Sally Susman: Reflections On Fifty Years of Pride

Fifty years ago, the Stonewall uprising began when a transgender woman of color tossed a garbage can through a plate glass window of the Greenwich Village bar in response to police brutality, setting off five nights of rioting that galvanized the gay rights movement.

When a young woman from the Midwest came out to her family over a decade later, many attitudes hadn’t changed. Her influential father worried that she would never have a career, spouse, or family of her own—an appraisal that set in motion “a life plan I didn’t even realize was a life plan. But I wasn’t going to be held back,” says Sally Susman, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer.

History affirms she has defied each of her father’s fears. In a big way.

After decades of organizing and activism, the movement sparked by that broken window at Stonewall has helped crack the glass ceiling that LGBTQ people faced in government, society, and the boardroom.

Sally, who was recently named the top in-house PR person of the last 20 years by PRWeek, sat down with us to reflect on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and its impact on the industry and her career.

MP: Has your understanding of Stonewall changed over the years? 
My view of Stonewall—the concept, the moment, the place—has evolved over the decades with increasingly positive feelings. When I first moved to New York in 1990, I went to Christopher Street to see Stonewall itself. It seemed a bit foreboding. I wasn’t sure how I related to those moments of rebellion. But over the years, I have become more grateful to the people who came before me and more impressed by their bravery, which was a hundred times our bravery. Stonewall is a concept and a word that continues to take on new luster in my mind and I’m so happy that we’re celebrating 50 years of gay pride.

MP: You’ve always been very open about who you are. Did you have a role model for how to be an out woman in business?
I had what I call “role friends.” I came out in the early ‘80s in Washington, D.C., with friends like [Ad Council President and CEO] Lisa Sherman and Hilary Rosen. We were all coming out at the same time. We had each other for support. If someone’s family was unable to accept them, one of us would take them home for holidays. If someone was fearful about a situation at work, we would counsel each other. We were activists and we wanted to change the world. We’d stay up all night dreaming of things that seemed impossible at the time. Things like marriage and children. This was the creation of what I call my posse—a strong group of friends who feel like family.

MP: How has the Corporate Affairs practice impacted the fight for equality and human rights?
The various elements of Corporate Affairs (public relations, government relations, corporate social responsibility and philanthropy) have come together over the last several decades to create powerful departments within companies. Departments that focus on bridge-building between the company and people in the humanitarian space: employees, environmentalists and, for Pfizer, patients.

One of my earliest memories of activism, humanitarian work and communications coming together, was in the mid-80s when young men were contracting a mysterious illness, just as people were starting to come out of the closet. I was living in Washington, D.C., and had recently graduated from college. We were scared. Many of these sick, young men would go to the Whitman Walker clinic because their family doctors wouldn’t see them, and many subsequently passed away from AIDS.

I was so impressed by the strength of the community and their ability to articulate a message and advocate for themselves. They came out of the shadows and made a national campaign for saving their own lives. “Silence = Death” was one of the most brilliant pieces of branding I’ve ever seen. I think it’s what prompted me to begin linking communication, action and change.

MP: What challenges facing this generation of young people concern you most?
This generation appears to be suffering from an epidemic of anxiety. They are unable to cope and feel as if they’re drowning. And it’s a tough economy. I was very lucky. When I graduated from college the economy was good and the expectation was you’d graduate and you’d find an entry-level job. Now the struggle for young people in this economy is intense, and more and more people can’t make the break from home and are living with their families. I think these two things come together to make this a difficult time for young people.

MP: You’ve recently stepped into a leadership position on the board of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Will you tell us about your involvement?
I first became involved with the IRC because Tom Schick, my former boss at American Express, encouraged me to get involved. I don’t have a personal refugee past—although we all do at some level—but it wasn’t part of my family narrative. I joined the IRC along with several other organizations, but one by one the other causes have fallen away while the IRC has become closer and closer to my heart.

The IRC was founded by Albert Einstein after WWII because of the fate of people forced from their homes with nowhere to land. And we are seeing it again. I have a lot of respect for CEO David Miliband and in his book he says, “When we save the refugee, we are saving ourselves.” If we don’t reach out our hands to help, what does that say about who we are? And these people are not victims. They’ve moved to save their families, fleeing violence, and war. They’re actually heroes.

That’s how I feel about the LGBTQ community as well. We’ve risked everything—our families, our futures—and landed on our feet. And we are stronger and purpose driven because of it