David Bohnett Speeches

National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) Keynote Address

View a video version of this speech on Dropbox

March 19, 2019 – University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA

Thank you, Amy (Ross), for that very thoughtful and generous introduction. I’ve long admired your professional success and commitment to LGBT equality. It’s a great pleasure to serve together on the Board of Trustees of USC.

After that introduction, I can literally cut out half my remarks, and I will strive to do so and just stick with the jokes. I talked to Amy and a few other people before the presentation and ceremony tonight about what topics would be the most relevant for the audience to hear this evening. I’m going chat a bit about my own personal journey as a gay man, not something I do very often, as well as touch on my career in software and technology.

As Amy said, I enrolled as an undergraduate student here at USC right out of high school. I was 18 years old, raised in the Midwest, and I had never visited either USC or Los Angeles prior to stepping on campus as a freshman, I came to USC because the school had one of the first computer science programs in undergraduate academia, and I was and remain very interested in the applications and programming side in the computer field. I joined a fraternity but I was not yet out. I was closeted for the majority of my time at USC and not yet out to my friends and family. Although, starting my first year, I sort of escaped to West Hollywood where I found that I could go and find people that identified gay. Having the gay community in West Hollywood where I felt accepted during my years here at USC was extremely important. It was very re-enforcing for me. My experiences in West Hollywood demonstrated to me the importance of finding our community, or finding our various communities. I was happy and proud to be part of the USC community and actually happy and proud to be part of my fraternity, but that wasn’t completely fulfilling. I wasn’t totally fulfilled because of the time, the era, and also the need to find other people that were traveling the same path.

Just as an aside, I talked to somebody a couple days ago who was considering going to USC at the same time that I did. Now, I’ll talk a little bit about USC later, but I’m extremely proud of our University’s current academic credentials and ranking. What this school has done is really remarkable, and remarkable in many different ways including the dramatic elevation of our academic standing across both undergraduate and graduate programs. But when I initially enrolled quite a few years ago, my friend mentioned to me about a meeting many years ago with the Dean of Students, and the Dean of Students said ‘We aspire to have an academic program our football team can be proud of’. As I say, now it’s completely different. 

After graduating from USC I did go right on to the University of Michigan to get my MBA.  I returned to Los Angeles after graduate school to start my career at Andersen Consulting which subsequently became the major business consulting firm, Accenture, and I loved the work.

Someone in tonight’s audience is working for Accenture, I believe. I enjoyed my job because I was doing the work that I was passionate about and I was trained for. I was programming and coding and designing management information systems, financial reporting, and general ledger systems for large corporations. I had a variety of assignments here in the Southern California area, and I really enjoyed the career I was building. Working for different clients to determine their management information system needs was my primary responsibility. Then, I would design and program those systems to help the company achieve their business goals. And my thought, my goal, was that I would continue on to advance through a career at Accenture. It was where I wanted to make my professional mark.

Then, three years or so into my job I wanted to bring a same sex date to the company holiday party and I was told that I wasn’t welcome to bring a man as my date. I was welcome to come alone to the holiday party, but bringing a same sex date was not something that the firm would look kindly on.

At that point one has to make a choice. I loved that job and I loved that company, and Accenture has turned into a really fantastic company, but personally for me, I couldn’t compromise. I had to take myself off on a separate path, and I left Accenture and started work for a series of software companies, as Amy mentioned. That led to my continued progression in a tech career, but I was always happy and glad to have worked for Andersen Consulting and Accenture and it actually was a very, very significant turning point when I had to make the choice to leave the job and the company that I thought would be my career for quite a long time.

I began my LGBT activism when I was at the University of Michigan as a graduate student. I was enrolled in the full-time MBA program and I had a financial aid package that included a work-study grant. I looked closely at the list of jobs that one could get to fulfill the grant. As it turns out, the University Michigan had the very first campus sponsored LGBT resource center, I believe it was called the Gay Program Office. This was a sanctioned student life program office as a part of the student affairs division of the University. It was headed by an amazing man, Dr. Jim Toy, and I saw a work-study job posted there.

I didn’t know what I would be doing, but I went in for an interview, got the job, and that’s how I helped support myself through graduate school. I did a couple of tasks. One would be staffing the office for students who would very timidly come in to find out what the program was all about. We would hand out literature and information about coming out support groups, I also worked as a hotline counselor for anyone who called looking for resources in the local community. I would speak to freshman students in Psychology 101 classes with a lesbian colleague of mine. We would walk into the class and we would say, ‘I’m gay, ask me anything’. This was a time when most students of that era weren’t familiar with other gay friends and colleagues. We gave these students an opportunity to ask questions that they otherwise might not ask.

Upon finishing graduate school, I moved back to Los Angeles and a few years later began my first, very significant same-sex relationship, with Rand Schrader. Randy was a lawyer, he went to Berkeley undergrad and UCLA Law School, and he had worked for then City Attorney Burt Pines in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office as an openly gay lawyer representing the city. Subsequently, Randy and Steve Lachs were the first two openly gay judges appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in the early 1980’s.

Randy and I began a wonderful, loving, very fulfilling and rewarding life together. As I was building my career in the software and tech field, Randy presided over criminal and civil cases in his courtroom. Rand Schrader was a prominent activist here in the Los Angeles lesbian, gay community. He was one of the co-founders of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. I learned a lot in those years with Randy and I learned also how significant and important it was to develop and respect our friendships with the women that were involved in The Center at the time. Many of these women were clients of The Center and many others occupied leadership positions at The Center. Through my experience with Randy and my exposure to The Center, I learned that the collaboration with the lesbian community was absolutely critical for our movement’s future.

During that period of time I helped co-found the GLAAD Los Angeles chapter with Jehan Agrama and others. During those early GLAAD/LA days I remember folding and stuffing envelopes around a table and hearing some of my fellow volunteers talk about their struggles as lesbians in the broader community. My reaction stuck with me to this day. I’m not only a gay man, but I’m also a feminist. I remember the moment because it was a time when I realized that as these women were describing their struggle, what we are all faced with is a collective struggle. I had to broaden my horizons as a gay man to understand that there was a wider circle of oppression and struggle that I needed to be aware of and identify with.

In my professional, social, and partnership with Randy, we had very wide visibility both in social circles and political circles outside the lesbian and gay community. We were building positions of civic leadership through Randy’s and my connections in Sacramento as well as Los Angeles City and County Government. it was a tremendously exciting and optimistic time. We had a home in Los Feliz, we both had careers we enjoyed, and a wide, wide, circle of friends. At that point, in my early 30’s, I thought my life’s trajectory was fairly well set. And then we discovered Randy was HIV positive. This was seven or eight years within the progression of our relationship. Randy was a respected judge and I was progressing through a tech career. After a period of years, in a very visible, public struggle with HIV and AIDS, Randy turned 48 years old and he knew he was going to die. At 48, as matter fact, he did die. We had been together for ten years. I was 37, and thought, what do i do now? Life inevitably deals us a series of blows we don’t expect. This was another one that I thought, hmmm, this isn’t what I signed up for.

What I did was grieve. I grieved not only for my own beloved life partner, but I grieved for all the many other friends and nameless faces lost during this horrifically tragic epidemic. You don’t expect at 37 to bury so many friends and lovers, it was an extremely emotional and difficult time and one I still don’t talk about very often.

At that time there were no legal rights and protections for unmarried same sex spouses. Civil unions and domestic partnership laws were years away, and marriage equality was virtually unimaginable. As a result, I was hit with a very punitive tax liability and denied the survivor benefits that would have accrued to a spouse in a decade long marriage. I was forced to sell our home because I couldn’t afford the estate taxes on Randy’s half of the house. Most all of these inequities have now been resolved with marriage equality, but back at that time, there was no recourse and it was all particularly painful during a time of grief and loss. Thank god I had the support of Randy’s family and my family. Sadly, there are countless heartbreaking stories of friends and colleagues whose families prevented their significant other from visiting and being part of the hospital stays or part of the care taking process. Randy and I were together until the very end. So, I sold our home, moved to an apartment and continued my career in software tech. I knew I’d always be able to work and have a job, and I regrouped.

Time went on. My career in the software field was progressing. During that time, I became very engaged and interested in the new arena of computer online services and online communities of interest. Whether it was proprietary bulletin boards, or BBS systems, or early online services such as America Online (AOL), Prodigy and CompuServe. I thought it was fascinating how these services opened up a whole new connected world through the computer. Those services really opened a window for me about how we can connect with other people across a wide variety of interests. Not just lesbian and gay, but any topic one might be interested in. I had a modem, a computer and I was always really, really interested in learning more about these online networks, My interest in online services was also tangentially related to my job.

Then, in late 1993, I subsequently started reading about the internet and the world wide web, I was living in my apartment and I thought, oh my god, this is the coolest thing ever. This new thing called the world wide web really has the potential of being, what I thought at the time, like this global AOL. An online service that does everything for everybody. Everyone is connected and interconnected and I thought, well I want to be part of that…I have to be a part of it. 

So, I started a company called Beverly Hills Internet, which was an ill-advised name for any number of reasons. We started out in 1994 by building a successful web hosting company, at a time that was very early on in the commercialization of the internet.  There was a lot of opportunity ahead in web hosting, but I was not interested in building a web hosting enterprise as a career, I was interested in building community. I was trying to figure out how can we migrate the business forward from our traditional web hosting business. One of my early fascinations was the idea you could connect a video camera and send live images over the internet, what later became known as a webcam.  I was really intrigued by the sense of presence created by a video images that originated anywhere in the world. (As an aside, this is an outgrowth of my early days as an amateur radio ham operator in high school).  

I thought of the idea to create a series of online destinations or communities named after familiar place names. We would call the company GeoCities.com. The familiar place names would evoke the theme of each community. We were borrowing on the brand equity of names like Hollywood, Nashville, Area 51, Broadway, and West Hollywood, for communities centered around the themes of movies and entertainment, country music, science fiction, theater, and lesbian and gay interests.  I had the idea of putting webcams in each of these real locations which (I hoped) would subsequently draw traffic to our site. Ultimately, after a lot of trial and error, we set up webcams in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.  Then I thought, what else can we do to create user contribution and participation. On a drive south from a trade show in Northern California, I thought of the idea to give everyone the opportunity to create their own personal home page on the web. Within the thematic structure of each online community, we created simple to use tools and templates for web page creation. I learned native HTML and coded the initial web pages myself. We opened the doors to this opportunity and subsequently there were millions and millions of the most interesting pages created on every single subject matter you can imagine.

I was very proud of GeoCities, particularly proud today, because the content was all thematic based. It wasn’t selfies and self-referential as most things seem to be now. GeoCites was about people who were talking about sports and their sports team and dog breeds and finance and golf and music. It was people that really connected with others of similar interests. GeoCities subsequently became the largest user generated content community ever and the forerunner of social networks to come like Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook.

I worked very hard, raising significant venture capital financing starting in 1994. GeoCities went public in 1998, as been said, and we sold the company in 1999 to Yahoo!. I built GeoCities as an openly gay man, but the investors were always nervous about that. Right before we went public there was a lot of press and visibility and one of the reporters from the New York Times actually got me to discuss the real heart of why, where did the idea come from? Where, why, how did you come up with this idea? I told the reporter that as a gay man I’ve learned the importance of building community and connecting with others of similar interests. Well, that was printed in the New York Times article and a few investors were freaking out because we had just filed for our IPO. But it didn’t make any difference. GeoCities was a hugely successful site with tons of traffic, and our IPO and sale timing was very, very fortunate.

I stepped aside once the company was sold. Right from the beginning I said. okay, now I have a huge responsibility to carry on the work that had been left behind by those that were lost in the AIDS epidemic, including my beloved partner, Randy. I founded the David Bohnett Foundation and I started my own private tech fund, naming it Baroda Ventures. I set on a course to become someone who lead, inspire others, and strive to make a difference in LGBT political activism, social justice, with a laser focus on all aspects of lesbian and gay equality.

I joined a consortium of other major LGBT movement funders to work on marriage equality in very public and very non-public ways. I was the largest donor to beat back California Proposition 8, a punitive and discriminatory ballot initiative enshrining the prohibition of same sex marriage in the California constitution. I call our failure to defeat Proposition 8 the setback / loss that ultimately catalyzed a victory. The passage of Proposition 8 was a real wakeup call for our community. One of the long-time Program Managers at our Foundation, Paul Moore, is here and I remember him saying ‘WTF, how did this happen where was everybody who said they opposed this? Why, where was our community when we needed it?’ I say it was the setback that led to victory because it was a huge catalyst and a huge wakeup call for people who realized, oh my god, there are all these people who actively want to strip us of our rights and block our quest for equality. All during this time. I continued to work very, very hard for the ultimate acceptance and passage of marriage equality.

When I developed the initial grant making priorities for the David Bohnett Foundation I decided to focus on a range of social justice and social service causes, As I became increasingly visible and active in the broader Los Angeles community I was approached more and more for often for support by a variety of cultural arts organizations. After much consideration, I thought, if I could join the Board of these prominent cultural arts organizations and act as the bridge between the organization’s core mission and the social justice causes I was supporting then I will have matched both interests. When I joined the board of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) my goal was to help those organizations reach the broadest possible diversity of communities. Looking back, it feels like both the Philharmonic and LACMA have in fact broadened their outreach. Helping recruit Gustavo Dudamel was a huge move for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Working with LACMA to expand their outreach to underserved communities in Los Angeles is a work in progress. I found the bridge for me to support cultural arts organizations as well as social justice and social service initiatives. My additional Board service includes serving as a Trustee here at USC, as well as other organizations around the country.

That brings us to today and my closing remarks.  We here, as members of the lesbian and gay community, our future mandate is to broaden our focus to address the myriad of social, political, and economic inequalities in our society. We don’t have the option or the luxury to operate solely within our own community. We must take our talents and leadership and continue to fight for social justice for all.

There are three things I’d like to leave you with, some of which I’ve learned here at USC in my service as a Trustee. First, is to be mindful of the place of from where you are speaking and how you want to be heard. The acoustics of what you say, not just the content, but the acoustics of what you say and from the position of what you say it really matters. Be aware that you’re being viewed through a certain lens and that lens matters. Pick your voice carefully; are you a boss, are you a subordinate, are you a lesbian, are you an activist, are you standing up for yourself, are you standing up for others. The most important thing is to understand from which platform you are speaking, and chose the one that makes the most impact. Be aware of others and their reactions to your words and your acoustics.

The second is something I have learned from my own self-examination. There is a very wide spectrum of activism, very wide, and let’s take the spectrum of activism during the AIDS epidemic as our example. I play pretty much farther to the left side of the spectrum. I’m out there, I’m very aggressive. As an example, ACT UP would be something that is very, very far left, even from me. Then there are others on the right or the far right end. There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities on the activism spectrum. some aggressive, some more moderate and passive. People will choose to play on this spectrum where they feel most comfortable and effective. The important thing is to pick your spot and to recognize that we need the continuum, we need the very radical activist as well as those who favor more quiet, non-confrontational tactics.  If you’re not radical, that’s fine, but it’s very important not to criticize the radical side. And it’s very important not to criticize the less visible side. It’s important to recognize that everybody finds their place on continuum and we all have to support one another.

For the third point I went back to some of my notes when I gave the commencement address here at USC at the Marshall School of Business shortly after GeoCities was sold, almost two decades ago. Here’s the final quote, which I think is also appropriate here, “I challenge each of you to pursue not just financial reward or career accomplishments but to pursue your dreams, your passions, your true interests, and if you do that with all your heart I promise that financial success and career goals will take care of themselves.”

Thank you very much.