I swore I’d never work for corporate America.
I saw all of our country’s ills reflected in the greed of slick-haired corporate executives that whizzed past homeless people on their way to sign things that lined their pockets and further marginalized everyone else.
My first job out of college was at a lesbian TV show called Dyke TV. I followed that with a stint at a lesbian nightlife magazine. It was a 21-year-old lesbian’s dream launchpad and a decidedly interesting start to my career.
Then I did the unthinkable. I left niche, queer media, and nonprofit activism and started applying for jobs, including some in corporate America. I adjusted my resume and interview talking points to describe my time at a “public access cable TV show” and “a women’s lifestyle magazine.” I was young but I wasn’t naive. I knew Ellen got fired for coming out on her show, and I knew waiters at Cracker Barrel did too. I knew having the word “lesbian” on my resume was likely to put me on the bottom of the slush pile.
It was a different time.
Nearly two decades later, being out at work is no longer a fast track to the unemployment line (at least not with publicly-traded Fortune 500 companies in the U.S.). And working for corporate doesn’t mean leaving your conscience at the door. Diversity and inclusion are buzzwords companies toss around to varying degrees of authenticity and comprehension, in order to attract and retain top and Millennial talent, who when polled, care about these issues more than generations before. Companies cite study after study about how more diverse employee bases drive profits over homogenous ones and they hire diversity officers to spearhead their efforts and serve as the public face of their well-intentioned strategy. They also are increasingly focused on sustainability, transparency, and are influenced by public shaming.
More than half of Americans, including astoundingly those who are LGBTQ+, mistakenly believe they are protected more than they are. Despite the proliferation of representation in media and public-facing support from private enterprise, most LGBTQ+ people have been harassed, discriminated against, or worse. It’s still perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay or transgender in nearly two-thirds of the states. The Equality Act, which recently passed in the House for the first time, would provide much-needed protections to all LGBTQ+ people in America in places of employment, housing and public accommodations, but it’s not likely to pass in the Senate any time soon.
As the pendulum starts to swing away from equality, and as Federal and state governments threaten to roll back LGBTQ+ rights, the need for the nation’s largest employers to remain publicly and privately LGBTQ+ supportive will only grow in importance.
Many companies are waving rainbow flags at pride parades across the globe (an estimated 150 will be at New York City pride this month for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and WorldPride). Big brands are including same-sex couples in their advertising to such frequency that it no longer makes headlines. This year is bigger than ever before for LGBTQ+ pride.
But many aren’t happy about all the support from big business.
Those who oppose corporate America’s place in the Pride March lineup say the Pride March — which first started as a fiery and non-permitted protest in the streets of Greenwich Village following the pushback against police at the Stonewall Inn in 1970 — has become over bloated by corporate co-option and lost its intended meaning.
“It has evolved into a corporate Mardi Gras. That is not what many of us are looking for,” Reclaim Pride Coalition member and ACT UP alum Ann Northrop told Out Magazine about the alternative Queer Liberation March and Rally that is planned in advance of the official Pride March on Sunday, June 30.
The counter to the march is noble in its ideology to maintain a pure view of LGBTQ+ civil rights with “for the people, by the people” framing, and in its efforts to ensure that those most marginalized — namely, people of color, trans, and gender non-conforming people, those with different abilities, and those living below the poverty line — have a voice.
Yet, in my more than 15 years’ experience working both in LGBTQ+ activist circles and advocacy organizations as well as in the headquarters for Fortune 500 companies, the benefits of an LGBTQ+-friendly corporate America have proven significant to the overall climate of equality time and again.
I’ve seen up close how multi-billion dollars companies put their money where their mouth is. I’ve sat around tables as decisions were made to invest in employees and potential, future employees to ensure that women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, those who were formerly incarcerated, enter the recruiting pipelines, have opportunities to network and advance, and are provided the most inclusive resources and policies to flourish. I’ve seen C-suite executives set the tone from the top-down that inclusion is a priority, in a way that is genuine, and backed by action. I’ve seen companies want to get it right even if they don’t always, course correcting and learning so they get it right the next time and the time after that.
When I worked in non-profit LGBTQ+ advocacy, we relied on big brands to throw their weight behind our efforts, both in donation dollars and PR. We helped to organize coalitions of business support for pro — and against anti — LGBTQ+ measures in local and federal legislatures and in courthouses. We benefited from leveraging the deep lobby power and voices of the biggest companies to drive equality in our communities alongside us. Nothing helped to sway legislators to abandon a harmful proposal more than companies threatening to pull their business.
There is also an important case to be made about creating change from within. Many Fortune 500 companies, certainly the ones that I have worked for, want to get it right. They may just be operating from a place that is outmoded or may not yet have the inclusive dream team they aspire to. But it has always been my experience that they are open, even hungry, for employees to help guide them in the right direction. I’ve worn my lesbian identity as a badge of honor in corporate settings, and my civil rights experience has been viewed as an asset. I’m able to serve as a welcome and vocal advocate for inclusivity, and I speak up every chance I get.
Sure, the Chick-fil-As and Under Armours of the world shouldn’t be allowed to mask their homophobia and transphobia with rainbow ad buys, but there are a lot of brands out there who wield their influence for good, and who put their money where their mouth is. Is there more work to be done? Sure. But we don’t have to use elbows in the search for the pot of equality gold on the other side of the rainbow. We can hold hand and get there just the same.
It’s even possible that some of the brave LGBTQ+ people who took to the streets those fateful days outside the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago would feel their efforts validated by the proliferation of mainstream acceptance.