Self Portrait: Harold Hillman | Press room

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The only black US Air Force officer who was previously closeted gay became a self-help author in town

My life has been an adventure of two halves that have come full circle in my quest to be authentic. The first half of my life was coming of age in the US at a time when being black and gay was an impediment to getting a fair shot at the American dream. Both required resolve and resilience to overcome social barriers and overt prejudice.

I knew I was gay as a teenager, but that world and its challenges seemed a million miles away from the more immediate struggles of growing up black and poor in the tumultuous 1960s. I was 12 years old when Dr. Martin Luther was assassinated. King. Washington DC and 10 other US cities burned down that night. It was then that, for the first time in my life, I realized that the race was going to be something very real for me.

Our neighborhood, in the DC housing projects, had fallen into disrepair at that time. There was a notable increase in fatherless homes, teen pregnancies, and gang violence. I had developed a sense of the relativity of wealth and realized that we were literally on the wrong side of the tracks. My middle school guidance counselor knew I was ambitious and encouraged me to apply to McKinley Technical High School, a magnet school for high-potential students located in a district across town. It meant turning down Spingarn High School, a bottom decile school in a tough environment, where my older brothers went. If you went to McKinley, you were supposed to go to college. From my earliest days, I considered myself college bound, with fantasies of being a doctor and making lots of money. This vision certainly got me through my three years at McKinley and positioned me for college.

Before college, I didn’t know much about white people, other than what I learned from television. I had some white teachers, but I never got to know them. Given my world now, I find it strange that I never had a conversation with a white kid my age before college, even though I came close. My mother was a maid who cleaned white houses in wealthy neighborhoods. Every time my sister or I got sick and couldn’t go to school, my mom would take us to work with her because she couldn’t afford to take a day off. She would sit us in a corner of the room, in these fancy fancy houses, and she would order us not to move. These white people had fancy houses with big yards and, most importantly, CARS! My family never had a car when I was a child.

I entered a real white world when I went to Muhlenberg College. It was 1973 and I was one of only five black students on campus. This number would grow to seven when I graduated four years later. A white student at Muhlenberg called me the “N-word” for the first time in my life; there were also two policemen who stood next to me in his car every time he went for a run in the white neighborhood, near the College. They always asked me if I was lost and I said no, I’m a student at Muhlenberg. This went on for weeks. Eventually, they stopped bothering me, having made their point clear, which was that I shouldn’t feel too comfortable in a white neighborhood. It was my first real contact with the social norms that defined segregation and racism. Now there’s a term for that: it’s called racial profiling.

Then came the great kahuna: Harvard University. I never dreamed I would get in and my family was amazed and so proud when I did. The one-year master’s program passed like a blur. In my 10 courses over two semesters, I got nine A’s and one B+, then accepted an offer from the University of Pittsburgh to study for a doctorate in clinical psychology.

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Thirteen years after my marriage, I realized that I was living as an impostor. The irony of being a clinical psychologist working with people trying to discover themselves while actively hiding homosexuality from him was not lost on me. And on top of all that, I joined the military as an Air Force officer, working for an employer that didn’t hire openly gay people because it would “lower morale.” Eventually, I saw this crazy fallacy for what it was and plucked up the courage to sit down with my wife Kim for a difficult and long-awaited conversation. That decision to acknowledge who I was would start the second part of my life: being an openly gay man.

After speaking with Kim, but before I left the Air Force, I was selected by my commander to be part of the famous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” task force commissioned by the Clinton administration in early 1993. Bill Clinton promised he would overturn a ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military. He didn’t know it wouldn’t be as easy as he thought, so the compromise solution, after nearly six months of secret deals between the White House, the Pentagon, and Congress, was a policy called “Don’t ask, don’t ask.” Say.’ The gist of the policy was: you can be gay in the military as long as you don’t talk about it or act on it. Since gay soldiers reported four decades earlier were jailed for being gay, this was considered progress in 1993, though not by today’s standards.

I was honored to serve on that commission, even though I lived in constant fear of being thrown out of the military with a dishonorable discharge if I reported myself during the process. So, I chose security over authenticity, as there were so many other lives involved in my struggle to find and define myself.

My corporate life began when I left the Air Force. The Amoco oil and chemical company provided me with a comfortable landing pad, allowing me to support Kim and my two daughters while I got acquainted with the business world. I used my experience as a clinical psychologist and military officer to establish credibility as an expert in leadership development, and my salary doubled overnight. Five years later, I found myself dealing with Prudential Financial for almost three times my starting salary from Amoco and ended up running their Center for Executive Learning in Connecticut.

The opportunity with Prudential allowed me to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in Manhattan. She lived on the 23rd floor of a beautiful apartment tower at the intersection of 42nd Street and the Hudson River. I was there when 9/11 happened and I witnessed it become a changed city, a changed world. My apartment building was about three miles north of Ground Zero. I kept the venetian blinds closed in my living room for weeks after that day, as the smoke from the disaster area was relentless.

The following year, I got tired of Manhattan. She was starting to feel like she was beating too hard or maybe she was just slowing down. In March of that year, an Australian headhunter called me and told me that Fonterra was looking for a new HR manager in New Zealand.

During my interview, one of its executives described the country as “the last bus stop on the planet.” Well, that remoteness has done wonders in helping me open my eyes and my heart to new ways of thinking about our very diverse world. I find that Kiwis are much more relaxed about things that are lines in the sand for many Americans, especially when it comes to politics and religion. Throughout America’s conservative heartland, there are people who believe, albeit subliminally, that God is a white, conservative, gun-toting man who inherently favors America.

I became a New Zealand citizen in 2008. I also started writing books and I think I got a reputation for writing about imposter syndrome as I lived much of my life behind a mask. Since claiming New Zealand as my home, I have come full circle and found my purpose. The experiences that brought me here led me directly to the path I am on now: helping people live healthier, happier, more authentic lives.

EM-PA-THY: The Human Side of Leadership by Harold Hillman (Bateman Books, $29.95) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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