Thousands converge on Dallas for Out & Equal

Executives from major corporations meet in Dallas to discuss LGBT equality on the job

Keeton.Elyse

Meredith Baxter

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

LGBT executives, employees and allies from hundreds of companies around the world met at the Hilton Anatole Hotel this week for the annual Out & Equal Workplace Summit to discuss equality in a corporate setting. Among the top issues discussed were transgender equality and equality around the world.
People from about 30 countries attended.

One attendee from Italy was gathering resources for a new Out & Equal organization he has formed that already is affiliated with 10 companies.

Local companies such as JC Penney, Kimberley Clark, Texas Instruments and Frito Lay were well represented. Even ExxonMobil, notorious for its 0 percent rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index and for stripping Mobil employees of benefits after their merger, paid for several employees to attend the conference.

Louise Young said her company, Raytheon, underwrote 50 employees who attended from around the country.

Houston-based Chevron brought in employees from around the world. Nick Thomas is a project manager for a $220 million water-purification project in Kazakhstan. He said he works 28 days on and then 28 days off the project and lives in Amsterdam when not in the Central Asian country.

With him was Erin Myers, a geologist, who is moving from Houston to Perth, Australia next week.

Chevron’s 100 percent rating with HRC gives the company a competitive edge, Thomas said, referring to Dallas-based ExxonMobil. But he preferred nondiscrimination and benefits equality over competitive advantage.

Tracey Ballard began working on employee equality at work in the early 1990s. Ballard works for the Central Intelligence Agency, which, she said, has a very diverse workforce and is always looking for the best and the brightest.

She said that the agency decided to start attending conferences like this one, “because we don’t need people self-selecting out.”

And change has come to the CIA both from the top down and from the bottom up. Former CIA Director Leon Panetta and current chief David Petraeus were very progressive with employment policies, Ballard said.

With Ballard was Michael Barber, who said that if an award was given at Out & Equal for best job title at the conference, he’d win: Barber is community outreach and LGBT liaison program manager for the CIA. The Agency Network of Gay and Lesbian Employees, “that includes allies, Bi’s and T’s,” is known as ANGLE and has about 200 members.

Barber said he was there to dispel myths about the CIA, like “Everyone drives sports cars with machine guns in the tailpipes,” and that the agency is homophobic. Barber didn’t say what type of sports car he actually does drive, however.

Barber said ANGLE has made some positive steps. Partner benefits are limited by the Defense of Marriage Act, just as at all federal agencies, he said, but a CIA employee being transferred overseas can take a partner.

All employees of the agency must report if they are cohabitating with someone who is a foreign national and offer a letter of resignation. But they also may register an intent to marry. ANGLE intervened in the case of a gay employee who reported his domestic partnership with a foreign national but was unable to marry.

Virginia, where the agency is based, has no relationship recognition. But the gay employee was allowed to retain both his job and live with his spouse.

Among the celebrities attending was Meredith Baxter, who played Elyse Keaton in the 1980s sitcom Family Ties. She spoke at the morning plenary on Wednesday about coming out on The Today Show last year.

“When my partner and I left the NBC studio that morning, I felt free, unburdened and so calm,” she said. “I had faced the devil and I survived quite nicely.”

Geri Jewell played Cousin Geri on the sitcom The Facts of Life. Born with cerebral palsy, she was the first actor with a recurring role in a prime time television show with a disability. She spoke at the Women’s Leadership Luncheon along with Sheriff Lupe Valdez.

“Being gay, having cerebral palsy, being blind are not disabilities,” Jewell said. “Prejudice, hypocrisy, false pride and hatred are the real disabilities.”

She signed copies of her book, I’m Walking As Straight as I Can at the Anatole. Baxter, who also recently released a memoir, signed copies at the hotel and that evening at Nuvo on Cedar Springs Road.

Rick Welts, the former manager of the the Phoenix Suns and recently hired president of the Golden State Warriors in Sacramento, is the highest-ranking male sports executive to come out.

“We’re afraid of things we don’t understand,” he said at the conference.

Welts spoke about breaking down barriers for the LGBT community even in professional sports.

“Before the story came out in the New York Times on the front page, I had no idea what to be prepared for,” he said. “I certainly was not prepared for the absolutely overwhelmingly positive response I got.”

Welts said that putting a human face on being gay made that difference.

Comedian Kate Clinton emceed Thursday night’s gala, which featured Margaret Cho and Wilson Cruz (Rent). JC Penney presented a fall fashion show. Speakers included Northrop Grumman Chairman, CEO and President Wes Bush and Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns.

The conference concludes Friday afternoon.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 28, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas