When the cost of conforming became too big a price to pay, a military man could no longer live the life of an imposter.

For years Harold Hillman lived a lie to get ahead. He gained status, a good income but felt like a fake.

As a closeted gay, he shone in the air force to the point he was appointed to President Bill Clinton's taskforce to look at undoing a ban on people like him serving openly in the services.

As a gay man appointed because he was perceived to be straight, there was never a time he felt more acutely that he was an imposter.

The homophobia among some of the United States military's top brass and the off-jokes he saw during that three-month assignment brought him to a personal crisis. When pro-gay groups arrived to present their submissions, a bowl of fruit would be placed on the table. "Fruit for the fruits. It was a little in-joke for us."


That was it. Major Hillman came out, despite the pain: "I was married and had two lovely daughters."

He removed his uniform and took his experience as a psychologist and a manager to the corporate world, working in Chicago for oil company Amoco (later merged with BP), and in New York for Prudential before being headhunted to Auckland in 2003 to join a start-up named Fonterra, where he was soon promoted to its executive team.

These days he coaches corporate bosses and their executives in authentic leadership, helping them keep it real. His work is heavily shaped by his story, outlined in his first book The Imposter Syndrome , and drawn on for his second, Fitting In, Standing Out, which was published this week.

The books explore the tension in the work place between fitting in and being true to who you are, the pros and cons of turning your voice down to fit the culture.

Hillman turned his voice off at a young age. Faced with expectation and prevailing prejudice, he learned the art of the imposter. By 14 he knew he was gay. "Out of love", his parents made it clear that wasn't going to fly.

They wanted what they thought best for him. It was a time when it wasn't cool to be be gay, when in his African-American neighbourhood it could be dangerous. "I literally watched a couple of gay dudes in my neighbourhood get tortured - regular trips to the hospital in ambulances - because they were openly gay.

"I grew up with the notion that people felt a lot better about me whenever I showed up with a girl." When his future (now ex) wife came along, people seemed relieved. "I went down the path a lot of closeted gay men did of my generation. It just made the noise go away."

Signals were everywhere. He opened the text book in his first year of a psychology degree to find homosexuality listed as a mental disorder.

After three years working as a psychologist at a community mental health centre, he lied to get into the military, signing a document which required him to formally deny he was gay. "I'd lied about who I was before so it wasn't a big deal for me, " he says, referencing his marriage and the conservative branch of the Catholic church he attended.

Homosexuality had been a crime in the US until World War II and until 1974 gay soldiers could be kicked out on the grounds they were mentally ill. Hillman found himself in a window where some of the witch-hunts had stopped but openly gay soldiers were still banned.

He excelled as an educator in the air force and in 1994 was among 45 selected to sit on Clinton's military panel to decide whether to lift the ban.

"I define it as when irony met integrity. They clashed head-on and it created this existential thing for me." For three months he was sequestered as "a straight imposter" listening to anti-gay groups spout "all kind of horrible stereotypes and lies about how gay troops would threaten the moral fortitude of the military". Gay people were depicted as "immoral, criminal, sick, twisted and untrustworthy".

He'd heard it all before but this time it was different. "This time they were telling lies about a real person who was an outstanding officer." He bridled when an admiral angrily objected to an estimate that between 10 and 20 per cent of military personnel were gay. The admiral banged the table and said: "I have never met or served with anyone gay."

Hillman thought of leaping to his feet. "Could this be my 15 minutes of fame, or not? And the answer was not. I was too mindful of what I could lose. That is the extent that I had gone to fit in, that signifies how much I had lost the plot."

Integrity soon got the upper-hand. A medal was pinned on him for distinguished service on the commission, which had reached a decision that made no difference - gay people would still have to stay in the closet, this time under a policy of 'Don't ask, don't tell'.

"Inside I was a hollow man who could barely look myself in the eye."

That's when he sat down with his wife and had the most difficult conversation he expects to have in his life. "It was a sad period. She suffered and I did. I love my ex-wife." They never became estranged and he regularly sees her, his daughters and a grandchild.

"My family love the fact that I am whole. "

New Zealand, a country he knew little about, took some adjusting to. He did so by turning his voice down and paying attention to Kiwi ways and language. It took years before he could say Whakatane or Whakapapa without blushing.

Of corporate differences, he says Kiwi companies could do with a surge in EQ. "I don't think there is enough affirmation in New Zealand companies, acknowledging that basic human need of staff to be affirmed. That head-down, bum-up thing is real."

Kiwis are less tolerant than Americans of bravado, pomp and ceremony, which could raise questions about whether the person was on board with the team or pursuing their own agenda. "You have to work a bit harder here to have business folk understand that your bravado is around the success of the team and the business."

Hillman says he turned his own bravado down initially but feels Kiwis cut him some slack "because I'm different, African-American, gay".

He came for three years more than a decade ago and doesn't plan to leave.

Air Vice-Marshall Mike Yardley recently invited him to tell his story about being a closeted gay in the US military to the top 120 officers in the RNZAF. "It was a phenomenal experience. It was my 60th birthday and their message was 'welcome home Major Hillman'. I never dreamed I'd deliver that story in front of military brass, and to be so warmly received for it ... "

At a glance: Harold Hillman

• The ultimate imposter, an outstanding gay officer at a time the US military banned homosexuals.

• Served on Bill Clinton's presidential commission which came up with the infamous "don't ask, don't tell" compromise.

• Later came out, deciding the cost of conforming was too big a price.

• Left corporate New York for a job with Fonterra and now lives in Auckland as a business coach and author.