by Ellis Booker, Computerworld, Sept 26,1994
"It's just the sort of thing you'd expect to find in Silicon Valley: a social club for gay nerds," joked Greg Hullender a software design engineer at Microsoft Corp.
Hullender is a member of High Tech Gays, a decade old support group in San Jose, Calif. More that 50% of the groups 500 members work in the software, computer hardware and networking. professions, according to A.J. Alfieri, president of the group.
The visibility of gays in the high tech field is reflected by the large number of computer and software companies that have recognized gay employee support/liaison groups or have openly gay senior executives.
Overlooked Opinions, Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm specializing in gay and lesbian issues, estimates that there are 10 times as many gays working in the computer industry as in the fashion industry.
Many gays confirm the impression the high-tech field has received them more warmly than other sectors of the business world. "I can't think of another industry that is more supportive on average, to their gay and lesbian employees," said Jonathan Rotenberg, founder of the Boston Computer Society (see box).
"Conformity (here) is less important than typical corporate America," he added, "Being different from the norm is less of a concern ... and is even the norm."
Hullender noted, "Microsoft Corp. was the first place I ever worked where I was not the only openly gay person."
In other work places, the software engineer said, he felt doubly closeted. "At work you're in the closet about being gay ... and at the bars you're in the closet about being a technonerd," he said.
Beyond the social benefits of working at high-tech companies, gay and lesbian activists say the clubs make it a top priority to provide domestic partner benefits in health and insurance coverage.
LOTUS SETS A TREND
Lotus development Corp., for instance, was the first U.S. company to offer domestic partnership insurance benefits. Several other firms have followed.
Last July, Microsoft extended its health benefits to domestic partners. Its gay employee group, GLEAM (Gay and Lesbian Employees at Microsoft), is one of the many at Silicon Valley firms.
"(But) there are (gay) employee groups at a lot of east coast, blue-blood technology companies, too," noted Tom Rielly, a marketing executive at Radius Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., and co- founder of Digital Queers. The 2-year-old San Francisco based outfit provides computer hardware, software and consulting to gay and lesbian nonprofit groups.
Rielly's list of companies with such groups includes Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp., IBM, AT&T Corp, Digital, Equipment Corp. and Lotus, which is consistently rated among the most "gay- friendly" companies in the industry and the U.S.
"I didn't have to push for (recognition)," recalled Christopher Morgan, the first publicly gay officer at Lotus when he was hired in 1982 as the vice president of communications. The benefits policy was already in place. Morgan heads the computer technology interest group within the Greater Boston Business Council, a gay and lesbian professional organization.
Even companies that have been cool to gay issues in the past seem to have turned the corner. The employee group, Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual at Lockheed, which existed at Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. in Sunnyvale despite management's disapproval, achieved official recognition last November.
Similar status was accorded the National Organization of Gay and Lesbians Scientists and Technical professionals, Inc. in Pasadena, Calif. which in February gained affiliate status in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.
However, neither the Association for the Computing Machinery nor the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. has a support group for homosexuals according to officials at both professional organizations.
The story behind the formation of High Tech Gays illustrates the political tint of many of the groups.
"The aerospace industry in Silicon Valley required government security clearances, and you were damned if you did (acknowledge sexual orientation) and if you didn't," Alfieri said. High Tech Gays came together to be part of a class action suit against the government's Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office; it successfully argued that sexual orientation inquiries for security clearance violated constitutional protections.
Successful lobbying efforts led some of the best known and oldest U.S. technology companies to update their employee manuals.
An early policy was at AT&T, which in 1975 added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination guideline for hiring and promotions. However, while the company has a gay support group with approximately 1,000 members in two dozen locations, it does not extend health care benefits to same-sex partners.
But there remain "exceptions in this exception industry," according to one gay activist. A recent lightning rod was the decision by Computer Associates International Inc., not to retain the domestic partners benefit at the ASK group, Inc. after it acquired the company in May.
CA's decision was blamed for an en masse resignation of more than 200 ASK engineers. A CA spokesman would not confirm the number of employees who left or the reason for their departure but said CA's benefit policy was competitive with the rest of the industry.
Opinions abound for why the high-tech firms, especially those in the information systems arena, are progressive on gay issues.
The relative youth and demographics of many high tech firms is a clear contributor, too. Don Nelson, a systems analyst at Lockheed, attributed such progressiveness to the early years of the industry - the renegade atmosphere, the keg parties and the laid-back management approach.
"This industry grew and developed by breaking the rules, by not doing business as usual," added Karen Wickre, co-founder of Digital Queers. "This affected a lot of personnel policies and human resource departments."