That crash you may be hearing from Dallas is the sound of a long-taboo topic finally breaking into sunlight. One of the most respected and principled men to ever grace foodservice, Lou Kaucic, is talking from the stage about the personal cost he paid as a closeted gay man in the chain restaurant business.
"I had to face my reality," he said. "I had three things I could do about it. I could outright lie, making up stories about fictional females. I could avoid the issue--'oh, I'm just going to be hanging out with some friends.' Or I could tell the truth. Not an option. I knew I could be fired for being gay."
"I decided I would withhold any information about my personal life," he continued. "I just wanted my closet door shut."
Once, Kaucic recalled, he went to the only gay bar in Wichita, Kan., and bumped into a director from another department of the company where he was working at the time. Both looked at the other in sheer panic. Then they both ran away and never said a word about it afterward.
Another time, Kaucic was driving with his partner of eight years, Bill, when they saw someone from his company in a nearby car. Kaucic shoved his significant-other down in his seat so the co-worker would remain oblivious to the situation. "Billy forgave me," said Kaucic. "But I haven't forgiven myself."
Another time, Kaucic and his partner were at a B&B in the Northeast, sitting in a hot tub. Lou spied the CFO of his then-employer walking toward the tub with his wife. Kaucic sank down into the water and held his breath for as long as he could. When he re-emerged, the CFO had passed.
"Just another vacation day for a man in the closet," remarked Kaucic.
Ten years ago, Kaucic decided to "out myself" as a gay man at a meeting of Applebee's GMs. Afterward, he received a note from a colleague who was there for the revelation. The writer explained that he'd been maintaining the same painful secrecy about his orientation, but no longer. The communication was the man's way of coming out.
There are undoubtedly a slew of executives who are still in the closet, fearful that they could lose their jobs despite their abilities because they don't have the same protections as a hetero job holder.
"I want to introduce you to a term that I don't think many of you know: heterosexual privelege," said Kaucic. "There are privileges you take for granted that aren't shared with my gay brothers and lesbian sisters. I want to give you a few examples:
"Putting photos of our spouses or significant other on our desks at work. Freely embracing our partners or significant others. Freely talking about our musical preferences or cultural interests without fearing ridicule."
In 30 years of attending industry conferences, I've never seen anything as courageous as this. Lou has opened the audience's eyes to a problem that it might not have even noticed. It's there, he suggested. He's aired his personal and obviously painful recollections to raise the industry's sensitivity. Talk about being heroic.
But Lou is not just complaining. As I write this, Kaucic is giving the audience practical suggestions about how to counter hostility toward gay and lesbian associates.
He even painted scenarios and worked out solutions with the audience. In one, a prized customer or key franchisee has just made a disparaging remark about a same-sex couple.
"So what do you do?" asked Kaucic. "Anybody?"
"You tell them, 'it's a shame you feel that way.'"
"Good, good," said Kaucic.
If that doesn't feel comfortable, and you're loath to go that far when you hear a disparaging remark, "just say 'ouch,'" advised Kaucic. "It sends a clear signal."