Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Some workplaces extend a welcome

By Ken Alltucker
Enquirer staff writer

Linda Leslie of Golf Manor says she wants to feel comfortable in her workplace.

Seventeen of the region's 20 largest employers have formal policies prohibiting discrimination against gay workers. Nine offer health benefits to gay workers' partners.

Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky businesses say such measures are crucial to attracting talented workers who could easily choose jobs in cities viewed as more diverse and gay-friendly.

Gay workers couldn't agree more.

"No one ever asked me what I did on the weekend or if I was dating anyone," Dean Forster says about the corporate job he landed right out of college. His heterosexual colleagues freely shared details of their personal lives, such as family pictures and weekend adventures.

But nobody asked Forster, "Why didn't I have a picture of the person that I was seeing at my desk?"

The 36-year-old architect later took a job at a gay-owned firm and found a completely different climate.

"The creativity level was so much stronger," the Covington man says. "I was able to fully participate as a total person working in an environment that embraced me."

This Enquirer special report consists of four parts

Daily workplace drama

Coming out's effect lasts a lifetime
Awkward moments don't have to happen
School groups try to promote understanding

Gay parents face extra challenges
What would you do if your child were gay?

Coming to terms with gay issues
Survey: What's gay-friendly, what's not?
Covington's legal protections 'reassuring'
Voters, churches and lawyers weigh in on debate on rights
Words and phrases to know
Calls refer to homosexual rights
Bronson: Straight, gay: disagreeing without hate

Online special:
Complete results of WCPO/Enquirer poll
Gay in Cincinnati: What do you think?
Top area employers for gays (PDF file)
As voters prepare to cast ballots next month on matters of gay rights and same-sex marriage, sexual orientation can become more of an issue on the job. Human resources departments are stressing diversity training. Workers are learning to live with each others' differences. And bosses are facing new challenges to keeping employees and companies thriving as once-private matters become public.

"When people feel like they can bring their complete personality to work, they tend to stay longer. They perform better," says Orlando DeBruce, spokesman for Out & Equal, a San Francisco-based group that provides diversity training for corporations, some of them here.

Major Cincinnati-based companies have led the push to make the region a more welcoming and friendly place for gay and lesbian workers.

All but three of the 20 largest public and private employers have adopted anti-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation. That reflects a national trend.

According to the gay rights group Equality Forum, 400 of the nation's Fortune 500 companies have anti-harassment policies for gays and lesbians. Some 200 of those offer a version of domestic-partner benefits, including 25 firms that added such benefits over the past year, according to the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign.

Positive response

Fifth Third Bank is among companies that recently beefed up anti-discrimination policies. The Cincinnati-based bank changed its policy in March after shareholders pushed for the move.

"The feedback has been very positive," says Robbie Jennings, Fifth Third's spokeswoman.

It's harder to gauge how the region's small businesses handle gay-rights issues. These firms are typically more insulated from shareholder initiatives, boycotts or other outside influences.

"Smaller companies have to devote more of their time and effort to the business at hand, and perhaps they have less time to do outreach and diversity work," says Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director who oversees workplace efforts for the Human Rights Campaign.

In Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, the corporate influence on gay-rights issues extends beyond the workplace. Business leaders also want to sway city policy.

Procter & Gamble Co. and the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce are among those supporting repeal of Article XII - the city charter amendment that bans any laws that would protect gays and lesbians.

Repeal of the measure is important to people no matter what their sexual orientation might be, says Suzanne Bradley, Cinergy's general manager of inclusion strategies.

"We want to attract the best and the brightest," she says.

Awkward moments

Still, gays say, they encounter plenty of awkward moments on the job.

Gillian Oakenfull, a Miami University marketing professor, announces at the start of classes each semester that she's a lesbian. She finds it clears the air and erases any chatter from students about her sexual orientation.

Students never have objected. She says a few have even confided in her that they're gay or lesbian, too.

Colleagues in the marketing department, which includes 25 professors and lecturers, have been supportive as well.

"Within my department, it's been very good," says Oakenfull, who lives in Pleasant Ridge.

Not that Oakenfull has skirted all uncomfortable moments. During a meeting two years ago to debate whether faculty should be eligible for domestic-partner benefits, some Miami University School of Business professors objected. Gay professors needed counseling, not health-care benefits, they said.

While Miami University approved same-sex partner benefits last summer, Oakenfull says the debate still leaves her with an uncomfortable feeling.

"Sitting in that meeting was just a horrible feeling," she says.

Some gays and lesbians leave jobs when they feel unwelcome.

Northside resident Mary Bucklin quit her job as a women's basketball coach at a small private college in Iowa in 1989 rather than reveal her sexual orientation to the department's athletic director. He openly criticized Bucklin's predecessor, who also was a lesbian.

The 51-year-old now teaches women's studies at Northern Kentucky University. She says she has sacrificed her true passion, teaching high school.

"I don't think I could be out teaching at high school and coaching basketball," Bucklin says.

Many gays and lesbians try to avoid uncomfortable workplaces by scrutinizing a company's policies before applying for or accepting a position. It's a routine part of any job search, they say.

Linda Leslie, 44, of Golf Manor wanted to find a company where she could freely talk about herself with co-workers. She considered several companies before landing a job as a database administrator for Premier Lease and Loan Services.

Premier is a wholly owned subsidiary of Great American Financial, a firm that doesn't have any language specifically addressing sexual orientation.

But Leslie took the job anyway, and she quickly developed a camaraderie among a tight-knit group of her mostly young, tech-savvy co-workers.

"It's a Catch-22," Leslie says. "I want to work someplace where I am going to be comfortable being me, but I don't want to lose a job because of my sexual orientation."

Leslie admits she was uncertain whether Premier would be a good fit for her. Great American Financial chairman Carl Lindner Jr. has been a longtime supporter of Citizens for Community Values, which backs Article XII.

Lindner hasn't publicly stated whether he supports or opposes the Article XII repeal, but he doesn't plan to contribute money to anti-repeal groups.

Leslie says she's found Premier to be an open, accepting workplace.

"When I interviewed I found the corporate climate to be acceptable to me," she says.

The job isn't everything

Sometimes, even a company's best intentions and gay-rights policies can't do it all.

Joey Lewis had a job he loved as a graphic designer at Sara Lee Foods in Blue Ash, but he found his time off the job less than pleasant.

Passersby uttered slurs as he walked with friends. He felt left out in local politics and undermined in the community.

Now he's an ex-Cincinnatian.

One year ago, Lewis packed his belongings and moved west to join friends in Los Angeles, a city with a thriving gay population. He works as a database administrator with Hilton Hotels and takes classes at a Southern California college.

"A major part of it was the fact that L.A. is much more progressive than any city I can think of."


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