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Workplace Is Key to Push for Lesbian, Gay Rights, Activists Say : Summit: Progress Conference, the first-ever statewide gathering of its kind, serves as forum on employment-related issues.


SAN DIEGO — Although Walt Disney Co.'s decision earlier this month to extend benefits to its gay and lesbian employees' domestic partners provided an upbeat tone to the Progress convention held here this weekend, participants in the gay workplace rights conference have their eyes on a larger prize--a comprehensive federal equal opportunity law for gays and lesbians in the workplace.

But because the mood in Washington makes such legislation unlikely, "the workplace is the key frontier for gay and lesbian rights activism," said Ann Mei Chang, a software designer who helped organize a gay employee group at Silicon Graphics of Mountain View, Calif., which in 1992 was one of the first computer companies to extend benefits to lesbian and gay employees' domestic partners.

On Saturday, Chang gave the keynote address at Progress, or the Professional Gay Lesbian & Bisexual Related Employee Support Summit. It was the first ever statewide gathering of leaders of gay employee groups and served as a forum on a variety of workplace issues important to lesbians and gays. Sponsors included United Airlines, Apple Computer, Pacific Telesis and Coors Brewing. In recent years, formal and informal groups of gay and lesbian employees have emerged alongside other such minority groups at large companies. "We have a unique opportunity to spearhead the next wave of progress," Chang said.

Much of the buzz at the convention centered on Disney and how its extension of benefits to gay employees' domestic partners was a watershed event for gay rights because of Disney's strait-laced image as provider of family entertainment.

Disney's move will spur the nationwide drive by lesbians and gays for equal workplace rights, said Elizabeth M. Birch, a former Apple Computer corporate attorney and now executive director of Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights lobbying group in Washington.

"It's a long-term goal to achieve federal protection of gays and lesbians in the workplace," Birch said. "But everyone here knows Congress is way behind the public."

California is among nine states, the District of Columbia and many cities that have passed laws prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation. Some state and local laws also cover housing discrimination. None of the laws has been interpreted to require benefits for domestic partners, although a handful of local governments have decided to provide them.

But a vote on any federal law is at least a year away and will face stiff opposition from conservatives and the Christian right. And although such a law may outlaw many kinds of workplace discrimination, it isn't expected to require benefits for domestic partners. So, for the time being, lesbian and gay activists are looking to corporate management to ensure equal rights on the job.

Today "there is a workplace movement . . . with a lot of energy and momentum," Birch said.

Disney last month joined more than 400 employers nationwide that now extend medical benefits to domestic partners of gay employees, up from just half a dozen companies in 1992. To receive the benefits, Disney employees' gay and lesbian partners must sign affidavits swearing to their long-term commitment and financial inter-dependency with employees.

Disney has lagged behind many other entertainment firms, an industry that has been at the fore in offering domestic partner benefits to gays. Among Hollywood studios, only Turner, Fox and MGM/United Artists do not yet offer same-sex partner benefits, said Tamra King, formerly assistant director of Hollywood Supports, a gay rights group.

Companies have extended domestic partner benefits to lesbian and gays because they help in recruitment, make employees more productive and provide a marketing advantage in pitching products and services to gay consumers, said Sarah Fairchild, a Progress delegate who works at Kaiser Permanente in Berkeley.

In pushing for domestic partner benefits, gays within companies must "always tie it to the bottom line, show how it's good marketing," Fairchild said.

Also fueling companies' acceptance of gay partner benefits is growing research that shows that the benefits don't cost as much as some companies feared and that there is little abuse.

Only 3% of employees at companies offering the domestic partner benefits end up taking them and the added coverage poses no more financial risk than adding spouses to health plans, according to Hewitt Associates, a Lincolnshire, Ill.-based employee benefits and compensation consulting firm.

Chang said extension of benefits to workers' lesbian and gay partners can create conflicts at companies when the same benefits are not made available to unmarried employees' opposite sex partners. While more than 90% of companies offering domestic partner benefits make them available to unmarried heterosexual employees as well, Disney is among the minority that limit coverage to same sex partners.

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