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Out of the corporate closet: how African American gays and lesbians can gain ground in the workplace.

When Melissa Theodore was looking for her first job out of college, she considered several accounting firms. When choosing which one to join, the New York University graduate was extremely cautious. She wanted to work for a firm that was considered one of the best. But as a bisexual, Theodore also wanted some assurance that her sexual orientation would not hinder her advancement.

As an African American woman pursuing a career in a white, male-dominated field, she felt she might experience some challenges. Theodore's bisexuality now made her a triple minority. After a careful review of the policies and practices of the companies she was eyeing, Theodore accepted a position at Ernst & Young in 2006.

"I wanted to pick a firm where I knew I would be completely comfortable, because I have friends at other accounting firms who don't feel like they can be themselves," says Theodore, a staff accountant in the company's International Tax Services division. "Ernst & Young talked about how inclusive they are of everything and everyone, and I was impressed by that."

Still, Theodore, 27, admits she was a bit nervous about revealing her sexual orientation once on the job. If no one asked, she didn't tell. "But then I found some friends who were a part of the company's gay and lesbian group bEYond, and I started noticing people above me who were 'out' and doing well in the firm, so I became a bit more comfortable discussing with other employees that I am bisexual. So far everyone has been fine with it."

Now a member of bEYond for almost a year, Theodore participates in a subgroup of the organization to address issues specific to bisexuals at Ernst & Young and participates on a committee to represent the firm at an AIDS Walk to be held this month.

Theodore is just one example of how workplace diversity is changing. At one time diversity solely meant having a black, brown, or female face in the corner offices of corporate America. Now, diversity includes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) employees. Their workforce supporters include many corporate giants: IBM, considered a top-level financial supporter of gay rights groups in the U.S.; Raytheon, a member of gay chambers of commerce in areas where it houses big production plants; and Microsoft, home of the GLBT employee group GLEAM (Gay and Lesbian Employees at Microsoft).

In fact, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC), the nation's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender civil rights organization, ranks these companies in its annual list of the "Best Places to Work for GLBT Equality." The listing was first published in 2002 with only 13 companies scoring 100% on HRC's Corporate Equality Index, a measuring stick of company policies and practices that promote fairness and equality for GLBT employees. Today that list has grown to 142 companies, five of which are run by African American CEOs: Aylwin Lewis, Sears Holdings; Ronald Williams, Aetna Inc.; Kenneth Chenault, American Express; E. Stanley O'Neal, Merrill Lynch & Co.; and Renetta McCann, Starcom MediaVest Group Americas.

"We've found that companies are reconsidering or considering for the first time how they treat GLBT employees because they realize that supporting their GLBT employees is good for the bob tom line," says Daryl Herrschaft, director of HRC's Workplace Project. "The GLBT market is valued at about $680 billion a year, and market research has shown that GLBT people pay more attention to workplace policies than the general population, so they are more likely to look at these policies when making purchasing decisions," he says.

According to HRC, more than half, or 264, of the 500 largest publicly traded companies now provide domestic partner benefits. A decade ago only 28 did. In addition to health coverage, many GLBT workers also get adoption assistance, help with relocation costs for their partners if transferred, and bereavement leave if their partner dies. Clearly, GLBT workers are gaining unprecedented ground in the workplace. Many are even securing prominent positions in pro-equality companies as partners, managers, and senior executives. But to the African American worker, a win for the gay community isn't necessarily a win for the black gay community.

"African Americans often cite that one of the barriers to advancement is being viewed as having divergent cultural norms from their white peers," says H. Alexander Robinson, executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization that supports black GLBT people.

"I think the same is true for gay employees. So that means for black gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees, it's one more thing that might make them different, which makes it even more challenging to get ahead."

So how can African American GLBT workers advance in the corporate arena, especially if they don't work for a pro-equality organization? Start by wielding your best weapon: your abilities, Robinson says. Contribute to the company's bottom line by excelling at your job.

Also, use informal networks of power to show what you're made of. Choose to see your entire minority status as an asset rather than a deficit and welcome opportunities to represent your group in front of others. Recently, Theodore was asked by her superiors to serve as a facilitator at a diversity tax conference, and she gladly accepted.

I got to meet with people who are heads of our firm and to see and hear from CEOs and CFOs of other companies as well," she says. "I seem to be on the radar of certain people here and I feel like I've gotten more opportunities to get my name out there and get people to know who I am because I'm different."

If your corporate culture is not as inclusive as you would like, you can try to initiate change. Just exercise caution. As a GLBT worker, speaking up could mean being labeled a troublemaker or worse. According to HRC, it's still legal in 43 states to fire an employee because of his or her sexual orientation.

ROBINSON OFFERS THE FOLLOWING TIPS FOR CREATING A MORE GAY-FRIENDLY WORK ENVIRONMENT:

View the company's needs holistically. "If your company isn't providing adequate health insurance for its employees across the board, going in and insisting on domestic partner benefits [should] not be your first initiative. You may want to organize with other individuals who need better health benefits for themselves and their families, and make your point as part of a larger case."

Find support. Get advice from someone in your business sector who has initiated change successfully. "Then be prepared to deliver those facts when you approach an executive who may be resistant to change."

Know the laws in your state. Familiarize yourself with your company's existing policy on inclusion. Examine how the organization treats its black employees. Chances are if the business is good on race, it's also good on sexual orientation, but that should not be taken for granted.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:DIVERSITY WATCH
Author:Harris, Wendy
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:May 1, 2007
Words:1145
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