The Official Website Of Urvashi Vaid


What Faces the LGBT Workplace Equality Movement Today?

“The biggest and most important opportunity lies in moving the corporate commitment to LGBT inclusion from the marketing sides of the shop to the policy influencing side.”

This presentation was made on April 20, 2010 in New York City at the Annual Out and Equal Leadership Summit.

Thank you to Selisse Berry, the Out and Equal Board and to Christie for this invitation!  In our short time together, I want to offer both a broad and particular perspective, to share a view of the status of the LGBT movement generally, and the challenges and opportunities facing our workplace movement in particular.

This is a mixed moment for LGBT people. We are making progress, and experiencing really frustrating setbacks. We are more visible than ever, and yet our people remain largely closeted. Support for LGBT nondiscrimination is high, but understanding of LGBT people’s lives and issues remains low. We are gaining in public opinion polls on family recognition, but have yet to see those gains translate into action by our non-gay families, coworkers and friends. Familial homophobia is a pervasive reality and most of our friends and colleagues do not “own” the LGBT equality movement as their own struggle. And frankly, the sad truth is that most LGBT people ourselves do not “own”, participate in or claim identification with our equality movement.

There are three specific contexts within which the LGBT Workplace Equality movement sits.

(1) First, it is increasingly clear, globally and in the US, that the battle for LGBT freedom is cultural – or a struggle about values and for the full acceptance of gayness – as much as it is legal – or a struggle about law and policy change. California and Uganda teach us the same lesson: LGBT people will continue to lose at the polls ( as we did in California) and will face insane attempts to criminalize us and institute the death penalty against us (as we do in Uganda) if we do not contest the denigration of our lives by religious and political leaders and by those who believe they are interpreting the great moral codes.

Since the 50’s the LGBT movement has focused primarily on the legal, legislative and administrative policy fields. That has been effective and remains necessary. But gay civil and political equality has run into the buzz-saw of moral condemnation. From Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children Crusade in 1977 to today, at the root of every anti-gay policy or position today is still an often unstated but clear set of assumptions that gayness is bad or somehow shameful. Moral disapproval against us has stayed fairly constant over time, despite the gains made by LGBT people in securing majority support for equal rights.

The moral condemnation of homosexuality can be tracked over time in answers to a question asked in the General Social Survey each year since 1972: “What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex — do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” As researcher Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago (NORC) notes “Approval of homosexual activity has never been high. In the mid-1970s 69-70% said it was always wrong and this moved upwards to 76-77% during the mid-1980s to early 1990s (Table 22). Then after 1991 disapproval began falling. By 2006 only 56% considered homosexuality was always wrong. Likewise, objection to gay marriage fell from 73% in 1988 to 51% in 2006 (with 35% accepting it and 14% neither approving nor disapproving)(Table 24)”. (See, “Changes in Family Structure etc.” Tom Smith, NORC, 2007, Updated 2008).

The moral denigration of homosexuality also prevents us from being seen as the great parents, neighbors, citizens and family members that we are; it allows straight voters to bifurcate their views – “I got nothing against gays, I just don’t think its right.” It sanctions the high and intolerable levels of violence that LGBT people experience and it may explain the public silence of many of our families, who perpetuate the public homophobia we face with thousands of private indignities.

Anti-gay moral condemnation arises primarily from religious interpretations that characterize our desire as a violation of the divine code – usually as written or interpreted in various texts. This moral condemnation of homosexuality transcends particular religions, countries, ideologies, skin color and even deep-seated nationalist or fundamentalist hatreds.

What is the answer? I think it can be found in the ways that LGBT people and our allies have organized inside every faith tradition to engage and refute the anti-gay arguments made against them. We have a movement today that seeks the moral equality of LGBT people alongside our full human rights. This vibrant and growing movement is now the majoritarian voice in denominations like the Episcopal and Methodist churches; in the UCC, the Unitarian Universalist Church, the MCC church, within Reform and increasingly Conservative Judaism. The argument for our moral equality is being carried inside the conventions and regulatory bodies of many religious denominations, congregations across the country are striving to be more welcoming of their LGBT members, coalitions of clergy and faith leaders are pending their voices to anti-violence measures and nondiscrimination laws, and seminaries and houses of religious training and religious scholars are enlivening our understanding of religious traditions by countering the fundamentalist interpretations with grounded and sound theological frameworks. This vital and growing pro-LGBT faith movement in this country needs much more energy, visibility, support and resourcing.

What we still lack is a movement that actively engages our straight families and friends. There are some new attempts to expand what PFLAG has been alone in pioneering.

(2) A second contextual reality is that although the LGBT Movement sits within a global and multiracial world, its leadership remains largely white, still largely male and still largely western and European. Our movement must expand its leadership, diversity its public face, change its agenda and programs to reflect the lives of people of color in the US and non-Western LGBT communities globally.  I do not offer this argument out of some abstract commitment to racial diversity – but out of hard earned experience and real-politik. The losses we have experienced over the past three decades, reinforce the need for racial and gender diversity in our leadership, organizing strategies and messages.

In particular, this lesson was reinforced by the 2008 elections: LGBT people cannot afford to avoid communities of color or issues of racial justice as a movement. In the aftermath of the California vote there was an immediate and false blaming of the African American vote based on exit poll data only. The loss of a large share of the African American vote was in fact attributable to a series of interlocking problems that included – the lack of a relationship between a GLBT movement and the black community, the lack of POC leaders in the gay movement who could organize in communities of color, the failure of the Prop 8 campaign to organize in communities of faith and communities of color, and the anti-gay religious world view that I discussed earlier which influences white, black, brown and across all ages.

While the religious right has invested nearly 20 years of effort to build relationships with black and brown clergy, the LGBT movement has done very little. While the right marshals eloquent anti-gay advocates of color to speak against us, our own community lacks strong and out and powerful Black and brown leaders to speak for us. LGBT people of color within both communities of color and within the LGBT movement lack power voice and visibility. While 25% of the GLBT population is POC, less than 10% of foundation funding for LGBT issues goes to organizations and projects serving LGBT POC. Fewer than ½ of all autonomous POC organizations received foundation funding in 2007 and 75% ad budgets under $100,000. (Source, Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues, January 2008 report).

The global LGBT movement faces a similar deficit. I was in Geneva two years ago attending a meeting of the Human Rights Council – the global multilateral body charged with monitoring and advancing human rights around the world. Speaker after speaker denounced homosexuality as a western thing – arguing in effect that it was a western import, not to be found indigenously in their own country . This is utter nonsense as we all know, yet it is conventional wisdom. Why? Because we do not have voices and organizations strong and powerful enough representing the Global South in Geneva to counter these myths.

(3) The third contextual reality we face is that despite the growth of the LGBT movement over the past three decades, the level of participation by individual LGBT people and by our straight allies remains fractional to our potential. For example, the Williams Institute at UCLA conservatively estimates that there are 8.9 million LGBT adults in the US. But the Movement Advancement Project further documents that there are fewer than 304,000 donors who gave $35 or more to 52 of the largest national and local LGBT organizations in 2007. Much is made of the wealthy gay people who exist—but fewer than 18,000 of the donors of LGBT organizations sampled in this study gave more than $1,000 in 2007. There are fewer than 3 Million unique names of people in all the databases of these 52 organizations in the US (and obviously not all of these names there are of LGBT people). Far too few of our own people participate in and support our movement. The LGBT movement must always address this reality and strive to develop innovative ways to reach and motivate our own base.

The LGBT Workplace Equality movement today also faces several critical contextual challenges and several opportunities – let me note three of each.

The first challenge of course is the global economic crisis. Whether you believe we are still in a recession, a depression or think things are not so bad is likely informed by the industry in which you work – oil and gas are doing just fine! Nevertheless, all of us are facing the argument of limited resources and being asked to meet growing needs and demands with fewer financial resources. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, they say. I’m not sure this applies in your worlds, but I do know that power yields nothing without a demand. In a context of limited resources, the workplace movement must be insistent that the corporate sector does not lessen its commitment to LGBT organizations.

A second critical challenge I think the workplace movement faces is in leadership. There continues to be a dearth of openly LGBT board members and CEO’s at the top of most of our companies. While there is no guarantee that a gay person will be an advocate of gay people, our experience in the political world makes clear that having openly gay leadership makes a difference. Boards are built out of social and cultural networks as much as they are built out of skills and needs. I think one of the most critical things we should take on is how to consciously create mechanisms that can place great openly gay candidates on boards of all sorts of public and private companies and on nonprofits for that matter. Catalyst has documented some of the challenges of the glass ceiling for LGBT people – environments that are discriminatory even if policies are not, the lack of connection to networks, the need for mentoring. We need more studies that track and explain the issues facing LGBT executives. And we need mechanisms to refute the fear based arguments that there will be an economic consequence if there is openly gay positioning or leadership in a company.

The leadership issue has a corollary, and this is the third challenge the workplace movement faces, there remains a disconnect between the Employee Resource Group (ERG) and workplace world and the LGBT movement leadership. More members of ERG’s and more skilled openly LGBT people must be more integrated into the boards and leadership of nonprofits and foundations as well. I do not mean to ignore the amazing level of participation that does exist, just to argue as I do overall that we need to develop more ways for corporate workforce based individuals to participate in the governance and leadership of LGBT organizations. This is especially apparent to me globally.

When I go to Kenya, Rwanda or South Africa, or when I hear stories from LGBT activists across the Middle East, Southeast Asia or India, I hear about a fledgling and emerging LGBT movement — a movement that needs resourcing AND training of all kinds. Organizations (nonprofit or business) are quite universal in their needs — financial systems, IT systems, HR systems, management systems. And take it from me, the nonprofit world is run by people like me who studied law or who care deeply about policy but who know nothing about management or business, except what we have learned on the job. I’ve always wanted to have a matching service – we are so good at dating games, can’t we create a resource matching game to pair skills with needs?

What opportunities are available to the LGBT workplace movement as well.

The biggest and most important opportunity lies in moving the corporate commitment to LGBT inclusion from the marketing sides of the shop to the policy influencing side! How might you get your companies more deeply involved in public support and advocacy for LGBT equality. Some suggestions for how this might be done.

Encourage companies to undertake and fund more analysis. The paper prepared for this conference suggests that as an initial step each corporation should assess how its core business interacts with social issues and prioritize these social issues. Is the relationship tangential or more generic (i.e. we all care about arts), is it significantly affected by the company’s core business or a relationship of value chain impact (i.e. we need to deal with criminal laws against homosexuality because our workforce will not be safe in this country), or are the social issues under consideration ones that affect the competitive context in which the company operates. I found the directive in the paper to prioritize the impact of the issue on a company quite helpful in the LGBT context because I suspect most of us nor our companies have done such an analysis (perhaps beyond the marketing divisions). I think it’s a challenging analysis to do. However, if a company has a great deal of investment in India, would it be useful to understand what percentage of the company’s workforce there would be impacted by more favorable public policy in India towards LGBT people, in what ways a more favorable climate would affect the bottom line of the company or its competitive advantage? Doing this kind of analysis seems like a great first step on moving our workplaces to greater engagement with LGBT equality issues.

Encourage the Company to direct its Policy/lobbying apparatus to Support LGBT Equality. Every company has legal office, and legislative office. Microsoft has an office focused on state level policies. If your company has a policy on non-discrimination, for example, is the company weighing in to the public debate at the state level, pushing the Chamber of Commerce at the state or at the national level to be more outspoken in support of LGBT equality? Rarely does this happen.

What could we urge our corporate supporters to engage on?  Well, the fact is that there is a very large and specific and agreed upon equality agenda for the LGBT movement today. We are united in this agenda in the US. There is somewhat less awareness of a global LGBT movement but even that is changing and over the next decade the struggle overseas will become more fully integrated into the work of US based organizations. Corporations through the workplace movement can get involved in each of the following policy fights.

  1. Workplace equality – reflected in ultimately the passage of a federal nondiscrimination law that is comprehensive, covers employment, housing and other areas of our lives and that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. We need to pass this federally and in many more states. You can help by organizing the testimony of your leadership in support, offering data about how an environment that encourages nondiscrimination creates economic security for employees, you can call political leaders and get involved in local battles much more actively.
  2. Military Equality – reflected in the repeal of Don’t Ask don’t tell. I’ve often thought that if the defense industry could be organized in support of this – we would win. Why has that not happened with the ERG’s in the defense sector pressing the leadership of those companies to support an end to the discriminatory policy?
  3. Family equality to recognize the myriad ways that LGBT families are denied federal benefits they have earned and deserve; a repeal of DOMA so that states that have enacted same sex marriages can have their marriages recognized. Again, the private sector has more advanced family recognition policies than the public sector, and it has made companies more happy and successful. In MI the auto industry was very helpful in speaking out in support of domestic partner benefits for same sex public employees when these were threatened after the 2004 anti-marriage ban passed in that state.

Encourage the company to publicly campaign for LGBT equality. Finally, and even more overtly, perhaps another opportunity for workplace advocates interested in making a difference in the arena of public engagement and civic participation comes through the whole arena of advocacy. The new Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC allows both for profits and nonprofits that are 501-c-4 to make “independent expenditures” (IE) or “Electioneering Communications” (ED). An Independent Expenditure is any communications that urges the defeat or election of a candidate using words like oppose, elect or defeat but that is NOT coordinated with any candidate, party or their agent. An Electioneering Communication is a broadcast communication that is distributed in a period close to the election and that refers to a federal candidate.

Under the decision, corporations may now use general funds to make IE’s and EC’s to the general public in federal elections. State and local governments that presently ban corporate IE’s and EC’s will have to amend their laws! Corporations do not need to use a PAC to do this any more. This decision applies as well to trade associations, unions and 501-c-4 organizations! How could LGBT activists take advantage of this?

  • Press your corporation’s policy and advocacy offices to add incorporate LGBT issues into their agenda and embed LGBT equality into the policy objectives of the company.
  • Identify key federal races or state ballot initiatives in which there is an LGBT issue at play; research how that issue will affect the company and create an argument for why its important from a CSR and business perspective for the company to be engaged. Research and help to determine a message and develop a campaign to influence that issue. E.g. can the company get involved in the next marriage ballot initiative.
  • Develop voter registration and education programs for the company that include LGBT issues as part of the broader array of social and economic issues and that encourage all employees to be more active and to participate in civic activities.

Do more education within companies. The Catalyst study shows that it is critical for people to move beyond the adoption of policies to the development of deeper understanding and comfort. This is akin to the larger struggle we face for moral acceptance. I think this calls for a greater focus on education within each company on what is facing LGBT people. What creative ways could we use to do this – beyond the diversity training seminar? What about having an openly gay political or cultural leader or performer at a corporate dinner or mainstream gathering or shareholder meeting? How can social media help us reach new people? In the early days of our movement we used to do Board presentations for straight organizations – a sort of homo 101. Would that be a useful strategy to deploy in targeted industries?

Share your expertise. I think it is critical for leaders who are LGBT within corporate America to offer your expertise in achieving and managing diversity and in developing leadership to LGBT nonprofits. Corporate leadership development and personnel management policies exceed and are have a lot to teach the LGBT nonprofit world. A very practical service you could do is to mentor ED’s of LGBT nonprofits – as leaders, but as managers as well.  Similarly, racial diversity in corporate America is hardly a battle that has been won, but there are data, and training programs and lots of thinking that has gone on that could benefit the LGBT nonprofit sector. Can we develop a leadership conference that brings together LGBT nonprofit leaders and LGBT corporate leaders around issues of racial diversity in the workplace?

Insure that companies continue to fund LGBT organizations and programs. Many of you deserve great praise for your work to insure that LGBT organizations receive some measure of funding from companies in which you work. With the economic climate being what it is, I am sure this support has shrunk, at the very instant that it is more vital than ever. I would only encourage you to keep on doing this work, but to also add a faith lens to your approaches. We need to stop seeing religion and sexuality as forces in opposition to each other – there is nothing inherent to that tension – it is entirely manufactured!

Come out and be out everywhere in the workplace. Being out for LGBT people in the workplace is as essential as it is in the world at large. Outness connects to power. The Catalyst study was fascinating in its suggestion that being out for most working people is seen through two very personal lenses – the worry about whether it will harm the person or the desire for a more authentic connection with colleagues at work. The other factors that come into whether we are out or not include our views about privacy, the environment into which we come out and whether they feel “safe” to disclose. Nowhere in the feedback received was the political imperative that the movement used to place on being out – the imperative to “come out, come out wherever you are” as they used to say in the 1970’s. I think this is problematic. The single reason we are making progress as gay people is because more of us are out and organizing than ever before. If we stop being out, our progress is not guaranteed. Data from various surveys of LGBT audiences show high rates of being in the closet – an online survey of LGBT people in 2006 by the Peninsula Group showed only 20% reported being out. 80% said they were fully or partially closeted. A recent survey of LGBT people in Colorado sponsored by the Gill Foundation revealed that more than 60% reported being closeted. This is not good news for our civil rights and our moral equality.

These are just a few ideas for your consideration. I am certain you all have tried some of these and have many others that I have not even mentioned. I’m optimistic enough to believe that the possibilities for LGBT progress are only limited by our imaginations – the obstacles can be overcome, with determination, patient and creative education and the testament of our lives as openly LGBT people.
Thank you.


Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Workplace Issues at

Building LGBT Inclusive Workplaces: Engaging Organizations and Individuals in Change by  Christine Silva and Anika Warren (June 2009, Catalyst).

Building LGBT-Inclusive Workplaces: Engaging Organizations and Individuals in Change

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.