For Gays, Some Doors Open Wider

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006

Ten years ago, companies barely acknowledged that they even had gay employees. But today, companies increasingly offer domestic-partner benefits, support gay pride events and actively recruit gay employees.

Another marker released this week, the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, shows that more companies than ever support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) workers. The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group, has done the survey for five years.

Companies were asked questions about benefits, anti-discrimination policies and other programs for GLBT employees. Out of 446 companies rated, 138 earned a perfect score of 100 percent. When the survey began, 13 companies of 319 rated had a perfect score. Only nine of the companies that scored 100 this year were surveyed for the first time.

"I can't say it's what drew me to the firm because I joined long before these issues were in anyone's mind," said Helene Madonick, an openly gay partner at District-based Arnold & Porter LLP, which got a 100 percent rating this year. She has been with the firm for about 20 years. The firm was not ranked in previous years but asked to be a part of the survey this year. "But it's certainly one of the reasons I stay here," Madonick said. "It's an indicator of the working environment that is inclusive and recognizes individuality."

Companies are finding it is a business imperative to take diversity, including sexuality and gender issues, into account.

For one, employees need to feel their company supports them. But even more, companies need to show that they are inclusive to attract and retain the right employees in a tight, competitive market. They also need to attract customers and clients. According to some estimates, about 10 percent of the population is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

"These organizations realize that a portion of their customer base is gay and lesbian, and by offering domestic-partner benefits, they are sending a powerful message to this constituency that they value this business," said Keith Greene, vice president of member relations at the Society for Human Resource Management. "They are also smart enough to know that it is a very competitive market when it comes to acquiring and retaining top talent with the specific skills that these companies need, and their goal is to cast a wide net to find, get and keep the best people. So it becomes a business decision."

Today, 33 states, including Virginia, do not outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Maryland and the District do outlaw it, however, and 85 percent of the Fortune 500 companies bar it as well. As of this year, the majority of them provide domestic-partner health benefits, up from just one company in 1992.

"I think the corporations are recognizing that in order to be as innovative as we have to be and as competitive as we have to be, we have to avail ourselves of all the talent out there," said Joyce E. Tucker, vice president of global diversity and employee rights at Boeing Co., which got a 100 rating. "Everyone has something to contribute. Wherever the talent is coming from, we want that."

Boeing has gone a bit further. It added to its official equal employment opportunity policy a prohibition of discrimination against people based on gender identity. Although many companies already include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies, a growing number are adding gender identity. The new term covers not only GLBT employees and those who are transitioning from one sex to another, but also workers who might be chided for not acting male or female enough.

The first company to include gender identity or expression in its corporate policy was Lucent Technologies Inc. in 1997. Today, 166 major corporations are known to include it in their policies, according to the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, which measures and trains companies on gender policies. That number has more than tripled since 2004, when there were 52.

Boeing is also in the forefront in that it created guidelines this year to help support employees who are transitioning from one sex to another. Boeing has designated a person (called the Gender Transition Leader or GTL) for employees to go to when they decide to start the process, which takes one to five years, Tucker said. That person helps them come out to co-workers and managers. The guidelines also outline what dress is appropriate as they go through the change, with whom they can talk to support them through the process, and how they can file complaints if they are being harassed or discriminated against.

In addition, the company helps create a "forum" to discuss the change with co-workers and managers, to help them also understand.

"We looked at the experiences that we were having at Boeing with a number of employees that were transgendering and thought it was time to add to this policy," Tucker said.

But not all major companies are interested in providing such benefits, which hasn't escaped the attention of supporters of gay and lesbian rights.

Exxon Mobil Corp. does not offer benefits to new employees' same-sex domestic partners in the United States. The company was one of three that received a zero rating on the 2006 Equality Index. Mobil Corp. had offered benefits to gay and lesbian workers equal to those offered to married workers. But when it was acquired by Exxon Corp. in 1999, those benefits disappeared.

As a result, the company has been the focus of efforts by shareholders and rights groups to change its policies.

Some companies, however, have encountered a backlash for showing support of gay and lesbian employees or business. When news got out last month that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had partnered with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, it created a stir among some religious groups that said they would consider not shopping at the retail giant. Wal-Mart received a scored of 65 on the Equality Index this year.

Corporate America is "driven by the business model, and that says what's good for business is the most welcoming, most diverse workforce," said Joe Solmonese, Human Rights Campaign president. "There were a couple instances over last year where the radical right has reared its ugly head in the last vestiges of an attempt to make this a battleground. And what they have found is that corporate America is always going to come down on the side of that which is good for business."

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