Passing the Equality Act
How Corporate America Helped Change Hearts and Minds
On May 17, the LGBTQ community had something to cheer about for the first time in two and a half years, when the US House of Representatives passed The Equality Act. If enacted into law, this historic piece of legislation would extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ people by prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, loan applications, education, public accommodations, and other areas.
Given the Republican-controlled Senate will not likely bring The Equality Act up for a vote, this victory is bittersweet because the legislation would have helped halt the reversal of Obama era policies banning LGBTQ discrimination. More importantly, the 50 percent of LGBTQ Americans who live in the 30 states still lacking state-wide legal non-discrimination protections will continue to risk being fired, denied housing, or refused service because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
As hard as this is to admit, I was initially nonchalant about the significance of this milestone because it felt like déjà vu. In 1996, the LGBTQ community failed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), an earlier version of this legislation, failed on a 49-50 vote in the Senate. Both times, efforts to deny Americans the right to religious freedom was blamed on acceptance of LGBTQ people in society.
Fortunately, I snapped out of it shortly after receiving an email from the Acting Director of the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) Workplace Equality Program, Beck Bailey. He wanted to share the good news with current and former members of its Business Advisory Council. This group helps HRC by providing expert advice and counsel on LGBTQ workplace issues based on their business experience and knowledge. In particular, he credited the win, in part, to the 214 major corporations who supported the bill by becoming members of HRC’s Business Coalition for the Equality Act.
Yet again, corporate America was flexing its muscles to influence elected officials to stand on the right side of history. This also happened in 2015 when 379 companies urged the Supreme Court to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage by signing on to a friend-of-the-court brief. In both cases, the list included marketplace icons like Accenture, Coca-Cola, AT&T, and Marriott. Even way back in 1996, there were 80 companies that endorsed passage of ENDA.
To help you understand why Beck’s email struck a chord with me, let’s take a look at how and why these employers became our allies in the first place. It did not happen overnight and not always because they believed supporting LGBTQ equality was the right thing to do. At the end of the day, the catalyst was tapping into the lucrative LGBTQ consumer market and its high discretionary income.
In the mid-90s, increased lobbying by LGBTQ people who shared personal stories about mistreatment on the job because of who they loved was not enough to garner support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. At the same time, HRC saw that major corporations were increasingly advertising in LGBTQ publications and sponsoring local pride events.
At a time when there were few if any legal protections for LGBTQ Americans, HRC and its members wanted to know how these advertisers treated their own LGBTQ employees. Did their non-discrimination policy include sexual orientation and gender identity? Did they offer health benefits to domestic partners? If so, then LGBTQ consumers will show the love and buy your products.
This is when a lightbulb went off in the minds of HRC staff, board, and Business Advisory Council. What if there was a way to offer consumers a way of validating whether or not a company deserved their support? They envisioned a benchmarking tool that measured the degree to which corporate America provided their LGBTQ employees with vital non-discrimination protections.
This led to the creation of the game-changing Corporate Equality Index (CEI) in 2002. Achieving a perfect score on HRC’s CEI was like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Soon, not only were brands like American Airlines and AT&T tailoring advertising to LGBTQ people, but they also added workplace protections and provided domestic partner health benefits ahead of their competitors.
At the same time, employers in the technology sector, including IBM, recognized that securing market share dominance also required attracting and retaining the best talent possible. That meant creating a workplace environment that valued everyone regardless of their background, including their sexual orientation or gender identity.
While some in our community view corporations as the enemy and criticize their sponsorship of nonprofit events, it is important to remember the role they played in shifting public opinion. Sure, there are times when missteps raise questions about their authentic commitment. Thanks to HRC, the CEI continues to raise the bar as to what is required to earn and maintain our trust. ▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality and opportunity in the workplace and the community