Ten years ago this month, the charter board of the San Antonio LGBT Chamber of Commerce elected its first slate of officers and established committees that would support and promote local businesses.

Now with 65 members and a new board, the group has set its major goals for the coming year. Members plan to march in the upcoming Pride parade on June 30 and participate in National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11.

But the more ambitious goals they are currently rallying around include getting the chamber’s all-volunteer leadership better organized to support its members and prove the chamber’s value in San Antonio.

“Best-case scenario is that we wouldn’t need [an LGBT Chamber],” said newly elected Chamber President Renee Garvens. “We wouldn’t need to ask the question of, ‘Are you an LGBT-friendly business? Are you an advocate for our community? Do you provide diversity for your employees? Is that something you value?’

“Sadly, we do have to ask those questions.”

As the voice of the LGBTQIA business community since being founded by entrepreneur Cristina Martinez, the chamber contributes to efforts that promote diversity and inclusivity, and advocates for LGBTQIA and LGBTQIA-friendly business owners, professionals, and consumers – a group it says combines to contribute $4 billion a year to the local economy.

The San Antonio LGBT Chamber is one of four like it in Texas, all affiliates of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), which was founded in 2002.

A Gallup Poll last year reported there are an estimated 10 million people in the U.S. who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. As a voice for the 1.4 million LGBTQIA business owners, the NGLCC estimates the community it represents contributes $1.7 trillion to the national economy each year. At least 200 corporate and government organizations across the nation partner with the national chamber to promote inclusive policies, including locally based financial services provider USAA.

“What’s been amazing to me is seeing how many businesses are putting themselves out there as having diverse cultures who are passionate about the diversity of their employees and making sure they are perceived that way – like USAA, like Toyota,” Garvens said.

Renee Garvens, president of San Antonio LGBT Chamber of Commerce Credit: Shari Biedieger / San Antonio Report

“And these are big business that get some flak for their position on the subject, from their members and their customers, and they still stand by it. They really set the precedent for how businesses can and should advocate for a diverse culture.”

At the chamber’s annual awards luncheon in March, the officers presented IBC Bank with its community business award for the company’s support and sponsorship of events. The chamber also recognized Visit San Antonio President and CEO Casandra Matej as ally of the year, for her efforts to stop the “bathroom bill,” and transgender activist Ashley Smith as advocate of the year.

Garvens, the senior director of community and donor relations at the nonprofit Roy Maas Youth Alternatives and mother of three, was elected president of the chamber two weeks ago. She discovered the business group six years ago after divorcing her husband and coming out as gay.

“I was looking for gay-friendly resources – attorneys, therapists, real estate agents,” she said. “That’s where I saw the value of the chamber. I was in my mid-40s at the time and didn’t know where to go. The chamber was pivotal in helping me find resources.”

In general, she believes San Antonio is a welcoming and inclusive community, perhaps due to its culturally strong religious ties and the faith groups here that have embraced the LGBTQIA community.

Earlier this year, Mayor Ron Nirenberg established a 15-member LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee that will address the well-being of the community and serve as a conduit between the LGBTQIA community and the mayor’s office.

Former chamber President David Solis serves on that committee, which has met twice. He said one issue that could be addressed by the committee is recognizing the LGBT Business Enterprise certification (LGBTBE) for City contracting as Bexar County has already done.

San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Ramiro Cavazos shakes hands with LGBT Chamber of Commerce President David Solis.
San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Ramiro Cavazos shakes hands with LGBT Chamber of Commerce President David Solis (left) during a meeting with San Antonio business leaders in August 2017. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

To qualify, a business must be at least 51 percent owned, managed or operated by an LGBTQIA person, and the business must be independent from a larger non-LGBTQIA owned business.

Half of all LGBTBE-certified companies operate from within five states, and Texas is one of them. Those enterprises include Fortune 500 companies, top federal agencies, and a number of major municipalities.

San Antonio entrepreneur Jessica Salinas, owner of graphic design firm Ingeniously Designed by Jess, said she obtained certification more for the market exposure than to win government contracts. Salinas has been a member of the San Antonio LGBT Chamber on and off for the past five years.

The chamber that represents her business interests here also works closely with the LGBT Chamber affiliates in Austin, Houston, and Dallas. They met in Austin recently to form a coalition to fight potential discriminatory legislation such as the “bathroom bill.”

“I think that’s what we do as a community,” Garvens said. “We force people away from a discriminatory thought process, to question what they may have believed or may have been brought up to believe.”

Garvens said the chamber will continue to work on behalf of LGBTQIA-owned businesses, and alongside other local chambers, advising groups such as one evaluating future needs at the San Antonio International Airport.

“San Antonio has been pretty progressive,” Solis said. “There’s lot of work to be done, but I think we are going in right direction.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.