Special Pride Month Feature: Lisa Middleton - Holding the Torch for LGBT Employees

Editor’s Note:

This month, we welcome guest columnist Molly Stemwedel, who will be writing about strides and challenges within the LGBTQIA2S+ community as it applies to business, finance, diversity and the world we live in.


In honor of Pride, this month, Markets Group is highlighting some amazing LGBTQ+ leaders in the finance industry. While great strides have been made, this industry is still one in which there are very few out and proud LGBTQ+ employees.

My name is Molly Stemwedel. I am a senior program manager at Markets Group, and I identify as bisexual. I am thrilled to be interviewing some outstanding industry leaders about their experiences, challenges, and successes, as well as their advice for future generations.

Our first interviewee is Lisa Middleton. Lisa is the Mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., and was appointed to the CalPERS Board of Administration in 2019. She also chairs the risk and audit committee, as well as the finance and administration committee for CalPERS. Lisa was the first transgender person elected to political office in California, when she became a city councilor for Palm Springs. When she was appointed mayor, Lisa became the third transgender mayor in U.S. history.

Markets Group: Lisa, thank you so much for speaking with me, and sharing your experiences with our readers. To start, could you share a bit of personal background on yourself, your role, and your journey in the industry?

LM: As you know, I am the mayor of Palm Springs. I identify as a lesbian and a transgender woman, and was born and raised in East Los Angeles. I was the first in my family to graduate college. When I came out as transgender in 1995, at that point I had already been working in the industry for a great deal of time. I had been at the State Compensation Insurance Fund of California for about 20 years, where I spent most of my time working on the claims side, covering workers comp, and was in a senior management position. After coming out and transitioning, I remained with that company for another 15 years.

In 2010, I retired to Palm Springs, then became very involved in the community and joined several community organizations. In 2017, I was elected to city council and became the first transgender person in California elected to political office. In 2019, I was appointed to the CalPERS Board of Administration by Gov. Gavin Newsom. I was appointed the Mayor of Palm Springs in 2021.

Markets Group: In 2022, there are still very few individuals in this industry who are openly out. Can you speak a little bit about your coming out, and how it impacted your professional career?

LM: There were so many horror stories about individuals coming out in the ’80s and ’90s, but in my mind, there is no more important turning point in our progress as a community than to come out as an individual. In the early 1990s, I had reached a point where the choice I was faced with was coming out or perishing. I recall a conference I went to in 1993, where a panelist made a strong statement that it was a choice between coming out or having a career, so there was a fear that coming out would be the end of my career. I’ll never forget that statement.

I had met a few other individuals who came out successfully in the mid-’90s, and luckily found a wonderful mentor to guide me through those challenges, which is one of the most valuable things a young LGBT person can have.

I came out as transgender in 1995, and, at that point, my employer was initially very good. I ended up working for that company for another 15 years, but in hindsight, coming out wasn’t the best career move I’ve ever made. Promotions that I had been essentially promised before I came out, I was no longer in the running for, and it took me 13 years to fight for that promotion.

Markets Group: What advice would you give to leaders and firms in the industry so that they can create environments in which LGBT employees do feel comfortable coming out?

LM: Organizations must make clear that everyone is welcome, because they are going to be assessed based on their results. If organizations claim to be nondiscriminatory and open, their leadership should look like their community. Where there is no representation in the leadership, it becomes a question whether hiring and promotion is actually upholding those claims. What is measured matters.

In the current environment, one of the most important things is that organizations are welcoming. I heard a saying recently that stuck with me, “Tolerance is being invited to the dance, but inclusion is being invited to dance.”

Markets Group: Along these lines, many firms have instituted Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies in recent years, with varying success. Given the increasing prevalence of “rainbow washing,” can you highlight some things that your firm has done right on this front?

LM: In the financial industry, California is ahead of the curve on this, and really advocating for inclusion for LGBT employees. Having mentorship and individuals within your organization, who can provide examples, support and help to members of workforce that are underrepresented in leadership, is crucial. Having leaders who are out and open helps enormously. It can’t be limited to the month of June, the commitment to diversity and inclusion should be year-round. Pride Month should be a celebration of what you’ve accomplished, and a rededication to the work to come.

Markets Group: Can you comment about these themes might figure into the culture at CalPERS?

LM: Progress can never be taken for granted.  Every generation does and should build on the work of the previous generation. CalPERS has committed itself to nurturing not only at CalPERS, but throughout our areas of influence to move workplaces to fully realized opportunity, diversity, inclusion and accountability. The generation after mine is not and should not be satisfied. 

Markets Group: How are diversity initiatives integrated into the investment strategies at CalPERS?

LM: We have taken a lead that fully inclusive Boards are Boards that include women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. We are going continue to advocate and to use our voting power to support Boards that embrace diversity and inclusion and to counter those that do not by their actions demonstrate a commitment to workplaces of equality and opportunity. We are committed to ESG accountability. Board and workforce diversity is a fundamental measure of ESG accountability.

Markets Group: Can you share some of your proudest moments and accomplishments of your career? How did you make them happen and ensure your work was fairly considered?

LM: I am very proud to be a member of the first out LGBT generation. When I was born it was illegal for two people of the same sex to express their love for one another in every state; Christine Jorgensen’s* life was front page news across the globe and very little of it was complimentary.   We’ve changed our lives, stood up for who we are and changed history.  My role in that is pretty small, but I am very proud of my generation of LGBT people.

*Christine Jorgensen is regarded as the first transgender celebrity, after she underwent gender reassignment surgeries in 1952 and was widely reported on. She went on to lecture frequently on the experiences and issues faced by transgender people.

Markets Group: Is there anything you’d like to say to the next generation of LGBT employees entering the industry? Advice, warnings, words of inspiration …

LM: You must be open and be who you are in order to bring about change. If you are holding back, that is an incredible amount of useless energy you will never get back. However, it is important to feel comfortable in the organization you are hoping to succeed in. The perfect organization has yet to be created and may never be created. Additionally, I’ll bring up the importance of mentorship again. If you want to win, be around other winners, people who are out and successful.

MS: Who is your favorite real or fictional LGBT icon?

LM: Author Jan Morris. She wrote “Conundrum” about her coming out as transgender in 1974. She joked many times in her life, that no matter what she accomplished, the headline when she died would be “Trans Author Dies,” and so when I was elected City Councilor, I laughed hysterically when the headlines read “Trans Winner Makes History.”

Markets Group: And finally, how are you celebrating Pride this year?

LM: This year, I’m really excited and deeply honored to be celebrating at the White House. President and Dr. Biden invited me to attend their annual Pride Celebration, which coincidentally falls on my 70th birthday, and will recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of LGBTQIA+ citizens.