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GLAAD CEO on why she put off coming out at work: ‘There were no lesbians who had big careers’

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

Sarah Kate Ellis was named President and CEO of GLAAD, the world's largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, in early 2014 after a successful career as a media executive at top magazine brands such as Real Simple, InStyle and Vogue.

Though Ellis, 49, is now a happily married mother of two, who fights for LGBTQ+ rights, it took her a long time to come out at work during the late '90s and early 2000s.

"I wanted to succeed," Ellis tells CNBC Make It. "And I felt that once I came out at work, I wouldn't be known for my work; I would be known for my identity. And that's what stalled me for so long."

According to a new LinkedIn survey, nearly a quarter of LGBTQ+ professionals in the U.S. hide their lives at work, forgoing pictures of loved ones on their desks and avoiding chats about weekend plans. All the same tactics Ellis says she used for years.

But over time, the agony of hiding herself and lying to others became too much. Ellis blurted out at a work dinner that she had a girlfriend.

"My career literally took off after that," she says.

Here, Ellis talks about growing up, coming out and how telling her truth ultimately lead her to success.

On being different growing up: 'It never occurred to me that I was gay'

I grew up on Staten Island. I never fit in.

In high school when all of my girlfriends were boy crazy, I really could not care less. But it never occurred to me that I was gay.

I didn't even know there was another option. I had no exposure to LGBTQ people or, specifically lesbians. I didn't know any lesbians. They weren't on TV.

Then it was in college that I realized, oh, wait, no wonder I wasn't boy crazy — I wasn't interested in boys. And even when I met some women who identified as lesbians, it didn't occur to me that I was. I was so far removed from it that it took a couple of years to finally figure it out.

On coming out: Dad asked, mom cried

My father is the one who actually asked me if I was gay because I hadn't been dating anyone. But I did have quite a few women who were in and out of my life. I said, "yes." I stopped denying it.

Oftentimes it is such a relief not to be hiding anymore. Then the fear of god strikes you, like, what's on the line and what you can lose.

My father is very logical and practical and he was like, I figured you were and you're going have to tell your mother.

My mom cried. They didn't have a lot of role models at that time. It took less than a year for them to come around and now they are my biggest fans and supporters.

On her fears about coming out at work: 'There were no lesbians who had big careers'

To me, what [being lesbian] meant was there was no future for me [professionally]. I had big dreams of having a big corporate job and a corner office and working my way up and building something amazing. I didn't know what that was going to be, [but] being a lesbian did not fit into that, because you didn't see that.

There were no lesbians who had big careers — there were but we just didn't know about them because they weren't visible. So it didn't fit into the narrative that I wanted to write for myself.

If you're a lesbian, you live alone; you don't have children; you're secretive and hiding — there were all these negative connotations attached with who I was becoming, which didn't line up with how I felt. It was a big time for me of reconciling that and figuring that out.

On coming out at work: 'It was the best decision I made'

I knew that I could not be out at work. It was not even a question for me. There was a lot of the regular lying, changing of pronouns or avoiding [talking about] what I did that weekend.

I worked on the business side of magazines [at Conde Nast] and then I went to Time Inc. At Time Inc. I remember walking in on my first day and there was a flyer hanging in the lobby that said, "Out at Time Inc." I was like, wow, this is amazing. I'd never seen anything like that.

Definitely at Conde it was okay to be a gay man, but being a lesbian made you more of a predator than anything. It was mostly a straight white, female business, except for the publishers were all-male white men.

So [seeing that at Time Inc.] was invigorating, but I wasn't ready to come out — working at InStyle [then published by Time Inc.] and in fashion and beauty was not a place for a lesbian, quite honestly.

Then I went to Real Simple [then published by Time, Inc.] in October of 2001, it was right after 9/11 and I had a moment where I decided that I really couldn't advance in my career unless I was being truthful. Because how can you move into leadership, if you are not being authentic? No one will trust you, was my thought on this.

So there was a dinner and someone asked me if I had a boyfriend. It was like from the movies: We're at this big dinner table and I said, "No, I actually have a girlfriend and her name is blah, blah, blah." I was trying to stay really calm, cool and collected, but I felt like my entire face turned red.

I thought I had just ended my career. But nobody missed a beat.

Now, that's not to say that there weren't dust-ups later on where people said inappropriate things because of a lack of education and awareness. But I have to say, it was the best decision I made because it opened up who I was and how I presented myself in the world.

I was bringing all of me to my work and not hiding any part. It takes a lot of brain capacity to hide who you are.

[Conde Nast did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment. Meredith Corp., which acquired Time Inc. in 2018, declined to comment.]

On the fashion world: 'It was a really interesting place to be a lesbian'

In 1997, Ellen [DeGeneres] came out and that was a big pivotal moment. That helped us a lot. It was a watershed moment in visibility. But it also had an enormous backlash.

In fashion, in home furnishings, and all of those creative fields, there was an openness to gay men because they were fashion designers. But lesbians had this sort of reputation or stereotype of everything that is like anti-fashion and anti-beauty. So it was a really interesting place to be a lesbian because you weren't really supposed to exist in that space because of the tropes that were tied to how you identify.

Also in those days it was so highly sexualized who you were as a gay man or lesbian. I think that people thought, "Oh my God, is she going to hit on me in the bathroom?" People didn't understand that it doesn't mean that every woman is attractive, it just means that I am attracted to women. I think that was confusing for people because it was a predominantly female employee base.

On how she got through it: 'Having a sense of humor and working really hard'

It's two things, I think: It was having a sense of humor and working really hard.

I wanted to prove myself through my work. I really poured myself into the work and making sure that I was the best at what I was doing.

I [also] befriended people. I wanted people to like me. I know the power of meeting people and knowing people and empathy. If people knew me, they couldn't hate me when they found out I was gay.

They might say something inappropriate, because [things] were different then. We weren't as educated and progressive as we are now. I could help them understand what it was like to be me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that GLAAD dropped Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation as its organziational name. It did so in 2013 to show solidarity with bisexual and transgender community members.

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