My husband will tell you that I’ve been an activist as long as I’ve been a gay man. It’s impossible for me to separate the two.
For some, activism often erupts in boycotts. In 1979, Florida’s orange growers felt the wrath of gay people everywhere pouring orange juice down the gutter to stand up to the homophobic Anita Bryant, who famously advertised Florida oranges. Just last year, Harvey Fierstein urged us to pour Russian vodka down the drain in protest of Russia’s antigay laws.
Boycotts can sting; they are noisy too. However, over the decades, I find our community’s economic clout has a compelling upside, too. I share my lifelong values with my mentor and late friend, Kevin J. Mossier, who founded and operated one of the world’s earliest and most successful gay travel companies, RSVP Vacations. He believed not only in opening up the world for LGBT people, but also believed in building a better world through commerce and travel. He was right about both.
When Kevin passed away in 1996, his trusted friends followed his wishes to create a foundation to help accelerate LGBT equality and acceptance. But before we could become philanthropists, we first aimed to be prudent investors, and to grow Kevin’s bequest by favoring stocks of companies that shared his vision and our values. We wanted to grow our assets through corporations that “got it” and that equally valued LGBT people, on the job as well as in the market. After all, there were “green” funds and stock indexes that walked away from tobacco, munitions, or animal-testing, to name a few, as a way to support conscientious investors. Why not create a process that allowed us to invest only in equality-minded companies that offered the potential for market returns as well?
In 2001, Denver Investments created many of the screens used in the Workplace Equality Index. We agreed on screening criteria that was perfectly sensible — by including a mandatory EEO statement prohibiting discrimination on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as offering health benefits to same-sex partners along with other corporate benefits and perks.
During this process, we discovered some remarkable things. Many companies felt secretive about disclosing their policies or even talking about recruiting or hiring openly LGBT talent. They were wary about our purpose. But while some companies kept silent, others didn’t. Bolder companies updated their EEO policies simply because they were asked, and recognized the message they sent to investors about fairness and equality was just as important as the message they sent to customers.
Just as important for us to learn was whether corporations can align their policies with prudent investing in the marketplace. When we began in the late 1990s, the Mossier Foundation was the new kid on the block with several million dollars in assets, and profoundly risk-averse, since Kevin’s estate required prudent oversight.
By the early 2000s, as the Human Rights Campaign began educating LGBT consumers on when (and where) they opened their wallets, the Workplace Equality Index grew our influence as corporate investors too. Over the past 15 years, the Mossier Foundation has been able to donate over $7.5 million to more than 40 causes and nonprofits from Lambda Legal, the Transgender Law Center, and Freedom to Marry, to PFLAG, GLSEN, and Minneapolis Public Schools.
Through my experience as an activist, trustee and investor, I have learned first-hand that the language of business — found in metrics and data — is the language of social change too. Denver Investments’ Workplace Equality Index, which long ago guided our decisions as a fledgling LGBT foundation, is now a living benchmark that teaches and motivates business leaders as much as illuminates their policies.
With the maturity today of the Corporate Equality Index under the leadership of the Human Rights Campaign, we know that everyday activities — like favoring the friendly brands and products we want in our home — sends resonant messages to companies. Now, with the Workplace Equality Index, we as investors have a way to send just as powerful a message to businesses by investing in those companies that believe in LGBT equality.
In my opinion, as a capitalist — as well as a gay man and an activist — it’s not only possible but necessary to change the world and to grow our economic allies and leaders.
CHARLIE ROUNDS is a principal at OutThink Partners, member of the Advisory Board of the Workplace Equality Index™, and Chair of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association Foundation board of directors. Charlie and his husband, Mark Hiemenz, live in Minneapolis.