By Barbara Frankel
Last November at our event, country-music star Chely Wright told our audience of senior corporate executives what her life was like as a closeted professional in an industry that was far from inclusive of LGBT people. She described putting a gun to her head—and then putting the gun down. Today, a little more than a year after coming out, Wright is happily anticipating her wedding to a beautiful young woman, Lauren Blitzer.
They are getting married this summer in Connecticut, which up until late Friday night was one of only five states plus the District of Columbia that recognized same-sex marriages. Late Friday night, the New York State Legislature approved same-sex marriage and Gov. Andrew Cuomo immediately signed it into law. New York is the largest state to recognize same-sex marriages, and the impact of this decision will be profound.
The fight for LGBT rights has gained momentum this year, with the federal government agreeing to end "don't ask, don't tell" for the military and President Barack Obama slowly but surely becoming a more vocal advocate. As has happened with other human-rights battles, some progressive corporations are leading the way, while others damage their reputations with employees and customers.
Corporate support of LGBT rights has included the battle against the Defense of Marriage Act in Indiana, led by companies such as Eli Lilly, WellPoint and Cummins, Nos. 39, 36 and 18, respectively, in The 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity. It has included advocacy for ENDA, the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, supported by corporations including DiversityInc Top 50 companies Kaiser Permanente (No. 1), Ernst & Young (No. 5), IBM (No. 7), Bank of America (No. 11), The Coca-Cola Company (No. 12), Merck & Co. (No. 15), Accenture (No. 23), KPMG (No. 29), Dell (No. 30), Time Warner (No. 28), Eli Lilly, WellPoint and Whirlpool (No. 49), as well as DiversityInc 25 Noteworthy Companies BASF, Boehringer Ingelheim, Capital One, Chubb, KeyCorp and Pfizer, and also companies such as Eastman Kodak Company, Ameriprise Financial and General Motors.
For some companies, the equality effort still begins at home. Southern Company, one of DiversityInc's 25 Noteworthy Companies, last year approved domestic-partner benefits for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Other companies are still grappling with this issue, which DiversityInc views as a non-negotiable essential item to earning a spot on our lists.
There's a flip side to this, of course, even in companies that work to have inclusive cultures. Last year's Target donation to a gubernatorial candidate who was publicly homophobic is still having repercussions. More recently, several companies, including AT&T (No. 4), KPMG, Whirlpool, Pfizer and Comcast, were horrified to learn their local representatives on the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce had approved a resolution supporting a state bill prohibiting local governments from passing antidiscrimination ordinances. Although the companies quickly issued statements deploring the bill, it had already passed the legislature and had gone to the governor's office, where he signed it into law.
Read DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti's column: Decision Making, Clarity of Values & What to Do When It Goes Horribly Wrong.
But right now another governor, Andrew Cuomo, has proven to be a staunch supporter of LGBT rights, and the New York victory should be savored by the 42,000 same-sex couples in that state (source: U.S. Census Bureau), their friends and families.
It's also a moment of victory for corporations that understand that having an inclusive culture isn't limited to what's behind the doors of their offices. What happens in government and society deeply impacts recruitment, engagement, productivity and innovation.
I'll be watching Chely Wright and Lauren Blitzer get married this summer, as well as reading about the thousands of gay and lesbian couples who will marry in New York. The impact on the individual is immeasurable. Blitzer posted this on her Facebook page right after the New York decision was announced, and I think it sums up what many LGBT people feel when their companies stand up for them: "This has always been my residence. Now it really is my home."