Lesbian and Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The first gay and lesbian employee group in the United States formed in the late 1970’s. By the early twenty-first century, the workplace movement had more than one hundred gay and lesbian employee networks pushing for change inside corporate America, spearheading major policy transformations and a rethinking of corporate culture.

Summary of Event

In 1978, the first-known gay and lesbian employee group formed inside a major corporation. During the next twenty-five years, more than one hundred such networks would spring up within Fortune 500 Fortune 500 companies across the United States. [kw]Lesbian and Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded (1978) [kw]Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded, Lesbian and (1978) [kw]Workplace Movement Is Founded, Lesbian and Gay (1978) Workplace movement Employment rights;United States Antidiscrimination laws;and workplace movement[workplace movement] Corporations, and domestic partnership benefits [c]Organizations and institutions;1978: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded[1250] [c]Economics;1978: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded[1250] [c]Marches, protests, and riots;1978: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded[1250]

As the core of what activists now call the workplace movement, these networks have ushered in a sea change in corporate America. Ranging from a few people to as many as two thousand members, gay and lesbian employee groups typically share four main goals: to provide support and networking opportunities; to gain official corporate recognition; to educate management and other workers on sexual orientation issues; and to bring about gay- and lesbian-inclusive nondiscrimination policies, diversity training, and domestic-partner benefits.

Prior to internal corporate mobilization, gay and lesbian rights activists borrowed strategies from the Civil Rights movement to target the antigay and antilesbian employment policies of the federal government and civil service sector. With the Homophile League of New York staging the country’s first gay and lesbian rights protest, which was held outside a military induction center in the early 1960’s, by 1964 lesbians in dresses and gay men in suits were picketing outside the White House, the Pentagon, and other government buildings with signs condemning employment discrimination and demanding civil rights. Despite their bravery, very few tangible gains were made in the struggle for workplace equality. After the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City in June of 1969, however, in addition to targeting the homophobic policies of the state and mental health establishment, gay and lesbian activists set their sights on antigay and antilesbian corporate practices.

In the earliest known protest against a major company, activists in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York picketed ABC-TV in the spring of 1970 after a San Francisco station fired an employee who had joined the movement for gay and lesbian rights. Others decided to survey corporations about their policies. In 1970, FREE (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression), a rights group at the University of Minnesota, combined surveys with test cases to see if out gay and lesbian applicants would be turned down. In a letter accompanying the survey, the group promised to target discriminatory employers. After first mentioning research showing that homosexuality was not a mental disorder, the tone of the letter then quickly shifted to a co-optation of corporate discourse. Emphasizing that motivation and productivity suffer if employees have to remain closeted, the group argued that gay- and lesbian-inclusive policies would bring companies recruitment advantages.

Other gay and lesbian activists took a decidedly more aggressive approach. In the fall of 1971, when Pacific Telephone and Telegraph said it would not hire homosexuals, the Gay Activists Alliance picketed both PT&T PT&T[PT and T] and parent company AT&T. AT&T[AT and T] After two years of continued intransigence, activists staged a Good Friday zap action featuring a young gay man dragging a heavy “cross” made from a telephone pole, which he carried through downtown San Francisco to PT&T headquarters. Two weeks later, protesters held another rally, but to no avail. During that same summer of 1973, activists picketed and also passed out leaflets for six days outside Northwestern Bell in Minnesota after the AT&T subsidiary announced its antigay and antilesbian hiring policy on the front page of the local newspaper. Although the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Minnesota filed suit against parent company AT&T in 1973, it was not until May of 1974, with the lawsuit still pending, that Northwestern Bell rescinded its discriminatory policy. The change was preceded three days earlier by the passage of a gay and lesbian rights ordinance in Minneapolis. Shortly thereafter, AT&T changed its policy as well. Notably, the corporation had earlier settled a highly publicized class action suit for discrimination against women.

Despite such early victories, however, gays and lesbians were reluctant to mobilize inside companies, especially because on the outside, a handful of cities argued that antigay and antilesbian employment discrimination was perfectly legal (it remained so in most states as of mid-2006). The tentative pace of early corporate organizing also makes sense given the rise of the New Right in the late 1970’s and its consolidation of power in the 1980’s. It is hardly surprising, then, that by the end of that decade, the number of Fortune 1000 companies with gay and lesbian networks had barely reached two handfuls.

In the first half of the 1990’s, however, with a more favorable political climate ushered in during Bill Clinton’s Clinton, Bill successful run for president, workplace mobilization took off. New gay and lesbian employee groups sprang up in the Fortune 1000 at an average rate of ten per year, bringing the total number of networks to a critical mass of sixty by the start of 1995. The national marches on Washington, D.C., for gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights in 1987 and 1993, along with the emergence of media-savvy direct-action groups, such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1987 and Queer Nation in 1990, had also helped to energize and expand the ranks of the workplace movement. Once the mainstream media’s spotlight on queer politics widened to include gay and lesbian employee activism, new networks spread across the country. With the HIV-AIDS epidemic adding tragic saliency to the lack of equitable benefits, including not only health insurance but even bereavement leave, the gay and lesbian media also began to focus more critically on corporate policies and practices at the start of the 1990’s.

Mainstream press coverage of particularly blatant cases of discrimination also boosted mobilization. In early 1991, the Cracker Barrel Cracker Barrel restaurants restaurant chain issued a press release announcing its antigay and antilesbian employment policy, and eleven lesbian and gay employees were fired. Activists quickly issued calls for a boycott and staged demonstrations and sit-ins at various restaurant locations. Stories sympathetic to the protesters appeared on national news networks as well as on television programs such as Oprah Winfrey, Larry King Live, and 20/20.

Cracker Barrel’s crusade persuaded many gay and lesbian employee networks to join forces. In 1991, activists from several different companies organized the first two conferences in the country to focus on lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues at work. These conferences constituted a critical turning point for the workplace movement. The East Coast conference, which focused on educating corporate executives, generated considerable press attention, such that even business publications and personnel journals began to cover gay and lesbian issues generally and workplace activism in particular. The West Coast conference, called Out and Equal in the Workplace, Out and Equal in the Workplace was organized primarily for gays and lesbians and was so successful that it became an annual event. With early support from both the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the annual conferences quickly expanded, and in the first few years of the twenty-first century, they served as key mobilizers for the movement.

Other infrastructural supports contributing to the emergence and success of gay employee networks include e-mail listservs and Web sites focused on gay and lesbian issues in the workplace; local, regional, and national umbrella groups; and workplace projects launched by NGLTF in the early 1990’s and HRC in 1995. In addition to its Business Council, whose members work with companies to achieve inclusive policies, the HRC Foundation provides invaluable resources through its WorkNet project. Along with many other useful tools, the WorkNet site (www.hrc.org/worknet) includes a searchable database containing information on employers in the corporate, educational, nonprofit, and government sectors, including whether or not they have gay-, lesbian-, and transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination policies, diversity training, domestic-partner benefits, and GLBT employee groups.

The dawning of domestic partner benefits on the corporate horizon spurred many gays and lesbians to form workplace networks and to push harder for the benefits. When Lotus became the country’s first major corporation to adopt equitable benefits in 1991, national newspapers began running stories about domestic-partner benefits. Inspired by this policy breakthrough, employee activists would eventually push numerous companies to follow along in Lotus’s footsteps.


Despite the backlash against LGBT rights occurring across the United States, the workplace movement has won remarkable policy success thus far. In 1990, just three corporations had offered family and bereavement leave for their lesbian and gay employees, and none provided health insurance coverage for domestic partners. By the middle of the 1990’s, however, domestic-partner benefits had practically become a household phrase given their adoption by numerous big-name companies. As of June 1, 2006, more than 50 percent of Fortune 500 companies had instituted equitable benefits. Indeed, corporations far outpace educational, nonprofit, and government employers in offering these benefits.

Research tracking corporate policy change and workplace mobilization through 1999 reveals that, in the vast majority of cases, employers adopted equitable benefits only after facing internal pressure from gay and lesbian employee groups. Although some companies are now extending the benefits in the absence of such networks, the workplace movement deserves credit for spearheading these changes and for its still-central role in the continued transformation of corporate America. Workplace movement Employment rights;United States Antidiscrimination laws;and workplace movement[workplace movement] Corporations, and domestic partnership benefits

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Daniel B., Sean O’Brien Strub, and Bill Henning. Cracking the Corporate Closet: The Two Hundred Best (and Worst) Companies to Work For, Buy From, and Invest in if You’re Gay or Lesbian—and Even if You Aren’t. New York: Harper Business, 1995.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krupat, Kitty, and Patrick McCreery, eds. Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNaught, Brian. Gay Issues in the Workplace. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raeburn, Nicole C. Changing Corporate America from Inside Out: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Rights. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winfeld, Liz, and Susan Spielman. Straight Talk About Gays in the Workplace: Creating an Inclusive, Productive Environment for Everyone in Your Organization. New York: Amacom, 1995.

April 27, 1953: U.S. President Eisenhower Prohibits Federal Employment of Lesbians and Gays

1972-1973: Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws

June 27, 1974: Abzug and Koch Attempt to Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

June 2, 1980: Canadian Gay Postal Workers Secure Union Protections

December 4, 1984: Berkeley Extends Benefits to Domestic Partners of City Employees

November 8, 1988: Oregon Repeals Ban on Antigay Job Discrimination

May 1, 1989: U.S. Supreme Court Rules Gender-Role Stereotyping Is Discriminatory

September 29, 1991: California Governor Wilson Vetoes Antidiscrimination Bill

September 23, 1992: Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to Gay and Lesbian State Workers

1994: Employment Non-Discrimination Act Is Proposed to U.S. Congress

April 2, 1998: Canadian Supreme Court Reverses Gay Academic’s Firing

July, 2003: Singapore Lifts Ban on Hiring Lesbian and Gay Employees

July, 2003: Wal-Mart Adds Lesbians and Gays to Its Antidiscrimination Policy

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