January 8, 1996


By Stephen Franklin, Chicago Tribune Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

One sad day two years ago, Bob Singer tapped out a very difficult message to his boss at Quaker Oats Co.

"I'll be taking bereavement leave," he wrote on his computer.

He was acknowledging much more than a loved one's death.

Singer realized he risked publicly admitting that he was gay, and that his partner for the last eight years had just died of AIDS. Yet he no longer wanted to keep this secret within him at the place where he works.

Until then, Singer, 37, a computer systems manager, had never shared details about his private life. The idea absolutely terrified him.

He has since learned that coming out of the closet is not suicide in corporate America. He also has been pleased by Quaker Oats' willingness to let him start a support group among gay and lesbian employees as well as its ability to listen to these workers' concerns.

"What I'm proud of is that there is not just words here, but there is a management commitment, too," he says.

Gay- and lesbian-rights organizations talk today about a flood of corporate support groups like the one set up by Singer, and companies that have extended equal rights protections and benefits to gay workers. (Quaker Oats doesn't extend its benefits coverage to gay partners.)

Evan Wolfson, an attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, says six years ago he could have counted on both hands the companies that voluntarily offer benefits for gay partners.

"Today I no longer try. That has been a tremendously important change," he says.

Indeed, such a change within conservative corporate America seems ironic amid the outspoken vehemence by right-wing and other groups toward gay-related issues.

But gay-rights groups and management experts who specialize in such issues also say the progress has been sporadic, and many firms still refuse to deal with gay employees' concerns.

Namely, they say not enough firms offer protection against on-the-job harassment; agree not to discriminate against gays in hiring and promotions; or offer benefits to gay partners.

The demand for benefits is the most contested demand because it involves opening the door to vast financial commitments, a step that many firms want to avoid.

"If you look back 10 years ago, there were few people out in the workplace. Today many people are out and for many straight people, it has become a comfortable thing," says Bob Powers, a San Francisco-based consultant and former training manager for AT&T.

"Unfortunately," he adds, "many companies still operate in a 'don't-ask, don't-tell' environment." This sends a message to some gay workers that they should stay in hiding, explains Powers, author of a recent guide for managers on sexual orientation in the workplace.

Both companies and workers lose out in this case because the workers "use a lot of energy trying to cover up who they are-energy that could be devoted to the job," he says.

Another coping mechanism used by gay employees, who fear revealing themselves on the job, is to quit and set up their own businesses, says Jason Cohen, head of Chicago Out at Work (Or Not), a group that is three years old.

One problem workers and gay-rights groups face is just getting employers to talk with them, says Jim Yeaman, head of the Association Executives Human Rights Caucus, a 12-year-old Chicago-based group that serves workers nationally in non-profit organizations.

His group recently sent out a survey to executives of non-profit organizations across the U.S., asking about benefits for gay employees' partners. "The response," he says, "has been pitifully weak."

Based on the calls she receives from gay workers, Pat Logue, an attorney in Chicago for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, says the major job-related worry for gay workers is harassment from fellow workers.

The simple answer would seem to be for them to go to their bosses, she says, but for many gay employees, this has not been a solution.

"It is very risky for many people to come forward and say I am not only gay but this is an issue in the workplace," she says. Often, managers will link the solution to the gay worker, not the person harassing them, she says.

At Quaker Oaks, the decision to permit a gay employee group alongside other organizations has been met mostly with praise, says Doug Ralston, head of human resources for the company.

"Actually, it is something we've encouraged," he says. "We encouraged them to get together just like Hispanic, African-American and women's groups."

Besides no longer burying his private life, Bob Singer, who notes that he has no infection from the AIDS virus, counts other on-the-job benefits from his decision to come forward two years ago.

"I don't think I've helped as many people in 10 years as I have in the last two," he says, referring to advice he has given employees at Quaker and other companies about coming out in the workplace.

The other difference, he says, is just being able to talk about being gay "with someone who is straight and there is not that uncomfortable feeling. And talking in a strictly business way.

"That is a great difference."

(Last update: 27 April 1996)

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