First LGBT Business Summit in South Florida held at Wilton Manors Pride Center

Written by Sergio N. Candido | South Florida Gay News There is more driving businesses to adopt LGBT-friendly workplace policies than ethics; for companies, having inclusive policies means louder “cha-chings!” in their cash registers. “How are we going to attract high quality candidates to companies if the state doesn’t have legal protections for gay couples? Economically, it makes sense to change company policies,” said Nadine Smith, executive director at civil rights organization Equality Florida, to a crowd of about 50 company representatives, ranging from Starbucks coffee to Visa. Smith was one of several speakers at the GLBT-Allies Diversity Summit this past June 22. The event, held at the Wilton Manor’s Pride Center, was the first of its kind in South Florida. It brought together local LGBT organizations, attorneys and companies to discuss the state’s current LGBT climate in terms of laws and the best practices for companies to attract a diverse workforce. The summit was put together by the Florida Diversity Council, a nonprofit with the goal of establishing and promoting policies that foster diversity and inclusiveness at work. It has regional chapters in Jacksonville, Orlando, Southwest Florida, and Tampa. “We wanted to take this to South Florida. Most of our venues are universities, but we wanted to make the link with the pride center,” said Stephen Wilke, communications co-chair for the council. The 4-hour-long event kicked off with a series of educational seminars. The first one, called “Legislative Update: Building Equality and Fairness in the Florida Workplace,” was headed by Smith and attorney Stephanie Schneider, who has experience dealing with long-term care planning for gay domestic partners. Smith explained how Florida’s current laws make it hard for big businesses to recruit out-of-state talent. “For companies who are trying to move people from one state to the other, if you want to open an office in Jacksonville and the person hired was living in Massachusetts, how do you do that if they are not going to feel safe there?” Smith asked the crowd. Only a handful of cities, including Miami, St. Petersburg, Tampa, Orlando, Orange County and Volusia County have adopted a domestic partnership registry for gay couples. It gets worse at the state level. Florida has no statewide law banning LGBT people from being fired based on their sexual orientation. And there is no legal recognition for same- sex couples. According to an eQualityGiving chart listing equality goals reached by each state, Florida ranks among the bottom 10 states when it comes to LGBT rights. “The reputation Florida has is not particularly positive for LGBT people,” Smith said. “But to have economic diversity, there has to be a thriving LGBT community ... when culturally different people share ideas, that’s how you get the big idea.” Schneider seconded what Smith said, and also talked about why it is important to change the law, citing recent challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act in the Supreme Court. Set in 1996, DOMA is a law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, thus depriving gay couples of the rights and privileges granted to heterosexual couples, like filing tax returns together and maintaining estate rights after widowing. Last month, a federal judge in New York sided with 83-year-old Edith Windsor, who found herself with a 6-figure inheritance tax debt after her wife died because the federal government wouldn’t recognize their Canadian marriage. The next session, by Ford & Harrison attorney Aisha Sanchez, focused on how to create a comfortable work environment for transgender and transsexual people. She shared the story of her sister, who became a transgender man at the age of 50. Sanchez then pointed out issues companies often face when dealing with transgender employees, like to which restroom should they go, or whether the transgender person should be addressed with a masculine or feminine pronoun. “People should be treated as they present themselves,” Sanchez summed up, emphasizing how co-workers should be sensitive of transsexual employees, especially if they are transitioning into their new self. Steps to make workplace more inclusive range from minute things, like updating job applications by adding another box for those who do not consider themselves “female or male,” to amending harassment, and bathroom policies. The summit closed with a panel discussion that included representatives from Florida’s Blue Cross & Shield, Wal-Mart, Wyndham hotels, and a lawyer from Quarles & Brady, a Naples law firm. The debate was moderated by Keith Blackburn, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. The companies talked about how each one supports their LGBT workers. Wal-Mart, for example, has its own division called “Pride at Wal-Mart,” which are basically human resources experts dedicated to making everyone feel comfortable at work. Wal-Mart also has a non-discriminatory policy that includes sexual orientation. Patrick Costello from Quarles & Brady said his office offers domestic partner benefits to its employees. For Costello, amending anti-discrimination policies and having domestic partnership benefits are “paramount” for companies to stay at the top of the game. James Kar, a representative of Principal Financial Group, a Desmoines-based investments group, was among the attendees jotting down notes to take back to the office. “Talking about transgender people is especially important. I’ll be sending a memo to my company about what we discussed here,” he said. For, Wilke, that’s what the summit was all about. “The most important things that people should get out of this is learning from the stories people have told, and listening.” he said.

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