Q&A with Ron Gebhardtsbauer, FSA, MAAA, educator at Penn State UniversityAugust/September 2018
Photograph: Jim Harding
Tell us about your background.
Until the late 1970s, being gay or lesbian was something one did not discuss in polite society.1 It was the “love that dare not speak its name.” Newspapers had rules to not print the words “gay” or “lesbian.” In addition, they rarely used the off-putting word “homosexuality,” which focused discussion on sex and not the root issue, love. As a result, people had a poor understanding of gay issues.
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I didn’t think about this issue. Since I didn’t think about girls all the time like my male friends, I thought I might be “math-sexual,” because I loved math so much. Deep down in my subconscious, though, I knew there was something about me that wouldn’t be accepted. So I did what the typical gay kid did: I sublimated it and put all my energy into doing well in school. Maybe it helped me pass my actuarial exams quickly, which made me an officer of the Acacia Mutual Life Insurance Company at such a young age. The exams were my excuse for why I wasn’t dating.
After I got my FSA, I didn’t have any more excuses. The world was opening up, so I finally realized I was gay at age 26. It was a great time for me. My self-realization and self-acceptance made me more human, boosted my confidence and improved my ability to talk in front of groups (important for a job I later got). It also helped me understand the concerns of other marginalized groups, like African-Americans and women, because I quickly found out what it was like to be a second-class citizen. I no longer had the protections I had taken for granted before I realized I was gay.
I became politically active, helped organize the 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, started a gay religious group for Lesbian and Gay United Methodists, and fell in love. Despite doing all of those things, I still wasn’t “out” at my pension consulting firm. I was afraid that if anyone knew, it would ruin my future. Unlike now, the business world back then wasn’t ready to talk about “our issue,” or even say the word “gay.” If we had diversity training, it was about race, ethnicity and gender. Affectional orientation wasn’t even mentioned.
While I was “out” to some friends at work, it wasn’t many, so I was living in two separate worlds. I didn’t know how my firm might react to me being gay or what clients might think. Back then, people didn’t know much about this topic, and fear often wins in those situations. Discrimination was allowed and common at workplaces, and there were no employee benefits for LGB2 couples. In fact, marriage was illegal, and few LGB couples would have been brave enough to request benefits. While we were becoming more hopeful for a better future, things weren’t getting better anytime soon. A backlash was coming from some churches, and I soon learned that my industry—the insurance industry—would discriminate against gay men in the coming decade.
How did the AIDS crisis in the 1980s evoke change in society and the profession?
The 1980s were a difficult time for gay men due to the threat of AIDS. I worried for five years that I had it and would subsequently die a painful, ugly death, abandoned by my family and profession, until a test came out in the mid-80s that said I didn’t have AIDS. While we were glad to see that decade end, a lot of good happened near the end of this time period. Gay men became visible and fought for important changes in drug protocols and for the right to be with their partners at hospitals, church services and funerals.
The insurance industry was legitimately concerned about the financial consequences of AIDS and was accused of redlining, but eventually the industry became educated on the issue. Products such as viaticals were developed to help people with AIDS convert their insurance policies into cash.
How did you come out professionally?
I became more involved in LGBT issues and sent letters to the Society of Actuaries’ (SOA’s) Transactions (the North American Actuarial Journal of the time) and my Penn State alumni magazine. One “outed” me to my profession and the other to my boss (who was a Penn State alum—surprise!). As the head of Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s (PBGC’s) Insurance Operations, he was one of the top civil servants at my agency (and I was his chief actuary). Luckily, things were changing in the world and I was working in the U.S. government, which had become a more tolerant workforce. My boss said he read my letter to the editor in the Penn State alumni magazine, and although we didn’t discuss it, I felt he was telling me that I wouldn’t be fired or demoted for being gay.
NEXT STEPS: HOW TO SUPPORT LGBT INCLUSION
If you’d like to help support the LGBT community, here are some steps you
- Encourage the start of an LGBT group at your company. Or, if one already exists, become an ally.
- Be proud, outspoken and inclusive in your language when discussing diversity by mentioning LGBT words prominently.
- Gently or privately point out when friends unconsciously exhibit bias or microaggression.
- Hire someone at a STEM Career Fair for LGBT students. Yes, they are at many large universities.
- Advertise in LGBT publications that you are interested in hiring LGBT actuaries.
- Join other industries that support nondiscrimination laws in your state and nation.
- Attend receptions and events at SOA meetings such as Session 141: LGBTQ Actuaries and Allies Meeting and Reception at the 2018 SOA Annual Meeting & Exhibit. Listen to the webcast, “Building an Inclusive LGBTQ Workplace.”
- Volunteer to create SOA meeting sessions on LGBT topics, such as the different needs of LGBT consumers.
The profession also was becoming more welcoming. I got the head of the national lesbian and gay organization to speak on AIDS at the SOA Annual Meeting & Exhibit. And at national actuarial meetings, LGB actuaries would find each other and eat lunch together if they felt brave enough to sit with the “out” actuaries. This was the beginning of LGBT affinity groups that would form (particularly at large companies) to support each other.
How did things change in the 1990s?
In the 1990s, a United Methodist bishop friend put me on a nine-member church commission to discuss what the Bible said about LGBT people. In addition, I was hired by the American Academy of Actuaries (the Academy) as the senior pension fellow and spokesperson for the profession. The amazing thing was that they hired me even though they knew I was an “out” gay man. In fact, my partner was with me at all the Pension Committee dinners. I found the profession to be welcoming, and I am proud of that. In addition, by the late ’90s some larger employers were discussing or providing domestic partner benefits.
Is the actuarial profession welcoming today?
Today, things are changing quickly. Not only can we marry the person we love due to a brave Supreme Court, but people are also finding it easier to talk about transgender issues in the media, industry and churches. My husband helped lead our church to publish a mission statement that added a “T” to our Welcoming Statement for LGB people. That was too difficult for our church back in the 1990s, but we were ready for it recently.
I’m proud to say that almost all our industry has nondiscrimination in hiring. Many insurers and other actuarial employers are ranked highly in LGBT publications. The industry and profession have moved from tolerance to acceptance and, in many cases, to support and inclusion. In October 2017 at the SOA Annual Meeting & Exhibit in Boston, a session was given on “How to Build an LGBTQ Inclusive Workplace,” followed by an LGBT and Allies Reception. Individual actuaries, particularly those who know someone who is LGBT, have moved from private acceptance (that they didn’t want others to know) to public acceptance. Perhaps this is because polls show a majority of Americans support marriage equality?
However, it’s still not a level playing field in many states. LGBT people can still be fired from their jobs and kicked out of their apartments due to being LGBT. As we say in Pennsylvania, you can get legally married on Sunday, and fired on Monday. Thus, some couples are still closeted and/or afraid to get married. For that reason, some Pennsylvania employers still provide domestic partner benefits.3
The United States is still not of one mind on this subject. The United Methodist Church still can’t agree on what to do, but the whole Western Jurisdiction of the church welcomes LGBT people. Transgender people in the military who came out under past rules have been scared by recent statements from the White House that they will be kicked out. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Maybe this is the long part, but I do believe that justice will prevail in my lifetime.
What do LGBT students today think about the profession?
My actuarial students at Penn State are way ahead of older generations. Even my conservative religious students are not discriminatory. For example, the Actuarial Science Club elected one of the top students, who was from China, as the club president. I was very proud of them for being inclusive and voting for a non-American, and then found out months later that the president was also gay and that the students knew it at the time they voted. I don’t think they were doing it to make a statement or to be nice—it was a non-issue for them.
LGBT students whom I’ve talked to have researched our industry and say it is welcoming. They only apply to companies that have LGBT Employee Resource Groups, welcoming statements (not just the nondiscrimination boilerplate), and especially those that are on the “Best Places to Work” list provided by the Human Rights Campaign (the national lobbying organization for LGBT people). Students say our profession is welcoming because it is an educated group, and inclusion is correlated with education. My LGBT graduates who are now in jobs confirm that we are a welcoming industry, they have lots of good friendships at work, they trust their bosses, and they don’t see barriers to their success and promotion.
I think my students are right—our education and logic make us more likely to be welcoming. Our employers in academia, governments (that serve the public) and industry (that want customers) are ahead of the politicians and churches who are nervous about losing voters and adherents. In addition, the insurance industry may be more progressive than the rest of the financial industry because we arose out of the mutual benefit societies, which had the mission to help everyone in their communities. It’s in our very nature to find group solutions and pool risks.
On the other hand, there are issues that pull us in the other direction, such as the need to underwrite and charge some people more, but laws can and have prohibited some of that. In the pension area, ERISA’s fiduciary rules and the Code of Professional Conduct4 motivate us to do what is best for our clients or customers. That is VERY different than the caveat emptor (buyer beware) rule on Wall Street. In mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and reinsurance work, I love hearing my former students talk about how they work with their counterparties to make sure each has accurate data on the other party. My students are right to be proud of the actuarial profession they are entering!
- 1. In most ancient civilizations, there were famous gay lovers, such as Alexander the Great and Hephaiston, and lesbian lovers in recent times like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. But after a millennium of persecution, religions considered gay people sinners, the medical profession considered them sick and the law considered them criminals. Gay people were labeled as “sick” until the American Psychological Association (APA) declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1974. That may seem like a long time ago to some, but through the lens of history, it is very recent. With regard to the law, gay men and lesbians can still be discriminated against in housing, employment and even association. Gay people were prohibited from gathering in restaurants, even in New York City, which led to the famous Riots at Stonewall Inn in 1969. ↩
- 2. LGB stands for lesbian, gay and bisexual. Note that the T (for transgender) was too scary for even LGB people to include in their list back then. Sometimes the “B” wasn’t included either because some thought bisexuals were just afraid to be fully out as gay. We now know that is incorrect. ↩
- 3. Some employers withdrew their domestic partner benefits when the Supreme Court allowed marriage equality. ↩
- 4. For example, in the Code of Professional Conduct we have Precept 1 on Integrity, Precept 7 on Acting Fairly Without Conflicts of Interest, Precept 9 on Confidentiality, and Precept 10 on Courtesy and Cooperation. ↩