THE BLOG

Corporate America: The New Gay Activists

Jul 16, 2007 | Updated May 25, 2011

In a recent study by Gallup, almost ninety percent of Americans said they believe gay people should have equal rights in the workplace. Interestingly, only forty-seven percent of these same people believe that being gay is "morally acceptable." So what has convinced nearly nine out of ten people across the country that gays and lesbians deserve equality at work even when they don't believe gay is OK? Charting a course unplanned but nevertheless successful, Corporate America is shaping up to be the most persuasive gay activists of the decade.

How are they doing it? With a simple three-step formula: credibility + education + action. It's a winning combination that actually fuels progress toward achieving equality in other arenas including politically charged topics like same-sex marriage. Having recently returned from a speaking tour that included stops at some of the most historically conservative firms in the country, I found that Corporate America's message supporting the rights of their gay employees is transcending political, economic and even religious barriers.

Here's how their formula works:

Credibility: In an age in which visual perceptions are everything, these blue-chip companies are shining a spotlight on their gay and lesbian employees as professional, hard-working and successful. For example, in a series of ads that have run in some of the most widely circulated magazines in the nation, IBM visually depicts their gay employees in just this context. Even those people who still think we are not "morally acceptable" have to admit there is nothing threatening or subversive going on among these professionals. Companies are also granting the media access to their successful gay executives for profiles in business magazines, news programs and documentaries. As a contemporary anecdote for homophobia, this heightened visibility of gay people in the world of work goes a long way in creating mainstream credibility, which by the way is essential in order to reach the long-term goal of sexual orientation simply being a non-issue.

Education: As the VP of Human Resources at a major firm on Wall Street told me, "Once credibility is established, it's possible to inject knowledge into the collective company brain." This is apparently where I come into the equation since they are paying me good money to "inject" new information into their companies about effective leadership. At one of my corporate stops, I led a seminar with several senior management types about why out-of-the-closet gay executives in companies like Deloitte, Disney and Morgan Stanley are managing employees who report significantly higher levels of job engagement, satisfaction and morale than employees of straight managers in other environments. While I was prepared to hit a brick wall with a group described to me as "primarily straight, white and republican," I was surprised at how receptive they were to learning about this new twist in business leadership. However, without having already established the credibility of gay professionals, the room would have been empty.

Action: Credibility and education pave the way for change to actually take place, which is always the end goal of any good activist. In this context, Corporate America has taken action by including sexual orientation and gender identity in EEO statements, adding domestic partner benefits to their roster of employee offerings and actually going out into the world to recruit gay employees at high-profile events such as Reaching Out MBA. Most important, they are providing environments where gay people can achieve based on their talents and skills and not held back because of personal demographics. And of course, the best reason why Corporate America will likely stay on its current course of unintentional gay activism is money. Inclusion as it turns out is good for the bottom line, making a positive impact on creativity, productivity, retention and loyalty.

Personally, the tipping point that convinced me Corporate America will be recognized in history books as giving fuel to the gay community's final charge on the "hill of equality" came after speaking to a full house at an event sponsored by the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. After my presentation, I was introduced to the founder of a group I thought only existed in the overactive imaginations of gay gossip wags. Much like the gay mafia, I thought these rumors were just as likely to be without merit. But I found out otherwise. The group is called the G Suite. A play on the business term C-Suite designating chief officer positions, the G Suite is an ever-growing collection of high-level gay corporate executives, wealthy philanthropists and select political types working together (rather stealth-like up until this point it seems) toward a common objective: helping to place the first out-of-the-closet CEO at the helm of a major Fortune 500 company. By supporting and connecting those professionals most likely to become the chosen one, the G Suite is in many respects, a modern-day Mattachine Society. The difference of course, is that the G Suite has emerged at a time when Corporate America has become the unexpected champion of gay rights activism rather than forged amid the pent-up oppression of the 1950's.

While many veteran activists will scream and yell over this shift in battlefields from outside the establishment to inside the establishment, a new era of gay activism has dawned. Thanks in large part to Corporate America, the road to anti-gay hate crimes, same-sex marriage, and even gay adoption may already be paved. Not through Washington, but through Wall Street. After all, they've convinced nine out of ten people that gay people deserve to be treated fairly at work so why not speed things up and make the most out of their successful formula. The G Suite folks seem to have the right idea, capitalize on the rising profile of gay people in business and help them up the corporate ladder to the top office. An out-of-the-closet CEO of any blue-chip company will be a watershed day for gay equality. More than likely, all of those other watershed days we've been waiting for will then simply fall into place.