The heroes of Stonewall did not have much power, and they did not have allies with power. Our reality is different. And we need to leverage our strengths for intersectional change.

There is a great deal of attention right now on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The attention, quite rightfully, is focused on the enormous progress that our movement has had over the past fifty years.

We have come a long way, and there is a younger LGBTQ generation coming of age in what is clearly a different era. And, yet, you and I know that it was only in 2003 that the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in Texas, effectively ending similar laws in thirteen other states as well. You and I also know that progress was not entirely linear, that it took constant efforts to push for the recognition of our community, to demand equality in principle, and to see that principle (largely) implemented into practice.

For more than twenty years, Out & Equal has focused on driving inclusion in the corporate context, connecting and supporting LGBTQ people and allies in business, making the business case for why companies should care about inclusion, and helping companies learn how to implement policies that make a difference.

Today, in 2019, that work continues, and it does so on the “shoulders of giants:”

  • We are working to ensure that the LGBTQ workforce that exists beyond the corporate headquarters – whether in other countries or in the American south – benefits from the same protections and best practices that we have worked so hard to develop.
  • We are working to improve workplace cultures to be more trans inclusive.
  • And we are working to support corporate leaders in leveraging their privilege and voice to amplify impact – even beyond their companies.

This last point in particular has been an area of reflection for me in recent weeks. The heroes of Stonewall did not have much power, and they did not have allies with power. All they could do was refuse to be harassed without pushing back. They rioted because they did not have any other viable options.

Our world today, thankfully, is very different. While police harassment is still a significant reality for some in our community in the United States – notably people of color and transgender persons – some members of our community are in positions of tremendous power, and we have allies who are willing to act for and with us.

I saw that firsthand in my first several months at Out & Equal. It was as the presidential campaign of Jair Bolsonaro – the far-right Brazilian leader famous for saying that he’d rather his son be dead than gay – was gaining in popularity, and observers were connecting the dots between his rhetoric and physical attacks on members of our community. In that context, Out & Equal and Brazilian and multi-national companies came out with a statement signed by 35 corporations who together employ more than 110,000 people in Brazil. Their message, addressed directly to presidential candidates, sent a clear signal that businesses in Brazil would not bend to the rising populism.

This action did not come out of the blue. It was the result of the dedication of the leadership of JP Morgan Chase in Brazil, Mattos Filho, a leading Brazilian law firm, and others.

What this group of companies did in Brazil is not the only example of this type of activism. In 2016, North Carolina lawmakers passed the infamous bill mandating that schools and public facilities could only allow people to use bathrooms corresponding to the sex assigned at birth.

The corporate response to this effort to erase transgender Americans was swift. Many backed out of projects in the state. An informal boycott was announced. Even more attention was given to the issue after the NBA and NCAA cancelled major basketball tournaments in the state. North Carolina’s economy suffered. A study by the Associated Press estimated that the bill cost the state 2,900 jobs in the first year and that North Carolina will end up losing over $3.76 billion over the course of twelve years.

The policy outcome, to date, in North Carolina is mixed. To stop the economic losses, lawmakers weakened some egregious provisions of the law. At the same time, however, they significantly undermined a host of Civil Rights protections, and they kept in place regressive policies that are especially hostile to the needs of trans people.

Nevertheless, what happened in North Carolina raised awareness across the country that the business community will fight LGBTQ discrimination. In the years since, corporations have been instrumental in blocking anti-LGBTQ bills in dozens of states. In state capitals like Austin, Atlanta, Nashville, and Richmond, business leaders are speaking out to stop bad policy.

These leaders are also visible at the Federal level. The business community has shown up in a big way to support the Equality Act, legislation that would guarantee nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans. More than 200 of America’s largest businesses – who together employ more than 11 million people In the United States – are on record in support of the bill.

I could offer you many more such examples of corporate activism and advocacy but suffice it to say that this type of support was not present fifty years ago at the Stonewall Inn. It was not available at Compton’s Cafeteria.  The world has changed.

As far as we still have left to go for LGBTQ equality, this anniversary is a time to recognize how far we have come. And once we absorb this progress, it is also time to be asking ourselves: How can we use the privilege that we have to help both ourselves and others?

I have come to understand that the best, most sustainable, form of progress happens in intersectional ways. The struggle for LGBTQ equality is not unrelated to the struggle for black and brown equality in America, or the struggle for gun safety, or the struggle to protect the rights of women.

And I know that I am not the only one who understands this intersectionality. That’s why I am not surprised when see the same companies we work with for LGBTQ equality also taking stands for reproductive rights or against the sale of automatic weapons.

This is what political activism of our community in 2019 – fifty years after the Stonewall Inn and fifty three years after Compton’s Cafeteria – looks like: Individuals acting; people marching, lobbying, voting… And yes, companies standing up for what is good for their employees, their businesses and the cities and states they live in.

Isn’t that something?

Erin Uritus, CEO

Out & Equal Workplace Advocates