Unlike previous years, the most prominent national conference on gays and lesbians in the workplace isn't going to San Francisco, New York or other cities with gay-friendly reputations. It's coming to Greater Cincinnati.
The 11th annual Out & Equal Workplace Issues Summit is not actually in the city, in protest of Cincinnati's enactment of legal discrimination against gays and lesbians. The conference meets in Northern Kentucky, at the Greater Cincinnati Airport Hilton, Oct. 5-7. But organizers thought it was time the conference met in — or at least near — an area with a reputation for intolerance. Where better to talk about the status of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender (GLBT) people in the workplace?
"We're going to a place where it evokes dialogue," says Heidi Bruins, chair of the national conference.
Out & Equal doesn't feature parades or other flamboyant public displays; it's mostly about business. The conference includes about 50 workshops on a wide variety of topics led by corporate professionals, educators and consultants. The agenda includes such topics as:
· "Is there a cross-dresser in your workplace?
Does it matter?"
· "Marketing to the GLBT community: a lessons learned discussion"
· "Same-sex harassment and the law: what every employee should know about his/her rights"
· "Gays, God, and the workplace."
About one-third of the expected 500 conference participants are human resources professionals, according to Bruins, who is Procter & Gamble's finance manager and one of the founders of the company's GLBT employee group.
The conference gives participants a chance to learn more about making their workplaces comfortable to gays and lesbians. The conference also includes four plenary sessions on the image of gays and lesbians in the mainstream media and ways to encourage a company to be more gay and lesbian friendly from both the inside and out.
The conference includes an awards banquet, a riverboat cruise and a post-conference networking event coordinated by the Queen City Careers Association, a kind of gay and lesbian chamber of commerce, according to John Oxner, its president. Oxner expects 35 to 40 businesses to set up tables for the networking event.
With a national conference on the way, the issue of gay rights seems to be bubbling to the surface again in Cincinnati. Both mayoral candidates, incumbent Charlie Luken and challenger Courtis Fuller, are talking about the chances of a repeal of Article 12 of the city charter — the only voter-approved city charter amendment in the U.S. to bar gays and lesbians from equal protection under a city's laws. The local branch of the National Conference for Community and Justice is taking the pulse of local organizations to gauge support for a repeal campaign.
But the local gay rights movement also suffered a setback this summer when Stonewall Cincinnati — unable to raise enough money to meet its $100,000 budget — cut its full-time executive director, Doreen Cudnik, whose salary represented about one-third of its annual expenses.
The Stonewall budget depends heavily on money raised during its annual summer dinner, and this year's was not well-attended, according to Bruins, also a Stonewall board member.
"It was definitely a blow, and we'd had a difficult year anyway," she says.
Cudnik, who now works for a tenant-rights organization in Over-the-Rhine, says she still expects to serve as a sort of public face for the gay rights organization, although on a more limited basis. The board will have to decide if it wants to keep its office at 1118 Race St., Over-the-Rhine. Will it even keep the copier it leases? The board has a lot to talk about, according to Cudnik.
Racism, homophobia and other poisons
But the board has decided one thing: to focus more on the intersection of racism and homophobia. Four of the Stonewall board's 16 seats have been designated for "people of color" and three of them are occupied, Cudnik says. That might be the most participation by racial minorities the board has had in its 20 years.
The connections between America's discriminated groups is also one of the hot topics at the conference, according to Bruins.
"It doesn't make sense to do one diversity issue separately from another," she says.
Mandy Carter, outgoing secretary-treasurer of the Gay and Lesbian American Caucus of the Democratic National Committee and a leader in the movement to connect the efforts of activist groups, is giving a keynote speech on this topic, one she has followed closely.
Carter, who campaigned against Article 12 for the last two weeks before election day in 1993, said there's a lot of soul searching among gay and lesbian groups about what their missions are.
Carter said it's ironic that some black people, who have experienced discrimination, sided against gays and lesbians, another persecuted group, during the campaign for the charter amendment.
"Part of the reason is that in the black community we still have issues with being gay," Carter says. "Black gays and lesbians have to come out and be visible. People who are black and gay are natural bridge builders between both worlds."
Gays and lesbians have to remember they haven't been fighting for their rights alone, and should look beyond their interests when controversial issues come up, Carter says. For example, Human Rights Watch, a national gay rights organization, endorsed Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY) after he softened his stance on gays — in spite of his intact reputation for not supporting minorities and women.
"Are (gays and lesbians) about justice for all of or just us?" Carter says.
Despite the Tristate's reputation, Bruins says local businesses have welcomed the conference, including B&B Riverboats, who are hosting the Out and Equal Workplace Summit's dinner cruise.
"If people have felt (uncomfortable), they figured out another way to say it," Bruins says.