Changing Corporate America

Lambda Network events often featured a photo booth at attendees could have their portraits taken with their significant others, in many cases for the first time. They were encouraged to put the photos on their desks at work as a simple but profound way to come out to their coworkers. Pictured above is Lambda Kodak treasurer Jim Ehmann and his partner Brian in 2002.

Excerpts of HRC's "The State of the Workplace For Gay and Lesbian Americans."

The legal and cultural advances made by the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left, Feminism, and LGBTQ rights activism, pressured many companies to diversify. Additional pressure came from the increasing mobility within corporate America; being able to embrace diversity became a competitive advantage. At first most corporate diversity initiatives were aimed at women and people of color.1 However, closeted LGBTQ employees witnessed changes in their organizations, including top-down support for diversity by managers and corporate leadership, that inspired them to come out and advocate for LGBTQ workplace equality. With help from outside organizations, the workplace activism of the 1970s through the 2000s mobilized a national network of employees, corporations, and organizations. In addition to helping LGBTQ people feel safe at work, their advocacy helped change culture outside of the workplace, culminating in the achievements of non-discrimination legislation and protections for same-sex marriage.

Employee groups were responsible for most of the activism within corporations, and they often operated as both support groups and educational resources. Their duality embodied a transaction; by agreeing to align with the values of their companies and to support their diversity initiatives, employee groups were sanctioned by those companies, so they were both personally and institutionally oriented. As the popularity of LGBTQ employee groups grew, umbrella groups like COLLEAGUES and workplace conferences like Out & Equal began to form, so employee groups, company representatives, activists, and organizations could strengthen each other through education. 

Inspired by their employee groups, corporations became active participants in the movement. A powerful example of their commitment to LGBTQ workplace equality was revealed in 1996 when 28 big-name companies endorsed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, proposed federal legislation to outlaw sexual-orientation-based discrimination in hiring and employment practices. Also, Raeburn found that "in industries in which career tracks entail movement from one firm to another, once an industry leader grants domestic partnership benefits, many others follow suit," and in general, corporate benchmarking by competing companies helped spread the adoption of LGBTQ inclusive policies and make them industry standards.

Outside from corporate America, activists and organizations, like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), pushed for change within it. Unlike employee groups, they were free to have a more assertive agenda and were not limited by performance requirements outside from their activism. As a result, those external activist and organizations became instrumental in influencing policy change by advocating for what employee groups could not safely demand from their employers. For example, in 2002, HRC began the Corporate Equality Index, an annual rating of LGBTQ equality at large companies, based on evolving criteria. The Corporate Equality Index helps pressure low-scoring companies to improve their workplace conditions by clearly identifying measures to implement and high-scoring companies to follow. 

In some ways, workplace activism helped to isolate sexual orientation and gender expression from radical queer politics by defining and mobilizing an LGBTQ subculture of middle- and upper-class professionals interested in corporate success. Like the effect of the Mattachine Society's reformation, workplace activists' separation from radical LGBTQ activism appealed to a wider range of people, but radical activism and workplace activism were never entirely separate. The networking of employee groups and organizations involved workplace activists in grassroots organizing and direct actions, including marches on Washington D.C., and activists from both wings of the movement partnered to support LGBTQ-inclusive legislation.

Raeburn, "The Rise of the Corporate Workplace Movement," Changing Corporate America from inside out: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Rights, 49-50.

Raeburn, "Winds of Change Outside Corporate Walls: External Factors Influence Gay-Inclusive Policies," Changing Corporate America from inside out: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Rights.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was proposed federal legislation to outlaw sexual-orientation-based discrimination in hiring and employment practices that first appeared before Congress in 1994. In 2007, ENDA was revised to include "gender identity" in its proposed protections. To date, it has never passed. The following documents are copies of ENDA from 1996 and 2002, when the head of Kodak Human Resources, first Mike Morley and then Bob Berman, appeared before Congress to support the passage of the bill.

1996 Employment Non-Discrimination Act bill (104th Congress S.2056)

2001-2002 Employment Non-Discrimination Act bill (107th Congress S.1284)

Domestic Partnership Benefits

"Domestic partnership" generally refers to unmarried couples who share a domestic life, and "domestic partnership benefits" refer to the benefits provided to the domestic partners of employees of a company or government. Before the federal legalization of same-sex marriage, domestic partnership registries and benefits were provided by states, municipalities, and companies as a way of recognizing same-sex unions, although domestic partnerships were not necessarily limited to them. In corporate America, domestic partnership benefits became a competitive advantage, because they attracted LGBTQ people and allies. Unlike the benefits received by married couples, domestic partnership benefits were taxable, but they were formal recognition of same-sex unions and a step towards legalizing same-sex marriage.


Contested Representation

Since the LGBTQ employee groups under study were primarily comprised of middle- and upper-class professionals in corporate America and were responsible for representing LGBTQ identities to their employers, working-class LGBTQ voices were often un- or underrepresented in the workplace movement. Building onto that bias, corporate marketing teams promoted a profile of the LGBTQ community as an untapped well of consumer spending and quick to develop brand loyalty. The seeds of Rainbow Capitalism were sown. 

By reimagining the LGBTQ community on the basis of its ability to consume, poor and working-class LGBTQ people received less positive attention and visibility from corporations than more affluent LGBTQ people. Although advertising to LGBTQ people helped legitimize their identities, activist Urvashi Vaid has argued that the consumer-based approach to LGBTQ legitimization fragmented the LGBTQ community by addressing it through market niches, rather than shared interests.

Vaid, "Money and the Movement, or Looking for Mr. Geffen," Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation.

A Kodak advertisement, published in The Advocate, an LGBTQ magazine.