With all the advances made on the LGBT front in recent years, you might think that fight has been won.
Yet closets remain in Uncle Sam’s space. Walter works in one, figuratively.
Walter is a government contractor on an Army facility. He runs a small, Florida consulting firm. He’s gay and he doesn’t want Sam to know.
“What would happen if I came out, I’m not 100 percent sure,” he said, “but I don’t recognize a lot of messages that it’s all right.”
That why Walter and the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) want President Obama to order federal agencies not to discriminate against LGBT companies. In an era in which they can marry, and openly serve in the military, Congress and high federal positions, some gay contractors still fear that they could lose federal business if their sexual orientation were known.
Citing several barriers broken “largely to the Obama Administration’s efforts,” a NGLCC policy memo says “the next step to cementing this Administration’s legacy as the most proequality in our nation’s history is prohibiting discrimination against LGBT Business Enterprises (LGBTBEs) in federal procurement and subcontracting.” NGLCC estimates that the nation has 1.4 million LGBT-owned businesses.
NGLCC pointed to federal goals for awarding government contracts to women, disabled veterans and disadvantaged people, including those affected by racism, but noted “no such goals are in place for LGBTBEs.” The organization’s effort is backed by letters to Obama from 44 members of Congress and 17 LGBT groups.
Ironically, an Obama 2014 executive order prohibited companies doing business with the government from discriminating against gay workers. But it didn’t prohibit federal agencies from discriminating against LGBT companies.
“In too many workplaces, simply being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can still be a fireable offense,” Obama said then. “But I’m going to do what I can, with the authority I have, to act.”
He can use that authority to ensure that federal agencies don’t discriminate against gay-run companies. But will he? Time is running out.
“Thank God for the Obama administration,” Walter said. “As a gay guy, so much has changed in the last eight years.”
But not so much that Walter feels free to be who he is. That’s why he won’t allow his full name to be used here. Obama is on the right side, Walter said, adding that he isn’t sure all of Sam’s procurement and contracting officers are.
That’s why Walter has two sets of business cards.
One describes him as the chief executive of a business owned by a service-disabled veteran. The other, not for use at the Army facility, says that, but adds that the company is a LGBT enterprise.
NGLCC wants the White House to do two things.
“First, they should ban discrimination against LGBT and other socially-disadvantaged business owners in all federal procurement,” said Jonathan D. Lovitz, a NGLCC senior vice president. “And second, the White House should look at how to address the effects of historic discrimination against LGBT business owners in federal contracting opportunities by intentionally including Certified LGBT Business Enterprises alongside other diverse communities, as we’re currently exploring agency by agency.”
That agency work has resulted in MOUs, or memoranda of understanding, between the chamber and seven agencies. The latest one with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is designed to “increase participation of LGBT-owned small businesses in USDA’s programs and to increase procurement opportunities for LGBT-owned small businesses.” Some state and local governments prohibit discrimination against LGBT contractors.
NGLCC first raised the question of presidential action within a month of Obama taking office in 2009, said Sam McClure, another NGLCC senior vice president. It stepped up efforts seven months ago, aiming for success before Obama leaves office. When contacted for comment, the White House Office of Management and Budget offered no indication that Obama would or would not act before his term expires in less than four months.
If he does, that certainly would make Walter’s life easier.
Now, he’s careful not to be too social with co-workers. When they ask “what did I do over the weekend, I’m not going to mention my partner,” he said. “It’s easier just to stay in the closet.”
But his concerns go well beyond his personal stress and inconvenience. Walter worries about his company and his employees.
“It’s one of the things that keep me up at night. Suppose a contracting officer doesn’t care for a gay company. People do have those prejudices,” he said.
His people, Walter added, “could be out of work.”