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Activist, past tense

(Still) Changing the Workplace

Excerpt from “The 100 Best Companies for Gay Men and Lesbians” (Pocket Books, 1994)

Making More Gay-Friendly Companies

Ultimately, the only goal we can have as gay men and lesbians is to make every company gay-friendly. While this is an agenda that is sure to put opponents of change into a tizzy, it’s a goal we owe to ourselves, and the generations of us to come. Maybe someday business will even realize it’s value.

Changing the law and the opinions of the electorate isn’t enough, as women, African-Americans and others can attest. The task is larger than that. We’re going to have to teach industry by industry, company by company, individual by individual.

Happily, the process is well under way, and it’s not as mysterious or foreboding as some might fear. All the employers listed  in this book have been through it, or something similar to it, or are undergoing the process now. You can initiate it where you are now, or select a new employer where circumstances better suit you.

I’ve already outlined the basic issues companies need to be aware of–safety, acceptance and equality–and  how to address them: in policy, education and benefits. Now I’d like to set out an action plan for lesbian and gay employees and our allies.

The preliminary step is that you recognize the value of your own talent. If you can’t appreciate it, few others will. And your  talent is the single most important negotiating we have.

Come Out

Obviously, nothing can be expected to change unless the problem becomes tangible. Anti-gay initiatives best succeed when we are an abstraction; that’s why they need us to remain silent. Don’t collaborate. Make it personal. Tell your own stories and experiences; these are the most powerful educational tools we  have.

There’s risk here, since it’s impossible to anticipate how people will react. What  matters most is that you come out in a way that’s natural for you, that’s consistent with your own standards. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one way. Just be honest, and follow your own comfort level. If you’re harassed, keep notes. Document everything.  Then bring it to your boss, your boss’s boss, or to the human resources manager. To your union, if you’re  member. Or call corporate headquarters. If they don’t take you seriously, you may have other options. If you’re in a protected jurisdiction, you might consult  your state or city human rights commission. If you’re not, you might consider going public. Get help.

Please note: if you work or live in a place where coming out  may  be physically dangerous, be realistic. Be careful. We need you alive. Give those of us in safer environments a little more time to make progress. (Please note, those of us in safer environments!)

Band Together

Once you’ve started the coming out process, you’re likely to find  out you’re not alone. Reach out. Create a network; if possible, form a group. If it has a friendly social atmosphere, it’s more likely to develop a healthy dynamic of its  own. But don’t overlook the importance of support. People should feel comfortable talking about their concerns and problems. It’s crucial that you respect one another’s choices, especially about coming out. Be sensitive, too, to our own differences, such as gender, race, religion, lifestyle, and perhaps most important in this situation, position in the organization. You don’t need a clique. You need a united front.

Get Strategic

As  individuals and as a group, begin to identify problems. Look for patterns. Then think creatively: develop specific solutions to the problems. It’s more productive than whining. Each workplace is different, but hopefully this book has provided some ideas to start with. Depending on where the  employer is on a gay-friendly scale, you may need a non-discrimination policy, or enforcement of one, to deal with harassment; inclusion in training programs to deal with other forms of discrimination; or a reexamination of benefits policy.

This is also an ideal time to start doing your homework–it’ll come in handy later. Teamwork helps a lot here. Get the latest versions of company policy. Take part in training programs. Ask questions. If you’re need is for equal benefits, learn the details of existing benefits policy. Find friends  in the human resources, benefits or legal departments–if you don’t already have members there–so they can help you understand the intricacies. Also, find out what other companies are doing, especially other companies in your industry or profession. Get copies of their policies. They are exhibits-in-waiting.

Communicate

Get out and around the company and start making allies. They don’t have to be gay, just supportive, or at least helpful. This isn’t so much about numbers but about cultivating assistance in valuable places. You can keep it informal at this point, since you’re still learning. Make the group’s case to the diversity manager, if there is  one–that person should be familiar with some concepts from literature in the field. Ditto human resources and benefits, if that’s a separate function. Definitely talk to union representatives, if any unions are involved (and if this won’t completely freak out management). If you’re really thinking ahead, you might start talking with folks from communications and marketing; they will be essential for getting your message out to the rest of the company, and later, when fears start surfacing about an organized  backlash. If you’re really  lucky, you might find a senior executive somewhere (gay or not) who’s willing to act as a mentor.

If other employee groups already exist (such as for women or racial groups), I can’t emphasize enough the value of building bridges toward  them. In all likelihood,  you’ll have members in common (though  they may not come forward). Most important, other groups have already been through much of the process you’re about to go through, such as getting acknowledged by the company, opening dialogue, influencing training policy, and so on. You don’t haveto reinvent the wheel. They’ll probably gladly share their own experiences and methods. And you’ll probably be able to return favors later.

Present a Plan

Since the whole  organization is probably buzzing by now, it’s time to go official. First, have the group do itself a favor by choosing one or two articulate members to serve as spokespersons. The  chief issue here is that too many voices can blur the impact of the message. Also, given the hierarchical nature of most companies, having only one or two contacts will simplify communication–it will probably make the powers-that-be more comfortable. They may even take you more seriously.

Then sit down together and make a plan of action–what do you expect the company to do? What are the most pressing problems? What steps should come first? What later? You might ask for a non-discrimination policy first, then recognition of your group. Group participation in training is a logical next step. Approach benefits gradually, starting first with no-cost or low-cost items like partner access to company events or facilities. Then work your way up.

The most successful action plans that I’ve seen (such as at Apple) are those that take a gradual step approach. Don’t lay all your expectations on the table at once; you’ll probably just alienate an important potential ally. Remember, you’re educating. Start simple, gain trust, and open up a continuing dialogue. It works.

When you’re ready, set an appointment with the highest-ranking official you can, preferably the CEO. If the company is really huge, the director of human resources will do. Your highest-ranking allies will probably be the most help here, both in selecting whom to talk to, and getting the appointment. Send only your designated spokespersons. they should keep the presentation  short and to the point. State the problems. Suggest the solutions. Show the documentation and exhibits you’ve been collecting. Don’t talk about human rights, no matter how passionately you feel. Keep strictly to business issues: productivity, morale, loyalty, the law.  For the first time, present only  what you think is  essential. Then listen. Somebody else might be appointed as a liaison to your group. Don’t worry, it probably means you have  your collective foot inthe door.

Expect Resistance

You’re not going to get an immediate response to anything. Sometimes we forget, because we live with them all the time, how new lesbian and  gay issues are to most other people. Their first reaction may be to resist something they don’t understand. Be prepared. Have answers. You may have to give it time to sink in.

That’s internal resistance. Expect external, too. Militant heterosexuals within the company probably won’t put up a direct objection to your requests; most would be too ashamed or afraid to be perceived as bigots, especially in contrast to your courage. Their approach is usually to alert an outside fundamentalist group, which can then start cranking out the letters and activating the phone trees.

Even if this doesn’t happen, management may fear that it will.  Here’s where allies in  communication sand marketing will prove invaluable to allay that paranoia. They will know how to present change both within the company, and outside to the media. They will know the company’s markets, and be able to tell if an attack would have any real effect, or if it’s just a lot of noise.

Be Patient

Depending on the size and complexity of the organization, change can take time. Remember, this is a long-term process. Be open to negotiating, if that’s what it takes. But obviously there are some areas that don’t have room for compromise. Either a company permits discrimination or it doesn’t. Either it advocates tolerance and acceptance or it doesn’t. In terms of equality–well, that’s where it can get complex, because money is involved. You can still  stand on principle. You’re the petitioner, but you’re also the talent. Do they know what you’re worth? If you’ve come this far in the process, they probably do. And if they don’t, it’s probably time for you to show them  that you do.

Looking Beyond

When I think it through, I have no trouble believing that the  lesbian and gay goal of achieving safety, acceptance and equality in the workplace will be achieved, and quickly.  Unlike so many other arenas of  life, where numbers are against us, the workplace gives us a chance for a clear-cut  bargain: our talents for respect. And we have indisputably so much to offer.

But sometimes I try to figure out where it fits into a larger scheme. (Friends like to make fun of me as a “big picture” kind of guy.) I can see it as one of the great–and may be one of the last–frontiers of the gay and lesbian rights movement. Because it’s one we’ve been so afraid of for so long. Because it’s such an important aspect of life. Because it brings with it almost unimagined opportunities for us to correct prejudice, and to show our real worth.

Sometimes I see it as an arena in which, for once, we all see a tangible, immediate value. It’s something we can each work  for in our diverse, creative styles, and seethe benefit accrue to all of us and each of us. As we make progress, each of us changes, for the better. I see so much energy and optimism released by this workplace stuff, I almost believe we, such valuable agents of change, could accomplish anything.

Could we change business? Capitalism? Society? Humanity? Maybe. I  don’t  know. I find myself going back more and more to the still-unanswered questions posed more than forty years ago by Harry Hay and the philosophers of the early Mattachine Society: “Who are we? Where have we come from? What are we here for?” That’s when I get impatient. I want to see this workplace change succeed, be over and done with. Because we have so much more important work to do.

Copyright Ed Mickens 1994

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