Gay Corporate Texas

When it comes to equality, a surprising number of major Texas companies are downright liberal

If what's good for business is good for Texas, as our state leaders routinely remind us, then the employee handbook of, say, SBC Communications, should be required reading for lawmakers clamoring to ink their "values" into the Bill of Rights. That'll never happen, of course – at least not before a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage goes before voters Nov. 8 – but who better than corporate America to teach business-friendly legislators about "values" that embrace, rather than condemn, diversity?

Make no mistake: Market forces, not liberal ideologies, demand that companies take an enlightened view of creating cultures that appeal to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees and consumers. As SBC spokesman Walt Sharp put it, "We simply believe in the importance of inclusiveness and in policies that reflect the company's employee base and its customers."

This past spring, while state House and Senate leaders railed against homosexuals and activist judges threatening the institution of marriage, corporate "diversity executives" across Texas were chatting up their companies' progressive stripes in an annual employer survey conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, a GLBT advocacy group. SBC – whose lobbying arm this legislative session was unmatched by any other telecommunications company – is as competitive in filling out the surveys as it is in passing legislation. The San Antonio-based giant scored a top grade of 100%, as did four other Texas companies – Dell Inc., American Airlines, Freescale Semiconductor Inc., and Wyndham International Inc.

Equality isn't rocket science. "Profits tend to motivate management and boards, even in the face of political narrow-mindedness," said Austin business leader Eugene Sepulveda, who teaches community development and social enterprise at UT's McCombs School of Business. Indeed, domestic partner benefits and nondiscrimination policies that cover sexual orientation are pretty much the norm with most companies on a growth track. But progress doesn't stop there. As the HRC points out in its 2005 Corporate Equality Index, more major corporations scored 100% this year than in previous years. More striking is that 113 companies, up from 59 a year ago, have expanded their anti-discrimination policies to cover transgender employees.

Additionally, corporate powerhouses typically encourage the formation of in-house GLBT councils with GLBT-friendly names, such as Spectrum at SBC, PRIDE at Dell, and the Equal Team at Freescale. The payoff is mutually beneficial, according to Freescale's Phyllis Calhoun Hurley, whose job title – director of global diversity and inclusion – suggests something along the lines of socialized capitalism. "The Equal Team is focused on attracting other GLBT employees to Freescale, and we think we benefit from the breadth of that talent," Calhoun Hurley said. "Plus, they help us in creating an inclusive environment by identifying [policy] areas to enhance."

No one denies that the booming trend of GLBT-friendly work environments is designed to benefit the bottom line. "Companies with the right cultures attract and retain better employees," Sepulveda said. "It's in corporate America's best interest to adopt these policies."

At Dell, corporate officials proudly point out the progress they've made on the GLBT front, advancing from a score of 71% in the 2002 HRC scorecard, to 100% for two years running. "By driving diversity initiatives throughout our business, we can tap additional talent and ideas, improve our operating results, and become a better place to work," said Vivian Kobeh, a Dell diversity spokeswoman.

While representatives interviewed for this story stressed that their companies are staying out of the political battle over the proposed constitutional amendment, they said the outcome of the vote would have no bearing on their policies in the free market. "I don't want to speak about our political leaders," said Freescale's Calhoun Hurley, "but we're committed to tackling discrimination in the workplace, and we intend to continue that policy."

Sepulveda agrees that companies with existing practices in place won't shelve them in the event Proposition 2 passes. He added, however, "companies which haven't adopted nondiscrimination policies or don't offer domestic partner benefits will undoubtedly use [passage of the amendment] as another excuse."

The two local government entities that provide domestic partner benefits – Travis Co. and the city of Dallas – may have more cause for concern, thanks to the amendment's broad, vague language that prohibits local entities from "creating or recognizing any legal status that is identical or similar to marriage." (Travis Co. policy carries some built-in protections designed to discourage legal challenges; a "domestic partner," for example, is broadly defined as any adult over the age of 18 who shares a residence with the employee, and who is neither married nor related by marriage to the employee. As such, says Assistant County Attorney Barbara Wilson, many employees have designated an elderly parent in the home as their "domestic partner.") The fuzzily written passage leaves plenty of room for confusion about how the amendment would impact existing civil unions, domestic partnerships, and common law marriages. Pro-amendment forces say the measure would have no adverse affects whatsoever, but that's what they said in Michigan before voters approved an equally broad and confusing amendment last November. Four months later, the Michigan attorney general issued an opinion that the new restrictions prohibit government entities from providing domestic partner benefits. A district court judge in Kalamazoo recently ruled otherwise, however, and the attorney general has vowed to appeal. Now, pro-amendment lawmakers want the lower-court ruling suspended until the case works its way up to the state supreme court.

A similar scenario could unfold in Texas. Should the constitutional marriage restrictions win voter approval, heaven forbid, the courts will no doubt be the amendment's first stop, and perhaps its last. So much for trying to circumvent "activist judges."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

SBC Communications Inc., Dell Inc., Wyndham International Inc., Freescale Semiconductor Inc., Eugene Sepulveda, McCombs School of Business, Walt Sharp, Phyllis Calhoun Hurley, Vivian Kobeh, Human Rights Campaign, same-sex marriage, HRC, GLBT

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