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US Gay Rights Group Hails Progress in Employment

A U.S. gay rights advocacy group says, with every passing year, more American corporations are actively backing their homosexual, bisexual and transgendered employees by enacting non-discrimination policies and extending domestic partner benefits. Those benefits are usually equivalent to those provided to the spouses of their heterosexual employees. The apparent trend in corporate America stands in sharp contrast to voter attitudes in U.S. states that have adopted bans on gay marriage.

Last November, 11 U.S. states passed constitutional amendments barring legal recognition of same-sex marriage. More than 20 other states have either enacted a similar ban or are awaiting ratification of one. But while the gay rights movement attempts to regroup after stinging electoral defeats, activists are getting encouraging news from U.S. corporations.

"Over 8,000 employers now offer domestic partner benefits," said Joe Solmonese, who is president of the Human Rights Campaign, speaking at a Washington news conference. "That is a 13 percent increase from last year. Eighty-two percent of Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies."

Fortune 500 is a list of America's biggest, most successful companies compiled by Fortune magazine.

In a report titled "The State of the Workplace," the Human Rights Campaign notes that only one of the United States' top 50 corporations does not include sexual orientation in it's non-discrimination policy. And 216 of the top 500 companies provide benefits to the partners of their gay employees, a tenfold increase from 1995. The report's author, Daryl Herrschaft, says no one should be surprised by the trend.

"Successful employers know that when an employee is concerned about losing their job for a reason that has nothing to do with performance, productivity suffers," he said.

Among the major corporations that strive to embrace non-heterosexual employees is computer and electronics-maker Hewlett-Packard. The company's top representative in Washington, John Hassell, says expanding non-discrimination policies and extending partner benefits is a smart business move.

"It is about being competitive. Each year HP receives about 4,000 patents [for inventions]. We are in the innovation business," he said. "If we did not have strong policies in place that banned discrimination in employment, then we would not have the exchange of ideas that is necessary for a technology company to move forward. We want to hire and keep the best talent, and we cannot overlook the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gendered community."

But some see the actions of corporate America as but one volley in a larger battle for America's soul.

"It is a culture war," said Tim Wildmon, who heads the American Family Association, which objects to homosexuality on moral grounds and argues that gay people should not be entitled to the same legal protections afforded to racial minorities, women, the elderly and other groups.

"All those things are different than someone's sexual behavior," he continued. "It is odd to consider one's sexual activity as a minority status category in terms of hiring, or in terms of benefits and that kind of thing."

Even so, Mr. Wildmon concedes that the battle to stop corporations from granting protections and partner benefits to same-sex couples is, as he puts it, "a lost cause." As a result, the American Family Association is targeting companies that go beyond protecting their non-heterosexual employees to playing an active role in the gay community.

"What we have a real problem with is, for instance, Ford Motor Company sponsoring gay pride parades and putting ads in homosexual magazines and making financial contributions to the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, he explained. "We feel that is funding gay activism."

The American Family Association has orchestrated boycotts of major corporations perceived as supporting the gay community with mixed results.

Earlier this year, the group scrapped a nine-year boycott of the Disney Corporation, admitting that the effort had failed to cause Disney to alter its gay-friendly policies. But Mr. Wildmon claims another boycott once forced a major corporation to pull advertising from a gay-themed U.S. television program.

Boycotts or no, the objections of social conservatives to what have been labeled "alternative lifestyles" appear to be falling on deaf ears in many U.S. corporate boardrooms. That is all for the better, according to Margaret Stumpp, an investment chief for Prudential Financial, one of the United States' largest investment, insurance and real estate firms. Margaret [female] began her career as Mark [male], but opted to have sex-change surgery in 2002. She says Prudential could have fired her at the time, fearing her physical transformation could have unnerved clients. But Prudential retained its transsexual executive, and Margaret says everyone has benefited.

"Clients were unfazed [not upset] and they were more concerned with my investment performance than my appearance," she said. "In my three years since my transition, business has never been better. I have met with corporate boards, chief executives, clients around the globe. My organization has taken in roughly $3 billion in new deposits from institutional investors in this year alone. Had I been fired, the firm would have potentially lost millions in profits."

Ultimately, the Human Rights Campaign would like to see federal legislation banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. But gay rights activists acknowledge that the political prospects for such a law are, at present, extremely slim. Until those prospects improve, they say they are heartened by corporations that take a proactive stand on their own.