This month we speak to the incredible Daniel K. Winterfeldt MBE QC (Hon, he/him), who is General Counsel EMEA & Asia of financial services company Jefferies as well as Founder & Chair of the game-changing diversity operation the InterLaw Diversity Forum. Daniel is a role model of mine and a trailblazer in the legal profession, receiving both an honorary QC and MBE in 2020.
Please be aware that this post touches on the topics of mental health.
Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed Daniel!
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1972. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s was really challenging. Firstly, outwardly I was different from everyone else for being Jewish. Three of my four grandparents (from Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania) were immigrants to the US, leaving Europe before WWII and escaping the Holocaust. Secondly, it was very difficult knowing that I was a gay man early on. I grew up afraid that I could be rejected by the community, my classmates, my friends, and maybe even my family. I also feared physical danger if anyone found out. I had no role models and there was intense homophobia driven by media and the burgeoning AIDs pandemic.
I wanted to escape Cincinnati. I went to St. Louis for university, and I spent my junior year abroad in Spain in 1992-1993, where I first came out. I made it to NYC for law school at Fordham University from 1995-1998. In NYC in the late 90’s I was really able to be myself and be comfortable with who I was for the first time. I was surrounded by amazing and inspiring LGBTQ+ role models and allies, from LGBTQ+ doctors and lawyers and other professionals to drag queens and trans artists and performers. I was finally able to date and have a rich social life. I was also privileged to attend my first Pride, marching with political signs. It was a protest, not a party. In NYC I finally felt at home.
2. Tell us a bit about your own mental health experiences and being LGBTQ+?
Cincinnati was both politically and religiously conservative, making it very difficult for me as a young gay Jewish man. I suffered with severe depression and struggled to attend school and focus on my work. I was sometimes bullied. I was afraid to partake in gym or sports. When I was younger, I was able to socialise more normally, but as I approached my teenage years I felt very alone and isolated. I felt like I knew everyone, but I had very few close friends. I retreated into books, comic books, and television. Since gay people were all but invisible (except as occasional figures of ridicule in the media), I had no guidance or support, but I did find I was able to relate to the experiences of African American women, such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, who became two of my favourite writers.
I remember days begging my mom not to make me go to school. This kept getting worse and worse, and everything seemed darker and darker.
I am very blessed to have had amazing and loving parents. My mother was very concerned and didn’t understand what was happening but knew this was beyond her ability to fix. In discussions many years later, she said that ‘gay’ wasn’t something that even occurred to parents back then. It was so far removed from their experience that, although they may have known theoretically it existed somewhere else, it never came to her mind as a possible reason.
She found a psychiatrist for me in my sophomore year of high school. I worked with him over several months. He interrogated my depression until one day he pushed me as to the source of my low self-esteem and depression. I finally answered the question in my head: “…because I am gay.” I did not have the capacity to say those words out loud, but from that day forward everything changed. I started the first steps on a journey towards self-acceptance that I am still on today.
3. What do you think LGBTQ+ people can learn from your experiences?
I think the most important take away is the name of this project: “It gets better!” No matter how dark, hopeless, or difficult it may seem, things will get better for you. It is always darkest before the dawn.
I have gone on to live a life that I am proud of. I’ve built a successful career in the law, but also launched organisations to support and help others. I have a great relationship with my family, I have a husband of many years, I am surrounded by an amazing group of friends around the globe, and I have had my life’s work recognised through two awards from the Queen of England. In 2020 I was appointed as Queen’s Counsel Honoris Causa (Honorary QC) for both my contributions to capital markets in the UK as well as my contributions to diversity, inclusion and culture in the legal sector through the InterLaw Diversity Forum. In 2020 I was also named an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday honours list for “Services to Capital Markets, to Equality and to Diversity in the Legal Profession”.
This work was also made possible through the support of my family, friends, and supporters, both LGBT+ and allies.
I never dreamed any of these things would be possible looking back on my very difficult childhood in Cincinnati. I never thought I would fall in love, have a husband, or have a career. Toni Morrison, who is from very close to where I grew up in Cincinnati, stated: “I grew up in a place in Ohio that is so flat and so boring, you grow an imagination or you die on the inside.”
4. If you had one message for LGBTQ+ people what would it be?
The most important message I could give to LGBTQ+ people is to strive to live your life with authenticity, but also honestly recognise your flaws and failures and work change these. Work to be empathetic and compassionate towards others. Exercise gratitude daily and work to be of service to others. Recognise that success is the journey (not a destination) and find your purpose in life and pursue it.
There are two kinds of struggles: the struggle to survive and the struggle to thrive. Both are valid and both deserve compassion and support.
We all have the power to be allies to others, within the LGBTQ+ world or outside of it. Being of service to others has helped me so much in overcoming my own challenges, including by taking me outside of myself and my own worries, and by teaching me to appreciate the things I do have. For example, I am very proud of my work as a patron of the Albert Kennedy Trust, supporting homeless and at-risk LGBTQ+ youth in the UK – some of the most vulnerable in our community.
While I have found success in my legal career, it has also been rife with challenges every step of the way. Success is not the absence of failure, but rather your capacity to overcome failures every day and keep moving forward.
I am very fortunate after 24 years in the legal profession to find myself in my current role as General Counsel for EMEA and Asia at Jefferies, a global investment bank, where I am valued, respected, and embraced fully for who I am. Jefferies has a deep culture of respect and inclusion. I work with a phenomenal colleagues and feel supported by all the bank leadership, I have an amazing team I work with, and have clients who value our work and contributions.
5. Is there anything you want to add to the interview that we haven’t captured here already?
I said one of the greatest things you can do for yourself is to be of service to others.
One of my proudest achievements is my work in the InterLaw Diversity Forum (www.interlawdiversityforum.org). In 2008, I founded the InterLaw Diversity Forum, which seeks to promote meritocracy and inclusion for all diverse and socially disadvantaged groups in the legal sector.
Since its founding it has expanded its scope beyond LGBTQ+ to encompass all strands of diversity and inclusion, including Race & Ethnicity, Disability, Gender, and social mobility, with a particular focus on cultural change in the workplace, allyship, and 'multiple identities'/intersectionality. The InterLaw Diversity Forum currently has more than 9,000 members and supporters from over 300 law firms and chambers, and over 500 corporates and financial institutions.
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