Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Gay Partner Benefits in Orlando: Richard Florida's Gay Index and Quality Employees

An interesting story from Orlando. Two evenings ago, the Orlando city council voted to extend partner benefits to city employees living in same-sex unions.

As readers know, I follow news from central Florida because Steve and I unexpectedly own a house there. (Well, to be precise, the bank owns it and we do our level best to make payments on it monthly.)

We went to Florida to take jobs a couple of years ago on the basis of promises that vanished after we arrived. Though we were reluctant to relocate, we believed those begging us to take new jobs when they assured us that our talents were needed and that Florida is a much more gay-accepting area than Arkansas.

Sadly, we found the latter claim not to be at all accurate. Though Arkansas as a whole is far from gay-friendly, the city in which we live is, as New Jersey-born Arkansas columnist Gene Lyons likes to say, “an island of civility in a sea of fundamentalism.” Our neighborhood, in which my family has deep roots, also happens to be the most gay-accepting community in the entire state, a place in which neighbors bear with one another, help each other out, and don’t give a hoot about each others' sexual orientations.

In Florida, by contrast, we found that neighbors were capable of shouting hate slurs as we rode our bikes past their houses. We were harassed by a neighbor who had signed the petition for a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. She somehow got hold of our phone number and would call to berate us if we left garbage by the side of the street and the city failed to pick it up on its weekly round. Though we never left such detritus out more than the day of the city’s garbage rounds, if we had not picked it up immediately after the trucks left, we got a call. Other neighbors (heterosexually married ones) who did the same never got similar calls.

Nor did we find sanctuary from such hateful treatment at the church-owned institution at which we worked. In fact, we found our employer outright vicious towards us, though we had been assured we would be welcome as an openly gay couple. Soon after our arrival, we were informed that people were “talking” about our arriving at work together and taking lunch together. We had a single car.

We never had any evidence of such “talk” except from our supervisor, who seemed—for reasons the supervisor did not deign to share with us—to have a strong interest in letting us know that our openness about ourselves and our lives posed a problem, and primarily to the supervisor. In other words, it was apparent soon after our arrival that our supervisor had decided to try to make us actively unwelcome. In fact, colleagues assured us that they heard no such “talk” anywhere in the entire workplace.

Within a few months, the supervisor presented us with written mandates not to accompany each other on doctors’ visits. The many opposite-sex married couples working at this workplace never received such mandates.

The supervisor raised objections to our traveling together, though opposite-sex couples at the same workplace who happened to be married, but not to the colleagues with whom they were traveling, routinely traveled together and the supervisor never lifted an eyebrow. Plans Steve and I had made to travel that had been approved by the supervisor before our hire suddenly became problematic, and we found ourselves subject to (false) charges that we had taken a trip without the supervisor’s permission—though we had that permission in writing, and had been intent on securing it even when we took the job, when we were assured that these plans made prior to our hire did not pose a problem.

Central Florida turned out to be far less gay-accepting, in our experience, than central Arkansas. We met some wonderful people in the short time we worked in Florida, but, on the whole, our experience there turned out to be dismal—and entirely due to the rabid homophobia of the person employing us, a prejudice promoted and protected by the church to which the employer belongs.

For this reason, I’m delighted to read that Orlando has taken the step to extend partner benefits to same-sex couples employed by the city. As an editorial in yesterday’s Orlando Sentinel notes, this is, first of all, the right thing to do—a matter of “basic fairness,” as Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer has argued (,0,4991185.story).

Mayor Dyer’s stand for basic fairness is courageous, too, in light of the powerful (and well-funded) homophobia in the region. As a WESH (NBC Orlando) news report on the city council decision notes, several days before the city initiative passed, a group of local and national African-American ministers spoke out in strong support of the amendment to ban gay marriage in Florida (

Orlando is also the home of the powerful Matthew D. Staver of the Liberty Counsel, which funds battles to fight gay rights initiatives across the nation (,0,3797886.story?page=2). In fact, Staver actually wrote the anti-gay marriage amendment now on the ballot for the upcoming elections in Florida.

As a previous posting on this blog notes, Staver has considerable influence in central Florida, where he and his organization try to keep the lid on attempts of gay citizens to secure basic rights ( In February 2006, Staver and Liberty Counsel sought to bully a blogger, Justin Watt, who had parodied a campaign of Exodus International to promote “conversion” “therapy” in various cities. As my posting cited above notes, Staver sent Watt a cease-and-desist letter demanding that he take down blog postings parodying Exodus billboards.

Watt refused, arguing that the request violated his constitutional right to free speech. The ACLU assisted him, and he successfully resisted the bullying of Staver and Liberty Counsel. It is hard to imagine that groups with a strong interest in resisting gay rights will now fail to target Mayor Dyer and the Orlando city council, after their recent vote.

A common tactic of such groups is to threaten to undermine fundraising attempts of any group that does the right thing and supports gay rights. And this tactic can work—that is, it can do so if an organization targeted by such groups is led by someone who lacks character and transformative leadership ability, and is willing to cave in to immoral bullying and sacrifice principled commitment to basic fairness for self-protection and financial expediency.

There is increasing evidence, in fact, that organizations which do not provide protection for the rights of gay employees and do not have statements forbidding discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation are actually shooting themselves in the foot economically. One of the reasons that Orlando chose to grant benefits to same-sex couples in the city’s employ is that studies show highly successful local companies like Disney, Universal, and the Orlando Sentinel already providing such benefits ( Studies indicate that companies and other organizations that do not guarantee the rights of gay employees are economically less successful, in an increasingly diverse culture, than are companies that protect gay rights.

In fact, as Richard Florida’s highly acclaimed work on the role of the “creative class” in American culture today demonstrates, areas that are overtly welcoming to gay people are also likely to be areas that are growing economically (see The Flight of the Creative Class [HarperCollins, 2005], Cities and the Creative Class [Routledge, 2005], and The Rise of the Creative Class [Basic Books, 2002]). There is empirical evidence that areas that welcome gay people also attract creative and well-educated workers in general, along with talented young people who build a local economy.

The obverse also seems to be true, according to Richard Florida. Communities, businesses, or organizations that resist gay rights shoot themselves in the foot economically. They run talented people away. They do not attract educated young people, the kind of creative new citizens any area or organization needs in order to remain competitive. Those citizens avoid environments that are unwelcoming towards gay folks. Their energies flow into more welcoming communities or organizations, while unwelcoming communities and organizations stagnate.

As Orlando city commissioner Patty Sheehan has noted, re: the recent initiative to extend partner benefits to gay couples employed by the city, "I'm glad to see that it's finally happening. We want to be able to attract quality employees."

There’s certainly still a great deal of work to do in central Florida, for those wanting to attract “quality employees” to institutions in this region. Orange, Osceola, Lake, Volusia, and Seminole counties still do not offer domestic-partner benefits for employees who are unmarried couples. Even more surprising, there are still institutions of higher learning in this region—church-owned ones, it goes without saying—that have no official policy prohibiting discrimination against gay employees.

For such communities and such institutions, the handwriting is on the wall: welcome diversity, and you will not only be doing the right thing; you will also benefit yourself. The willingness to celebrate diversity—and, in particular, the contributions of gay citizens and gay employees—is a very strong indicator of a viable, creative future.