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| 23 minutes read

CMO Series REPRESENTS - Born This Way: Roy Sexton of Clark Hill on Inclusion, Community and the Role of Leadership

On this episode of CMO Series REPRESENTS, Yasmin Zand is lucky enough to sit down with Roy Sexton, Director of Marketing at Clark Hill and 2023 Legal Marketing Association President, to discuss his journey both inside and outside of the legal marketing industry. 

Roy shares how his formative experiences as a gay man have impacted his approach to leadership and why finding safe and inclusive communities that allow him to be his authentic self has become so central in his career. 

The conversation delves into Roy’s childhood, passions, and why his headline performance at the 2023 LMA Annual Conference in Florida was so poignant in support of the LGBTQ+ community in that moment. 

Listen in full to hear Roy’s story and his advice for others looking to be comfortable and authentically themselves in their professions.


Yasmin: Hello, everybody. Welcome to the Passle Podcast. I'm your host for today, Yasmin, I’m here with the ever-wonderful Roy Sexton, Director of Marketing at Clark Hill and the LMA President of 2023. So, hello, Roy.

Roy: Hi, thanks for having me and thanks for that introduction. I feel very special.

Yasmin: Oh, as you should. You are a very wonderful person. We're very happy to have you on. How are you doing today?

Roy: I'm good. Thank you. My husband's birthday was this weekend and we stretched it from, well, actually, it was Monday. We stretched the festivities from Saturday to Monday and we had a wonderful three days of celebrating him. So all good.

Yasmin: Oh, that's wonderful. Yeah, I definitely feel like that warrants a long weekend. Fantastic. So I'm really excited to have you on. Of course, especially with the Passle REPRESENTS Podcast. I'll get us kicked off with a question that is always good to start off with, Roy, would you mind telling us how you identify?

Roy: Sure. I identify gay, and as an old midwesterner who is ready to take a long nap. But yes, I am gay.

Yasmin: Okay, fantastic. And would you mind giving us a brief overview of how you came into legal marketing and about your journey in the industry, especially as a gay man.

Roy: Sure. It's been fairly serendipitous. I was an English and theatre major in college because my parents said “Study what you love. Don't worry about getting a job.” And so that made things a little more challenging and interesting. But I've talked my way into various jobs I am not qualified to have. I worked at Deloitte consulting for a little bit, which led me into the world of health care. I did that for a decade. Ended up leading strategic planning and marketing for a billion-dollar healthcare system here. And then around 2011, I just said, “You know, I wanna try a different industry. I wanna see if these skills are portable” and I didn't have my cap set on legal. I just threw my resume out there and a local foreclosure firm of all things, needed a VP of marketing. And that title sounded really cool. And so, they liked me and I liked them and that got me into the legal space and that's when I joined the Legal Marketing Association. And really, that was the moment where, you know, at the late age of 40 or 39 I felt like I had a career because I had found people who thought similarly to me who really could teach me a lot of things I didn't know and really set me on the course I've been on for the better part of a decade now and I love it. 

But, you know, to the point of being a gay man in this world, you know, I grew up in the nineties, I was fortunate, you know, with influences like Kurt Cobain and Madonna and RuPaul and Janet Jackson leading the way to feel even the illusion of safety and love because I'm a big fan of Hollywood and entertainment. I think for that reason, it creates a feeling that there's a community out there that is vouching for difference and individuality. And so, you know, those are my college years and I didn't really give it a lot of thought. I came out quite late. I was about 27. I'm an only child. It was a real… my parents are very progressive but it was a struggle for them because I think they had, you know, they're just a different generation that grew up with a feeling that that is somehow a flaw in the parents' fault when a child was gay. And I think they came a long way and realised actually it was a blessing. But I had to navigate those waters at 27. I met my now husband and knew that that was it for me. So I came out to my parents and that was the harder struggle actually in some ways than work life. Because everywhere I went, I think, knowing that I had the risk of my parents having a problem with me. I made sure I was safe everywhere else. So I didn't hide who I was. Even in the late nineties, I told people that I was gay or leaning gay at that point and I was always supported and loved, I think I had sixth sense about finding those people before we knew what an ally was that would be supportive of me. And you know, that was all to the good. So, yeah.

Yasmin:  Well, I mean, it's obvious to me and to those maybe who don't know you, I think the context is important. You're so well regarded in your communities and in the legal marketing community, you have a fantastic peer support network, I think we've, I mean, you brought that up, especially community is so important to you. And I feel like in musical theatre as well, right? Like there's such a big experience around community and like building a community and intimacy with kind of the people that you're working within that respect.

Roy: I think I have naturally gravitated toward communities where I knew I could feel comfortable, or found ways to carve that out for myself. I mean, ironically I went to an all male college and was in a fraternity president of my fraternity. And those were not, especially in the early nineties, seeming conventional choices for somebody who might be questioning. But I joined a fraternity where there already were openly gay members and I wasn't out in college but I think I had a curiosity and I had a mentor in college, Jim Fisher who was the first college professor to ever do Angels in America. And he gotten it was a bit controversial because it was in the middle of Indiana at an all male college and he did it. But, you know, I found those people, I think instinctively who would validate who I knew I was and help me just become that much more authentic and feel comfortable. And so that's why I think allyship is so important. It can feel performative sometimes and people declare themselves an ally really, for those of us who need an ally. We know one when we see one and we will seek you out and we will look for your help and support and we might not openly tell you why, especially at least in my case, I wasn't ready to tell that story to some of those folks early on. But I think I gravitated toward them and I think that's why I gravitated toward the Legal Marketing Association as well. It's a group of people who work for very challenging individuals and have their own stress and duress in their lives and when we get together, we really can be authentically ourselves. And I think we need to remind ourselves of that when we're messaging and doing things as an association that we don't wanna lose that authenticity. That really makes people stick around.

Yasmin: Okay. So before we get into anything else, I mean, you brought up the LMA and you also brought up being authentically yourself. So I'm gonna have to ask it. Would you mind telling us about how you approached your headline performance at the LMA? I think, you know, for those of us who were there and witnessed it, I mean, it was so good. So you have to tell us a little bit about that and how that moment made you feel.

Roy: Yeah, I mean, I think this moment, working on the conference with the team. We had the co-chair Megan McKeon, Jen Dezso, Lee Watts and the Annual Conference Advisory Committee. And then our support team: Lisa Kamen, Holly Amatangelo, Kaitlin Heininger, Ellie Hurley, Danielle Holland, Ashley Stenger, Jennifer Wiggins, you know, these were people who were excited to do something fun and different. I think they knew not only my identity, yes, a big part of it is being gay. But a big part of it is being an only child. A big part of it is being a Gen Xer or a big part of it is doing theater is loving. Comic books is being a big goof and, being an introvert which nobody believes, especially in light of what we'll describe here in a minute. But I am, I worked with an executive coach years ago who did the, you know, little test and said, “Oh, you're an introvert.” And I, at the time I thought, “Oh, that's a bad thing.” And she said, “No, it's where you get your energy. Do you get your energy being alone or around people?” I said, “I much, much prefer to be alone, but I like to be, I like to be stage. I like to be in front of folks” and she goes, “Well, that just means you're social, you know, introversion and sociability are two different things.” So that was a ‘aha’ moment for me that is as important to what I did in Hollywood as being gay quite frankly because I like theatre because there's a structure, there's a distance between yourself and the audience. There's a chance to kind of create and craft a message with reaction from the people in the house. But there's been a rehearsal process, you know what you're doing, the variability is taken out of it, which is the thing that makes me nervous in social settings. So all that said, I knew a year ago before things were getting kind of crazy in Florida that I wanted to sing. I love to sing. It's a place that takes the nervousness out from me. I have done that to various degrees before. When I could be giving a speech, I just launched into song and it's very disarming to the audience and it makes me feel comfortable. I knew I wanted to dress kind of zany, I love wearing a costume or something that is not expected. Last year, a lot of people come up to me when I was wearing a nice business suit and they'd say “That. That is presidential.” And I found it a bit insulting because I thought, “Yeah, but I'm not, it's not me. I wanna wear sequins. I wanna wear something fun because I want people to have that icebreaker moment literally.” So all this is kind of part of my thinking and that's why I offer those pieces. 

But a year ago, I came up to Lisa came in at the Las Vegas conference and I said, “Hey, next year I want to sing, Born This Way, coming from the back of the house and walking up on stage and she's very dry and funny, and she said, “Well, will you arrive in an egg? I said, “No, I will not arrive in an egg.” And so we had that idea. I had this picture of my mom. She passed about a year and a half ago and some of the words… “My mother told me when I was young, we were all born superstars. She rolled her hair, put her makeup on in the glass of her boudoir.” I'm not singing that well, but you know, so that picture of her holding me as a baby looking in the mirror. I said, "I want that image up when I come out on stage." And so that's about all I knew. I knew that Born This Way would be an inclusive anthem. 

DEI is so important to me. It's so important to say to people you're in a safe space, but it became more poignant as the weeks rolled on and we got closer and closer and so much was going on in Florida and I had all these well-meaning members of the association and that's probably another conversation for next year, January 1st. It is odd being President of this association. It's a great honour of my life. I can't wait for it to be over. I don't think people realise how triggering it can be for someone who's always felt on the margins to have them come in your inbox hot because they're mad about something. They're mad about an email they got, they don't like the way the staff treated them. They don't like where something's going. And I've been bullied in my life and I know that's not what they're doing, but they're not being very collaborative or helpful. And that I'm not saying that's true of the multitudes of the association, but there are some hornets out there. I will use that term. So I had people coming in my inbox saying "We can't be in Florida, we need to pull out." Well, we had contracts signed. We had a commitment, this was weeks out and they were shaming me that somehow I was failing my community by having the conference there. And these, by the way, were not LGBTQ folks, they were just well-meaning allies. I just did air quotes and you can't see that. And that's frustrating to me because I'm gay. I'm the one who's on stage. I'm the one going to Florida. And my thinking was, “Look, there are people in Florida who are hurting, there are people in our community who are hurting. You go where the trouble is. You know, we saw that during the Civil Rights era. We saw that in the seventies, we saw that with Stonewall, you go where people need you. This sort of cancel culture and voting with your wallet. Nobody cares. They're not paying attention to that. And it's interesting. We did this and Lizzo is doing it and Taylor Swift is doing it. So I feel, you know, I'm in good company now. And Paramore, that lead singer. So all that is to say we were getting close to and I had already said I wanted a drag queen. And they said, “What are you gonna do with the drag queen?” I said, “I don't know, Miami is a hotbed of drag. I just, I wanna have some drag queens.” So as this is evolving and we're getting weeks ahead and I'm getting these inbox messages from people saying you must pull out of Florida. I'm like, “Oh no, we're hold my beer, please.” And so we said we're gonna do Born This Way. Athena Dion was somebody that our talent folks found. We had a couple conversations. She was all in, she's the queen of Miami. She is wonderful friends with some of the women on The View have come to find out. She shows up on The View sometimes in video. And I said, would you mind at 8:30 in the morning coming out and doing Born This Way with me and she still is a bit baffled by what we are. She goes “Are these lawyers?” I said, “No, no, these are people who are gonna love it, trust me.” And I think she was very nervous but she was there. She was already a little, a little frustrated that she had to get up so early to put all the gear on. 

But, you know, I started the song backstage. I entered in the first verse. Of course, the audience is loving that because they're like, there's Roy in his outfit doing his thing. You know, I wish I'd lost some weight beforehand. But that's another story for another day. And then the second verse I said, “And everyone, Athena Dion” and I could cry right now. The audience reaction, it exceeded everything I would have hoped. People were just on their feet. They were excited, they were thrilled that we were making a statement without making a statement. If that makes sense. You know, we were just doing, we just had love on stage and we were having pure joy. And what I found from it for the days following is people would come up to me and say, “Look, I was uncertain coming here.” People who might not be out yet, people of colour who just were not comfortable being there. And also folks working the venue, Rob Kates had a videographer who came up to me and she's lesbian and Latina and said, “Look, it is really hard for us here and the fact that you did that and that you celebrate what's important and you came here to do that means the world.” So I know that it's… I don't know how to give concise answers to anything, but there's a lot to unpack there. And I haven't really gotten to tell the full story and I, you know, I wanted to share all of that with you and we're probably completely out of time now, but I'll pause there and let you weigh in if you want. 

Yasmin: I mean, what is there to say? I mean, that was incredible, thank you for sharing that. Obviously getting the background and understanding more about your experience, especially with that performance and Athena, you know, bringing that in it, it is so complex. And I think, you know, we talked about this last time where you do an incredible job about trying to make yourself comfortable and make other people feel comfortable, right? And sometimes at the cost of your comfort. And in that same breath, I think something that we can also touch on a bit is, you said you felt a little, you know, there were people coming in hot into your inbox, you know, I'm sure there have been some situations where maybe you didn't feel so embraced, not necessarily just in legal marketing, but maybe in general and I was wondering if you would mind kind of elaborating more on that because I think people see you as such an inclusive and community person. They may be shocked to even, I mean, experience anything like that.

Roy: We never shake off some of those early experiences. I was an only child and my mother dressed me in penny loafers and sent me up to kindergarten with a briefcase and people beat the absolute crap out of me. And I was a cute kid. And I didn't know, I didn't know what roughhousing was. I didn't know if they were being playful. And so my mom being caring called the principal and he brought me in and said in front of these kids. “What are you doing to encourage this Roy?” And that was an early lesson in that's how this is perceived sometimes. And I didn't know I was gay then maybe he thought, I don't know, you know, but then in eighth grade, I had those times you're not invited to the lunch table and people are making fun of your clothing and college where you feel a little off because you like music that other people don't. People call them microaggressions, now, I think they feel like maxi aggressions when they happen and you feel very isolated and alienated.

Ironically, in elementary school, those kids who are beating me up by the second or third grade, I learned how to be self-effacing and used humor and sometimes to my detriment, even as an adult,  people will say to me, “Stop making fun of yourself.” And I'm like, “You don't know what a survival mechanism this has been for me for my whole life. Thank you.” And those kids became my best friends and it came to be that by the fourth grade, their parents were divorcing and they were showing up at our front door wondering if my mom could feed them. And I thought, well, something was going on there the whole time. I thought that as a little kid, something was going on there the whole time I can show them grace, they can be my friends. Now, we can care for one another. And that has informed, I think the way I approach life.

There are people who have made my life very difficult even to this day at work and in volunteering and I will always show them kindness. And I've had some people say, “Oh you're so buddy, buddy with so and so that we know has been a real pain" and I'm like, "but I'd rather show them kindness." There's some reason they are being so difficult and it probably doesn't have as much to do with me as something that's going on inside them. And if I can be kind to them, maybe they will come around, and I feel better about myself. But yeah, I still feel that way. I still feel like someone is gonna come along and tease me or make fun of me. And I think that's why I'm sensitive to the way I look sometimes in clothing and things that people when they come up to you and say “I like the shirt you're wearing today! Oh, I like how you combed your hair today!” Well, what was wrong with yesterday? Maybe I feel good both days. Does that deserve observation? I realise you think you're giving me a compliment. But how about just saying, “I like your shirt” without a qualifier around it. 

It's probably not answering your question, but I will always feel that way and I'm some ways, you know, Athena from stage said she was bullied her life whole life and she realised that what she was bullied for would end up being her superpower, that drag, she didn't know it yet was going to be the way she connected with the world. And I feel like some of the things I've been bullied for being sensitive, being kind to people, I don't like teasing people. I don't understand teasing. I don't respond well to it. So I don't do it. It has made me that much more sensitive to other people who might be feeling what I'm feeling, but don't know how to verbalise it. And I've tried to lead with that intention and I tried to bring that to the conference and I view everybody with that sensibility. Let's amplify the individuals, let's find different voices and faces and have people feel that they're safe and can be themselves because I do honestly believe to bring it back to the business reason for it. People do better work when they don't feel like they're being monitored for what time they showed up and what they're wearing and how they comb their hair and people helicoptering in and giving them timelines that are unrealistic and all that. They make mistakes when you're on them because they're not feeling comfortable, being comfortable does not mean you are complacent. It means you are at ease in your body and your chair and your brain can fire on all cylinders and do what the magic it is intended to do. And that's why I believe so fully in inclusion. You know, let people alone. Stop critiquing them. And you know, I'm troubled by so much of what I'm seeing in the press right now. It's haunting me. I feel triggered by it. It hurts me to see that there's this kind of ugliness out there live and let live. Someone's not hurting you, don't comment, don't offer advice, just let them be unless they seek your advice. 

Yasmin: And I guess in the name of wrapping things up, you mentioned, you know Athena saying that they, I guess what people bullied them for was something that ended up being their superpower. And it's something about power, right? When we talked about when we talked to Diana, you know, she was talking about how, you know, keeping your power again, going back to what you're saying is just so important in finding that part of you that keeps that power and harnessing that, I guess, you know, going back to your experiences and how, you know, you were getting bullied and how that's kind of eventually evolved into the superpower of creating communities and comfort, you know, sometimes again at your own expense. But yeah, what would you say? I mean, for people like me, who are, you know, coming up in this community and who are trying to learn more about how they can be authentically themselves. What's your biggest piece of advice? What's I guess, what's the big takeaway of it all?

Roy: I've seen this said and I don't know if I'm gonna muddle it. I'm like Yogi Bear with these things. They say sometimes about celebrities, give one to the fans and keep two for yourself. If there's a mistake I have made and Laura Gassner Otting has become a friend. She was our keynote and she gave me this advice. You don't have to give your trophies back. You don't have to keep proving to others you're valid. And I've gotten that advice for that executive coach who taught me about introversion. I said, “Look, I want to get straight A's. I wanna be the best kid. I want to do everything just right because I don't want them to reject me for being gay. They can't because I'm so good at and doing so well and so committed” and she goes, “But you're already there and they love you for being gay. Why are you still doing this to yourself?” So I wish, and I think I told you this story and I will net it out briefly because I told it in more detail. I had a panic attack Wednesday. The conference was almost over. Everything had gone beautifully because I had put too much of myself in everything and people loved it and I'm glad they did, but I was not taking care of myself. I was not eating right. I was not sleeping. I was subsisting on a steady stream of Pepsi Max. And Wednesday afternoon, I thought I was having a heart attack and I went downstairs and they said “You're having a panic attack. You haven't slept, you haven't taken care of yourself. And I have worried so much my life about being rejected by others that I put myself far too out there for everyone and I need to take some of that back for myself. So, what I encourage people to do is be kind, let people feel safe. If you can sense it. If someone's drifting from the conversation, if you feel like they're uncomfortable, don't yank them back in, go to the side and talk to them and say, “Hey, how are you feeling what's going on?” But also keep some for yourself. I have not done enough of that in my life and I want to correct that because we're no good. RuPaul says “If you can't love yourself. How in the hell are you gonna love anybody else?” And we have to, this is an industry that will take, take, take, take, take from us. And if you've been on the margins and you suddenly feel like you're in the middle, you're validated, you wanna keep going and you wanna open the tent up and you wanna be there for everybody, but then there's nothing left for you and you have to take care of yourself first and foremost. So, you know, that's been a hard lesson for me in this process. But I'm glad I'm at 50 maybe I've finally gotten through my thick head. And it doesn't mean I'll stop being the person I am, but I get to do that on my time. And when I have the energy for it and when I pull away, it's because I need to spend time with my husband and my dog and my yard and my comic books and I'll be back but you know, let someone else step in and take care of other people for a while. So, you know, don't let yourself also get sucked into a hero complex, which is what this dangerously sounds like. Nobody needs that. They need a friend, they need an ally, they need someone who is listening, not always doing. And I think that's sometimes a mistake I've made in my life.

Yasmin: Wow, that was really powerful. Thank you for sharing that. I think just seeing the photos of your garden, I could say definitely giving time back to yourself. If there's more where that came from, I'd like to see it. But that was, those were all the questions I had for you today, Roy. I guess for those who are listening, I don't know if you can tell, but there is this overwhelming and comforting aura of love that comes from speaking with you, Roy and just nurturing energy and coming from a place of compassion. So all I can say thank you for joining.

Roy: I mean, hey, I wanna thank you and Charlotte and the team for doing this. You know, I listened to Diana's, I thought it was wonderful. I love Diana. I know her authenticity. We've had a lot of conversations outside of the boardroom where I'm like “More of this”, you know, share your stories and she's so authentic and I love that you are finding this space that is talking about inclusion but in a very real way where people are talking about their life experience and people can pull from that what they want. But you all at Passle, you all really do a lovely job at shining a light back on this community which really responds well to that. I think there's still always going to be a need given the kinds of jobs we have. We don't always get the love at home, at work home, that we might want. And so what you do and how you signal boost these important messages as you're doing with this REPRESENTS Series, it's so important and I thank you because you don't have to do this, but you are. And it's really a lovely thing and I'm glad you are and I'm really grateful that you included me in it.

Yasmin: Happy to have you. Thank you so much for the kind words as well. I guess I'll wrap this up with that. Again, Roy, thank you so much for joining us on the Passle REPRESENTS podcast. Again, I'm your host, Yasmin. Roy, I'd give you a big round of applause and a hug, but I hope, I hope just verbally is okay for now. But yeah, everybody, please stay tuned, Roy really looking forward to just getting to talk to you more. And I guess that's it for today. I hope everybody has a great rest of their days and thank you all for tuning in.

Roy: Thank you.


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