A recently out queer person shares a parting note of gratitude to the school.
I recently met Stever Robbins (MBA ’91), a serial entrepreneur, executive coach, and productivity expert. He was potentially the only openly gay student in his class at HBS. While serving as the editor of the Harbus, he wrote a series of anonymous articles detailing his experience of being gay at what was a far more conservative school at the time. He signed off the last article in this series with his name, essentially coming out to the whole school. Robbins was a one-person PRIDE club and paved the way for other queer people to find community when they first entered the school. Jonathan Rotenberg (MBA ’92) relayed as much while speaking at the ‘Evolution of Pride at HBS’ panel on campus in early April. This panel consisted of six HBS alumni, all queer, who outlined their journeys through the two years of HBS and shone light on an era in not-so-distant history when queer rights—my rights—were not as matter-of-fact as they are now, even though there is still a long way to go.
While we no longer run the risk of being fired by our employers for our sexual orientation or even contracting a fatal disease with our lifestyles, it was essential that HBS PRIDE had the opportunity to listen to these accounts of people who were in our shoes not long ago. Most of the people on this panel were also administrators of the PRIDE club during their time at HBS. They were the beacon for people in my community to find solidarity. They locked horns with the school for the recognition and protection of queer people on campus, facing an overwhelming tide of ignorance and resistance. It is thanks to their struggles that HBS PRIDE is what it is today, and people like me can find a vibrant community of queerfolk.
I arrived at HBS having spent all 27 years of my life in India without ever meeting a queer person who was out and proud. While I was acquainted with a gay student in my undergrad, and I made friends with other gay men online, I never had queer friends. I did not see a thriving queer life up close and never had the comfort of knowing that such a life was possible for me. The lack of role models and community drove me so far into the closet that I did not recognize I was in one. I never identified as anything but straight, and it was only at 25 years of age that I began to question my sexual identity. Even then, I privately identified as bisexual, but I could never confide in anyone to admit this. HBS PRIDE opened up a whole new world for me. Not only was I among queer people, but I could also see them living full, happy lives. I saw queer people being confident and thriving in their careers and personal lives. Even though I was private about my own identity, I felt a sense of belonging that I had never experienced before. So much so that I had a peculiar imposter syndrome, feeling like I was enjoying the benefits reserved for the queer community while not having faced any of the public trials and tribulations. However, it didn’t last long.
Towards the end of the RC year, I came out, first to myself and then to the world. Even though I fell short of the elegance with which Robbins owned his truth, I raised many eyebrows with my MyTake. This past year has been a whirlwind of emotions, both challenging and exhilarating. I was met with nothing but love from my friends, colleagues, and the HBS community. PRIDE re-welcomed me with open arms, and I quickly found myself engaging with everything PRIDE to the best of my capacity. However, I also felt crippled with anxiety before coming out to my family. Fortunately, I’m happy to report that all is well.
As I write this final piece for The Harbus, I feel compelled to express my deep appreciation to HBS, PRIDE, and the individuals who fought tirelessly for my rights not only at this school but also around the world. The progress made by queer individuals in some parts of the world gives me hope and fills me with gratitude. It is thanks to the bravery and perseverance of those who stood up against oppression that I am able to live my life fully and authentically today. In particular, trans and gender-non-conforming individuals have led the charge for queer rights in both the US and India, and continue to do so.
Despite the progress made by queer individuals in some parts of the world, there are still many places where equality is a distant dream. In these places, countless individuals do not recognize their own queerness because they do not see it reflected in the world around them. While I have been fortunate to come to a country where my rights are recognized and respected, I know there is still much work to be done, particularly in the country I call home.
As I prepare to leave HBS, I am filled with a sense of purpose and a desire to make life easier for queer people everywhere. I am excited to take what I have learned here and apply it to my future endeavors, working towards a world where everyone is able to live their truth without fear of discrimination or persecution. For nobody’s free until everybody’s free.
Sapan Shah (MBA ’23) hails from India. Before HBS, he worked in consumer goods and non-profit healthcare, and during the latter had been vital in the implementation of India’s HIV/AIDS control strategy.