About 200 gay and lesbian business leaders and owners gathered in Washington yesterday in an attempt to strengthen their voice -- and market share -- in the business world.
The National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce is holding its first conference here to try to broaden the influence of what officials called the country's estimated 800,000 gay-owned businesses among larger corporations, vendors and especially, lawmakers.
"We realized that we needed to look outside of the traditional box of social advocacy for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) equality," Justin G. Nelson, co-founder of the chamber, said of forming the group 19 months ago. He and Chance Mitchell studied how the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce "gave an economic face" to Hispanic issues, and decided to follow the same route.
The group, which accepts non-gay-owned companies as members, canceled its Thursday lobbying in Congress because of ceremonies commemorating former president Ronald Reagan. But attendees yesterday attended sessions to discuss such issues as how to raise money, how to break into the business world, and which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues might affect the 2004 election.
The organization is examining "how we can be looked at as minority businesses" to benefit from government programs, Nelson said, but that designation would require legislative changes. So the group is focusing now on seeking private business opportunities, he said.
The new chamber recently launched a program, modeled after the National Minority Supplier Diversity Council, which certifies member businesses so corporate partners can seek them out.
"There has been an absence of a third certified authority like women and minority businesses have," said Nelson, formerly a lobbyist for an ophthalmologists' trade group.
Mitchell, who worked for the House Republican fundraising committee, said the certification program will enhance existing minority business programs because a business that is both minority and gay can be doubly available to sell its product or service to participating corporations.
"The concept of supplier-side diversity has been around for a while," said Michelle E. Phillips, a lawyer with Jackson Lewis LLP who attended the conference. "But it needs to be extended to LGBT . . . It's another disenfranchised population."
The chamber's corporate partners, who have made donations to the new group, include Wells Fargo & Co., Motorola Inc., Intel Corp., Cendant Corp. and Wyndham International, according to the chamber. About 15 founding member companies, including International Business Machines Corp. and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., donated $15,000 each toward the group's annual budget, which is about $1.5 million, Nelson said. The chamber claims 15,000 members.
As some companies are beginning to take notice, so is the government. Robert W. Faithful IV, director of the Office of Small & Disadvantaged Business Utilization at the Department of the Interior, is scheduled to speak at the convention today to explain how the business owners can sell their services to the government.
"This is a great opportunity to make a connection with another set of taxpayers," Faithful said yesterday.
The chamber had hoped to lobby lawmakers Thursday, particularly for passage of bills the group is backing, including the Tax Equity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act and Domestic Partner Health Benefits Act.
The first would tax health benefits that gay and straight couples receive in the same way. Under the inclusion act, domestic partners would be included in the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows married spouses to get 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick spouse, parent or child.