Recently, when PayPal and Deutsche Bank ditched nearly 700 new jobs they promised to North Carolina, and over 160 corporations told Gov. Pat McCrory, “It’s the economy, stupid,” I was not surprised. With the lightning passage of the state’s anti-LGBT House Bill 2, North Carolina’s economic barometer tanked.
What does surprise me, however, is the impression this sea change happened overnight. Not by a long shot. In fact, it may have been the best-not-kept-secret in the nation. The real truth is this tide in American business actually emerged over two decades ago.
When I started Out & Equal 20 years ago, the United States was a different society. While many of us came to work each morning, most of us still left our real identities at home, especially the life we enjoyed with the partner we loved.
However, by hosting the Out & Equal Workplace Summit each year — the impact of bringing together more than 3,500 LGBT and ally executives and employee resource group leaders has shifted the global workplace equality landscape.
When I began this work 20 years ago, I started by simply building vocabularies and explaining the meaning of basic terms like lesbian and gay, let alone bisexual and transgender. In the absence of a federal law to protect us, I went company by company to ensure that they included us in their policies. This patient and painstaking dialogue gave many people the confidence to open their minds before they opened their doors and improved their policies.
Achieving LGBT equality has always had many struggles, and the workplace is just one of them, but a crucial one we discovered early and often. Experience tells us that business leaders, as a habit, tend to be cautious and conservative. They understand the balance of risk and reward and make most decisions accordingly.
Nonetheless, many business leaders also have vision and the gift to see trends before many others do. When markets evolve, opinions change, metrics adapt; they get it. These conversations not only transformed how business sees us but how we see ourselves as contributing to our employers’ success. It wasn’t about us or them. It was about us — all of us.
We argued for equal treatment, equal respect, and equal worth — by advocating for same-sex partner benefits, championing nondiscrimination policies that touched all of us, and campaigning for transgender-inclusive health care.
Twenty years ago, fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 employers banned discrimination due to a person’s sexual orientation. Today, 93 percent of these companies offer sexual orientation protections, while 75 percent also provide protections against discrimination based on gender identity or expression.
Much has changed since we began building these deep relationships, but there is still much to be done. Out & Equal has been leading the international movement towards global workplace equality for well over a decade. We can be arrested and imprisoned and even killed in nearly 80 countries around the globe, simply because of who we love — it is clear, our global work is as important in 2016 as it was in 1996.
We work to help companies navigate the muddy waters of a global marketplace, we provide opportunities for companies to come together to build community and share best practices in countries where that’s most needed. And while we do that work in every corner of the globe, it is now needed just as much here in our country. This was highlighted just last week, when after the draconian and discriminatory laws in the South were passed, the U.K. put out a travel warning for its LGBT citizens who were thinking of visiting the U.S.
We know that with progress come setbacks and backlash. In some parts of the U.S., we see discriminatory legislation in the form of “bathroom bills,” targeting vulnerable transgender people. Other reprisals take the shape of so-called religious freedom or religious exemption legislation that invents new forms of sanctioned discrimination for those who mistakenly believe our civil rights are on a collision course with people of faith.
In North Carolina, as we witnessed in Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee, corporate and business leaders have been our unflinching allies to defeat these backward moves, and in some cases, to take their jobs and their valuable investments elsewhere. And many other progressive states are equally enthusiastic to welcome them instead.
I am especially proud to see partners like IBM, Disney, Marriott, and Dow Chemical, for example, speak up and speak out about these hurtful and damaging policies. They have learned over the years that discriminatory legislation is not only morally wrong, it is incompatible with a successful company culture and with the corporate imperative to attract, retain, and develop the best and the brightest talent that the U.S. has to offer.
Companies that lead with an authentic commitment to diversity have witnessed that when a person is truly empowered to bring their entire, authentic self to work they perform better. And in choosing where to work, employees seek out companies with inclusive policies and benefits. To successfully compete in today’s global marketplace, companies must be committed to workplace diversity and inclusion.
Consumers also value businesses that are diverse in philosophy and inclusive in practice. The vast majority of LGBT consumers in the U.S. say they take a company’s inclusive policies into account when making purchases with their collective $884 billion buying power. At this critical juncture on the path to equality, supporting businesses that take a proactive stance for LGBT equality is vital. To achieve the change that we want to see, we know that we cannot have better friends than our business allies and advocates.
In the past, many of us spent so much effort hiding ourselves just to keep our jobs. Today, we know it’s by being honest and open on the job and in our lives that’s given us the power to change America and the world. Tens of thousands of LGBT employees and our allies have literally changed the world - one cubicle, one workplace ... and one state at a time.
SELISSE BERRY is founder and chief executive officer of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, the world’s largest nonprofit organization specifically dedicated to creating safe and equitable workplaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.