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As part of San Antonio’s continuing effort to become a more economically and socially progressive city, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is working to develop a more visible presence in the local economy. This isn’t an initiative driven by gay bar owners. It emanates from gay lawyers, accountants, technology workers, insurance executives, restaurant operators, and professionals in every other sector of the workforce.
The national and local LGBT communities are banding together to network resources and dispel assumptions that LGBT persons lead any more different “lifestyles” than their heterosexual counterparts. They pay taxes, start businesses, take out mortgages, and plan for retirement just like anyone else. The goal is simple enough: workplace and marketplace equality.
“If not from a civil rights perspective, (but) from a business perspective, (discrimination) is just bad for productivity,” said Justin Nelson, president and co-founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) based in Washington D.C.
Attitudes in city and federal governments are slowly changing, Nelson said: “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to discriminate against people and then turn around and ask them to pay taxes and be a part of the economic community.”
Nelson spoke at the San Antonio LGBT Chamber of Commerce’s first Texas Economic Summit on Thursday, addressing a small audience of individuals interested in facilitating LGBT business and social awareness, including the Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, UTSA’s Inclusion and Community Engagement Center, the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders, the Texas Diversity Council and the North Texas LGBT Chamber.
Spreading the message that it’s simply good business to encourage inclusive, tolerant workplaces, the local LGBT Chamber is relatively small with about 100 members. The NGLCC is made up of more than 52 affiliate chapters worldwide. There are an estimated 1.4 million LGBT businesses and entrepreneurs in the U.S., and LGBT-owned businesses and customers contribute about $4 billion to local economies, Nelson said.
Chad Nall, president of the local chamber, said the event ties the local LGBT community to a national dialogue that will strengthen business relationships and promote action.
“The main challenge is education,” Nall said. “We need to further our reach out to the diverse population, including our (straight) allies.”
Talks during the summit focused largely on how LGBT businesses, large and small, can contribute to San Antonio’s diverse portfolio of industries: biomedical, oil and gas, automotive, aerospace, cyber-security and information technology.
“A strong supply chain is needed to support these industries,” Jen Martinez, of the Bexar County Economic Development office, said, and the LGBT Chamber needs to position itself in front of these companies for procurement.
Martinez guided the meeting though a poignant presentation about how San Antonio’s LGBT community can compete in the “bold place-branding” that’s currently underway.
“San Antonio’s conservative posture is really changing,” Martinez said, citing City Council’s vote to include domestic partners in health benefits for city employees last year. “There is a liberal tone that is emerging.”
There was also talk of further collaboration and educational efforts within local school districts from middle-schoolers to college students, with proposals ranging from internships to visits to schools by local LGBT business owners.
“Students need opportunities to see that LGBT people are business leaders – are CEOs,” said Sam McClure, Director of Affiliate and External Relations for the NGLCC. “For some students that can be life-changing … (broadening) the landscape of what they can see as possible is revolutionary, they can see themselves as people who can achieve those things.”
Sexual orientation is just one piece of a person’s identity. LGBT Chamber members overlap with many different identities and minority groups. Something that students have to understand about the world and the workplace, she said.
“Diversity is more complicated. I’m a lesbian. I’m a woman. I’m Caucasian. I’m a southerner. I’m Christian,” McClure said, “I bring my whole person to whatever I do.”
Lisa Firmin, associate provost for Faculty/Student Diversity and Recruitment at UTSA, pointed out that work still needs to be done to change policies at many college campuses, including UTSA.
“Currently we’re trying to include gender expression and gender identity to the non-discrimination policy … and create a faculty/staff gay and lesbian association,” Firmin said, “Most people are very supportive.”
Firmin was also in attendance as a board member of the Texas Diversity Council (TDC), along with Tammy Flemons of CPS energy.
“To the (TDC), I’ll bring back the message that we need to focus more on LGBT leadership and awareness,” Firmin said.
A collaborative effort to establish a Pride Center, a place for the community to learn about LGBT issues and to provide resources for businesses and leaders that hail from all minority groups. The center is still looking for financial sponsors and a location to set up shop.
“The Chamber brings businesses together,” said Robert Salcido, membership chair for the local chamber said, “but it also focuses on the community that supports the business … socially, economically and politically.”
Salcido hopes the Pride Center can serve as a unified meeting place and voice for the community.
Salcido is a local sales representative at Liberty Mutual Insurance which has been an LGBT Chambermember since 2009. He’s been a member of other chambers in the past, such as the Hispanic Chamber, and says the local LGBT Chamber focuses more heavily on the communities behind the businesses. The chamber’s small size allows for members to build stronger bonds.
“We all want to grow our businesses, but at the same time, grow the community and knowledge of who we are,” Salcido said.
State employment laws still do not protect against sexual or gender identity discrimination. LGBT groups across the state are working with elected officials, such as State Representative Mike Villarreal of San Antonio, to get employment equality.
DeeDee Belmares, local chamber board member, wants to see LGBT individuals have protections within the city code.
“Currently, San Antonio is the last major city in Texas not to have protections for ‘sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression’ within the current list of protected classes in city code,” said Belmares in an email clarifying her statements after the summit. “While only Austin and Fort Worth have comprehensive protections, all other cities have some form of protection for LGBT persons within their city code. It is important for San Antonio to be known as a city that recognizes all persons as being equal. The protected classes are subcontracts, fair housing, boards and commissions, fair housing and city employment.”
As the meeting came to a close, Nelson congratulated the local chamber on its progress since its start in 2008.
Often times minority interest groups and geographical organizations can get into “turf-wars” over where support should go, there is little evidence of that between San Antonio and Austin, he said.
“We don’t have to split up the pie,” Nelson said. “This is America, we make pie … There is enough to go around if we work together.”