Klayton Fennell: Broadcasting equality from Philly’s tallest tower

Klayton Fennell: Broadcasting equality from Philly’s tallest tower

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We’ve come a long way from the time when people would keep fake fiancé photos on their desks to hide their sexuality, or when being out or outed at work could mean career suicide. Just ask Klayton Fennell, senior vice president of government affairs for Comcast, a company that was given a 100-percent rating by the Human Rights Campaign. In addition to his title, Fennell serves as Comcast’s key contact with LGBT advocacy organizations, on Comcast’s Internal Diversity Council and is an Executive Champion for Comcast’s LGBT employee resource group, OUT@Comcast. He has also served on the boards of GLAAD and the Stonewall National Museum and Archives.

PGN: Fennell’s an unusual name. What’s the origin?

KF: I hear it’s Irish/Scotch, but I also hear it’s French. Interestingly, my grandfather spelled his name “Fennell” but all of his brothers and sisters spelled the name “Fennelle.” So I have aunts and uncles and cousins who spell their name differently.

 

PGN: Oh wow! Where did you grow up?

KF: I’m a Floridian: Jacksonville, Fla.

 

PGN: If I remember correctly, Jacksonville is kind of Southern in its flavor.

KF: Oh yeah, it’s essentially Southern Georgia. It’s the headquarters for the Southern Baptist Convention.

 

PGN: What was it like growing up there?

KF: It was difficult growing up as an LGBT person in Jacksonville during the ’70s and ’80s and even through college. All of my family is still in Jacksonville so when I go back to visit I’m pretty amazed at the brave people who live there and are open in their lifestyle. They even have a place where LGBT youth can gather, JASMYN; it was founded by a friend of mine who worked at Jacksonville Legal Aid. I’m pretty amazed at the strides that they have made, though I don’t ever see myself going back!

 

PGN: What was a first sign you were gay?

KF: I mean I knew early on, for all the stereotypical reasons. I like hanging out with girls more than guys, I related to them better. I remember in elementary school thinking the boys were cute but we were strong members of the Southern Baptist Church — we went to church on Wednesdays and three times a day on Sunday — so it wasn’t until college that I started to identify openly and began to talk and meet with others in the LGBT community.

 

PGN: Any siblings?

KF: I do, I have an Irish twin, so she’s 12 months older than I am.

 

PGN: What’s a fun college memory?

KF: Jacksonville University is very wooded and my friends and I would break into the area where they had the rowing or crew hulls and take the boats out on the water, even though none of us had any rowing experience. We were on the St. John’s River one morning and a huge ship toting a whole bunch of Toyotas was fast approaching. We had to figure out pretty quick how to navigate back to shore!

 

PGN: After Jacksonville?

KF: I went to Florida State for law school.

 

PGN: What made you choose that profession?

KF: I knew that I wanted to create social change and being an attorney seemed the most obvious way to me. In Florida, you can start practicing in your second year of law school if you have a high-enough GPA and a sponsor. So in my second year, I began working with Jacksonville Legal Aid and started representing folks with AIDS as they were being illegally evicted, and I worked with migrant farm workers. I found out that the system wasn’t fair and thought there had to be a better way to make social change and to work within a system that’s broken. I finished and got my degree but decided I didn’t want to practice law. That was in ’96 and it was the year that the telecom law passed, which changed the telecommunications industry quite a bit.

 

PGN: How so?

KF: Historically, the telephone companies — the Southern Bells, the Southwest Bells, etc. — couldn’t compete with cable companies and cable companies couldn’t compete with telephone companies and long-distance companies couldn’t offer local service and vice versa. All of that changed at once. In college, I worked as a customer-service rep for AT&T and they invited me to come back and join their government-affairs department. And that’s how I got started.

 

PGN: You mentioned social justice; were your parents involved with that?

KF: Not really, my dad is kind of an artist. He has his own custom furniture, woodworking company. He’s somewhat of a perfectionist and did that for over 20 years. He’s also a pretty good guitarist so he does have somewhat of an artistic flair. My mom is a problem-solver; she worked at Mayo Clinic with folks who needed medical care but couldn’t afford it. She retired last year but retirement didn’t sit well with her, so now she’s in clown school! Today is actually the first day she’s working with other clowns. They’re entertaining in a retirement home.

 

PGN: That’s fabulous! So what extra-curricular things did you do when you were younger?

KF: I was president of the student body from eighth grade up through my senior year. I was involved with a lot of public-interest associations and I was in band for a few years.

 

PGN: What did you play?

KF: Saxophone: alto, tenor and bass.

 

PGN: Jumping ahead, how did you end up in Philly?

KF: In 2000, I was working for a start-up company in Denver and got recruited by Comcast to come to Philadelphia. I worked on getting all the approvals we needed for the AT&T broadband deal and, at the end of it, they offered me the opportunity to run government affairs, PR and community investment in South Florida. So I was there for 10 years, but Florida is tough. My partner and I have been together for 16 years and we couldn’t have our union recognized in marriage or even a domestic partnership. Adoption was banned and I was ready for the next move, so I spoke to Comcast and they offered me a promotion in Philly. So here I am!

 

PGN: What are some of the things that Comcast is doing for diversity?

KF: From an employee perspective, I’m proud to say that we’ve been rated as a “Best Place to Work” with a 100-percent rating for the last three years from the Human Rights Campaign. We offer transgender-inclusive benefits and, even before the marriage rulings, we offered tax parity for domestic partners. From a customer standpoint, we strive to serve our LGBT customers with programming. You can go to Xfinity.com/LGBT and see a whole lot of online or on-demand programming with an LGBT theme. There’s also a news feed with LGBT items of interest and a way to connect with some of our national partners like the Task Force, PFLAG, etc. Even if you’re not a Comcast customer, you should check it out. It’s a great site.

 

PGN: I understand your LGBT group does a lot of work outside the building as well.

KF: Yes, we have a committed employee base who likes to be part of the communities that we serve and that’s true in all of the cities that we serve, not just Philadelphia. We do a lot of work with Mazzoni Center and The Attic and William Way. Once a year, all of our employees, families and friends come together for a day of volunteering and, for the last three years, we’ve had an LGBT Comcast Cares Day here in Philadelphia. We also have JDC, which Comcast started when they acquired NBC/Universal. It’s the Joint Diversity Advisory Counsel and we bring in civil-rights leaders from all different communities — LGBT, African-American, Native American, disabled communities, etc. — and ask them to help us to make sure we’re the best we can be on governance and employee issues, programming, procurement, you name it. I’m the LGBT liaison.

 

PGN: What do you think the role of a business or businessperson is in the LGBT community?

KF: I never had the chance not to be out at work. I always self-identified so that it was not something people could hold over or against me in a way that I didn’t know about. I just thought being transparent was best from the start. I think an LGBT business leader owes the business that they run or work for advice on how to connect with the community that it serves. We have a special insight about our community and how it is often overlooked. I think we have an obligation to be a mentor to others who are at the margins, whether it’s other LGBT people or other people who don’t always get the same opportunities to advance. And I think we have an obligation to help our companies see things from a different perspective. It used to be that executives had to have a certain look and way of presenting — at the time — himself, and you have the chance to test that and slowly change that perception of what an exec looks like.

 

PGN: Being a role model is important. You never know whom you might affect.

KF: That’s right. I’m 44 and I didn’t have a lot of gay mentors. So many in the generation above me who could have been dead with the AIDS crisis. So women have been the ones to have an impact on me, both personally and professionally. I believe you have to pay it forward and make way for others.

 

PGN: Nice. Are we getting to keep you here in Philly?

KF: I think so. We’ve been here for three-and-a-half years and my husband Val’s really enjoying it too. He is the chair of drafting and design at ITT and he has his own interior-design clients. And I work here at the mothership with one heck of a view!

 

PGN: What do you do outside of work?

KF: I love, love, love to garden. I enjoy doing art and I love cooking …  a little too much. I’ve started doing guided meditation too.

 

PGN: Proudest business honor or achievement?

KF: I’m proud of this [picks up very official-looking document with “Supreme Court” stamped across the top]. Comcast was one of the employers who supported marriage equality in the last Supreme Court brief. When I first joined Comcast in 2000, I asked about domestic partnerships and honestly I thought my offer was going to get rescinded. We were nowhere near the size we are now, there weren’t many open LGBT employees, they just hadn’t dealt with the subject. So to see them supporting LGBT marriage in such an official capacity, affirmatively expressing the business case for marriage equality, was a proud moment for me. To see us adopting the practices and policies that got us that 100-percent rating also makes me proud.

 

PGN: Proudest personal honor or achievement?

KF: We raised my husband’s nephew from the time that he was 12 until he was 17. He was being reared in Grand Junction, Colo., and he was different and having a hard time so they — assuming he was gay — sent him to live with his gay uncles. He was an amazing kid but never really felt like he fit in or was connected to who he was as a person. When he turned 18, he moved to L.A. and began to live life as a woman. Last year, I flew out to see her and she’s such a beautiful woman. I offered an apology that, of all people, I hadn’t recognized her struggle and wasn’t really there for her. [Tears up.] She just thanked me for being there for her and doing the best that I could. To feel that acceptance and love from somebody who’d been through so much … it was pretty amazing. I know some folks may have expected me to say my proudest moment should be when I got married, or the first time that someone accepted my husband or me, when someone told me I somehow made a difference, when I graduated law school or when I got promoted — but for my husband and me, there is such pride and emotion we have for the child who came to live with us. We’ve accompanied Carmen back to Grand Junction and we make sure we’re there at every family event to be a support. It’s been wonderful to find that folks are better than you think they’ll be. I’m so proud that she continues to grow and enrich our family and others around her.

PGN: I’m sure you being open and proud made a huge difference for her. Tell me a little more about your husband. Who proposed to whom?

KF: OK. Originally, he proposed, 16 years ago, but when the court order came out in Jersey, where we live now, we ran down that day and got the paperwork, just in case the governor took some action against it, and were married later that week. We live in a small town in the Pine Barrens called Shamong, so I called the clerk in advance to make sure she knew about the ruling. My sister got ordained online and flew up from Jacksonville to do the ceremony. I had my mentor, Sheila Willards, and Mark Segal as witnesses and we were married on our back porch with all of our dogs.

 

PGN: One of my holiday traditions is to go to the Wanamaker Building to see the light show and then Christmas Village and, now, the video wall at Comcast. What’s a holiday tradition for you?

KF: When my and Val’s nieces and nephews turned about 13, we would teach the kids a great recipe that they could cook. Their parents would come over and we’d have a fun night with the kids doing the cooking.

 

PGN: I love that, I might steal it! Who would you pick as your straight mate?

KF: Oh boy, that’s so far out of my … On the Kinsey scale, I’m about a 10. Um, I’d say Ellen DeGeneres. I like people who can make me laugh.

 

PGN: A favorite fictional hero?

KF: Captain Piccard from “Star Trek: Next Generation.”

 

PGN: Why should we be glad about GLAAD?

KF: Growing up I didn’t really see any gay characters on TV other than Paul Lynde as center square on “Hollywood Squares” and he didn’t really identify openly as gay. Now, there are numerous LGBT characters across the board. I’m not on the board anymore but I’m proud of the work they’re doing. They’ve become more than just a watchdog; they’re counselors to the media on how to appropriately and sensitively address things.

 

PGN: I saw that you were on the board of the Stonewall National Museum and Archives. Why do you think it’s so important to preserve our history?

KF: As I mentioned before, we lost a whole generation of people during the AIDS crisis and we have to rely on friends and family to tell their stories. And then, some of our pioneers are passing so I think it’s really important to capture that history and digitize it and share it. The more that we share, the easier we make it for youth who are trying to identify who they are or think that they’re different. It helps them to realize that there were people who came before them that fought very hard to make sure that they received equal treatment, respect and social inclusion. It’s an important story to tell.

 

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