Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ben Finzel’s latest social enterprise already has over 150 members. It’s an LGBTQ professional network for people who work in communications in D.C.—a network that Finzel, 51, didn’t have in his early days in PR.

As a gay D.C. native who spent years working on the Hill early in his career, Finzel’s personal story tracks a piece of the story of LGBTQ rights in America.

He moved to Texas with family in high school and stayed there until he graduated from Texas Tech University, but subsequently came back to D.C. because “this is home for me. And they say you can’t go home again, but I wanted to.”

Finzel wasn’t out to himself or anyone else when he returned to D.C., but knew he wanted to work on the Hill. With no connections, he made a list of congressmembers on “yellow legal pads” and “went door-to-door on the Hill looking for a job.” With each introduction, Finzel left a resume. He landed two internships leading to full-time work as press assistant for North Carolina’s Democratic congressman, Tim Valentine.

In his second job, as a legislative staffer to New Mexico Congressman Bill Richardson, Finzel came out of the closet—among the first Hill 100 or so staffers to do so. Even with two members of Congress, Barney Frank (D-MA) and Gerry Studds (D-MA), openly out, being out on your Hill job in the ’90s was still risky for staffers. Finzel went on to become an advocate for gay rights, and made his LGBTQ identity a permanent part of his work life.

After leaving the Hill, Finzel founded RenewPR, an energy and environmental communications consulting firm. He’s been an executive in top PR firms and a presidential appointee to the Department of Energy in the Clinton administration.

He’s proud of his work in getting LGBTQ employees equal access to benefits at Edelman Public Relations and co-founding FleishmanHillard’s OUTFRONT, the first global practice group at a PR firm focused on LGBTQ issues.

“Things started to change,” he says. “We had Will and Grace and we had Ellen. So we were mirroring that.”

Finzel and his husband are celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary this year, 21 years after they first met.

He launched his new network, DC Family Communicators, in 2018. The group is modeled after and affiliated with Family Communicators in Atlanta, founded by public relations professionals Jim Brams and Drew Plant in 2001. Membership requirements are simple: “You have to be in the DC metro area, you have to be LGBTQ, and you have to be in communications or want to move into communications,” he says.

These are his reflections on work and Pride:

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What was the impetus for you to come out openly when you were working for Bill Richardson?

The thing that made me decide I had to be out was actually the votes on one of the anti-gay bills in Congress. I was already a member of the Gay and Lesbian Congressional Staff Association (now LGBT Congressional Staff Association) I helped found. I was sort-of officially out in the office, which meant I hadn’t told the congressman. In the course of one of those conversations, I said something like, “You know this seems [to be] a really important vote and something that means a lot to me.” I don’t remember my exact words. And he said, “Why is that?” I said, “Well, because I’m gay.” And he was like, “Oh my goodness! That’s amazing!” He was thrilled which was not the reaction I expected.

I think he was just kind of thrilled that he had an openly gay staffer on his staff. He was having dinner with Barney Frank that night. Apparently he told him one on his legislative team had come out to him and how proud and excited he was. The next day, he [Richardson] came into the office with a photograph of Barney and his then partner Herb [Moses] and Bill on a flatbed truck campaigning in northern New Mexico. They all signed it. Bill brought that to me as a gift. I have that framed in my house.

Once I came out on the Hill I was never in the closet again in any of my jobs. I interviewed out from that point forward.

Was the LGBT staff association operating in secret?

It wasn’t that secret. It was sort of word of mouth, [phone] calls and people talking to each other. It’s also before e-mail [laughs] … a little easier to be more private and quiet because there were lots of staff who worked for members who maybe weren’t all that friendly or progressive, or were from districts where it would be frowned upon having a gay staffer.

We’re talking about 25 years ago. Now there’s the staff association, there’s the LGBT Equality Caucus, which has staff. We have eight LGBT members of Congress. We have a lesbian senator and a bisexual senator. That was only something we would have imagined back then.

In light of this, what does Pride Week mean for you today?

As Pride Week has gotten more expansive and there’s more things, I do less of them, which is really kind of a shame. Part of that is just life moves on, and you have responsibilities, work, and everything else. We can’t take for granted where we’ve come from, where we have to go, and what the reality of our lives is now. Yes, for a lot of us, particularly those of us with white skin, and who are male, it is, on the surface, quote-unquote “easier” than it was 25 years ago.

The reality for a lot of LGBTQ people is it ain’t easy if you’re an LGBTQ person of color, if you’re a woman, a trans person, a kid, an elder. It can be a really hard world. Even today there are still folks who when they retire, if they don’t have a social structure and need to go into a retirement home or assisted living, some of them have to go back into the closet.

We have all of these great companies putting Pride flags on their detergent bottles and everything else, which is great. But we can never take for granted all the sacrifices people made, the lives lost to HIV/AIDS that didn’t need to be lost if we’d actually had federal policies that focused on that.

So Pride is even more important than it was before. We’ve got to remember and celebrate that. But also remember that as the expression goes, “Freedom ain’t free.” It’s an ongoing fight, unfortunately. And we have to be engaged in it.