

I am contacted by a head hunter for a job within another mortgage servicing company for that next level job that I have been aspiring towards.  I interview, everything goes smashingly and I literally have an offer from the company within an hour.  I accept the next day, resign my current job with the standard two week notice.

Two weeks later, on my last day of employment with my current employer, the phone rings and it is the head hunter who hooked me up with my soon to be new employer.  The guy sounds really stressed and says the president and the current servicing manager have a few follow up questions and want to know if I can be in their office at noon.  I explain that I cannot but can be there sometime later that afternoon.  I ask if everything is ok and am assured it is, just some routine questions.  I have my doubts and instantly call my current partner to tell her that something very strange is up and I am not feeling good about the routine question meeting but will keep her posted.

I arrive later that day at my soon to be employer after saying all my goodbyes before I left.  I am not greeted with the same welcome I received when I interviewed but I am ushered into a conference room that was NO doubt sterilized before and after the meeting. I could see my soon to be boss, who did not acknowledge me until the president joined her and they both entered the conference room.  No niceties, just an immediate interrogation starting with the words; “we have recently learned that you are a lesbian, can you please confirm.”  I opted not to confirm; however, the interrogation continued where it  was explained that I could NOT possibly manage 23 women in corporate banking as a lesbian.  I was dismissed with a separation document to sign where they wanted me to confirm said lesbianism and admit I could NOT manage said women and in return they would pay me a small token for my time.

I did not sign the document and found myself living my worst dreaded nightmare and I was NOT even OUT.  I knew I had to do something; however since my father was the hellfire and brimstone Baptist minister I knew I could not fight this fight in public, as so many other brave souls were doing at the time.  Being a closeted gay person at the time, I did not have a large support group or known resources to lean upon.  So as I was working through this adventure (nightmare at the time) I needed to find a way to make a difference so this would NOT happen to anyone else in the future.  But how?

Luckily my path crossed with Kathy Hewitt’s and she introduced me to the Black Tie Dinner where I volunteered and later joined the board for many years.  I served as BTD Treasurer for most of those years with the exception of two years where I served as Co-Chair.  Each year while on the board our dinner grew and grew in numbers as did our fund raising and in return our distributions to the GLBT community in the DFW area.  As the treasurer of this great organization I was very proud that while on the board our cost of fundraising never exceeded 30%.

While on the BTD Board, I also had the good fortune to work with the Human Rights Campaign and the local chapter of the Federal Club.  After leaving the BTD I joined the Dallas HRC Steering Committee as well as served on the Federal Club board where I co-chaired for two years.  Our goal within the Federal Club was to raise money and support for HRC and its mission. I was very drawn to one of their goals: to ensure workplace equality and their corporate score card.

My story has a happy ending, as I was unemployed for less than one week and returned to the company I had left only after I told them exactly what happened and why I had left.  I returned to a better job and better pay and was OUT and Proud.  My long term career has also been very rewarding and fulfilling.  Over the years I do believe this experience helped make me a more empathetic and truly caring boss.  I have been able to mentor younger gay folks through their journey and help them come out at work and be proud of who they are.  I have counseled many more straight folks and have shared my story with them to ensure they are more empathetic as they travel through corporate America.

After some time in volunteer retirement one of my mentors, Buddy Mullino asked me to join the board as treasurer of The Dallas Way where I proudly serve today with the mission to help document and preserve other stories like my own for future generations to draw upon.

Thank you for reading my story!