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Today is Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Rainbow Chamber Provides Voice for Gay Businesses

City non-discrimination policy among targets of group

When Chris Douglas revealed to friends and family several years ago that he was gay, they greeted him with instant acceptance.

He's wagering his new organization, the Indy Rainbow Chamber of Commerce, will receive the same type of welcome.

The upstart chamber was set to unveil its mission--promoting the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender business community--at the June 14 Pride Festival in University Park.

Chris H. Douglas, Founder
Indiana Rainbow Chamber of Commerce
The 38-year-old Douglas, a managing partner at the local Hendrickson C.H. Douglas & Co. LLC financial planning firm, is a trailblazer of sorts in the gay business community. In 2000, while employed at New York-based Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., he convinced the corporation to sponsor the Pride Festival, the first time a Fortune 500 company had done so.

"Then, there was very little mainstream business there," Douglas said of the festival. "Now, it's nothing but mainstream business."

Several organizations for homosexuals exist in the city--there's even the Indy Gay Basketball Association--but none addresses workplace and employee issues, according to Douglas. The organization not only wants to be a voice for gay business owners, but for gay employees, too.

When executives or government officials mention diversity, the gay, bisexual and transgender community is often overlooked, Douglas said. The chamber wants to change that, but in a quiet way.

There will be no fist-pounding or shouted demands, he said. Instead, the chamber will "raise a flag" and work with allies of gay business owners and employees to convince the city of Indianapolis to include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy.

"It's time Indianapolis' political leaders do what's necessary to keep our economy on track with our sister cities in bordering states by bringing discrimination laws into the new century," Douglas said.

The City-County Council would need to approve any changes to the city's non-discrimination policy, said Steve Campbell, spokesman for Mayor Bart Peterson. He said he was unaware of any interest to change the policy.

The state of Indiana includes sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy. Nationally, 50 percent of Fortune 500 companies also include the language, according to the Rainbow Chamber. Many of those also offer domestic-partner benefits, including Eli Lilly and Co., and Columbus, Ind.-based Cummins Inc.

The diesel-engine manufacturer rolled out the perk in 2000 amid scattered protests from some workers and city residents, according to company spokesman Jason Rawlings. Cummins has no plans to rethink the policy, he said.

"I think for the most part, people recognize we need to be inclusive in order to recruit the best talent so we can compete in a diverse marketplace," Rawlings said.

Lilly plans to have a presence at the Pride Festival and last week announced it would extend benefits to domestic partners beginning Jan. 1. Lilly determined it needed to extend the benefits to both unmarried heterosexual and homosexual partners to remain competitive for employees, spokesman Rob Smith said.

Rainbow Chamber organizers echo the sentiments. They contend the state's employers can't recruit the best talent if they refuse to include everyone in their non-discrimination policies and benefit plans.

"Human resources folks are facing questions that they weren't facing five years ago," said Berenice Ruhl, a chamber board member and owner of a diversity consulting firm. "Gays are coming into the workplace fully out."

Chamber officers have been invited to speak about those issues at the Indiana State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management in August, Douglas said.

Still, some gay business owners are fearful of "outing" themselves through the chamber. Board chairman Jon Keep, a marketing executive with IBM Corp., said he's aware of one gay business owner who declined to join the organization.

The chamber has 40 members, but expects to add more once people become aware of the group. Annual membership dues are $25 and anyone can join. Nationally, gay chambers of commerce already operate in about 30 metropolitan areas, from San Francisco to Boston. There's also a National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. The Chicago Area Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce has been in existence eight years and has 550 members, according to Executive Director Barry P. Flynn.

The challenges the Rainbow Chamber may face are no different than what other business organizations encounter, according to John Myrland, president of the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. If the Rainbow Chamber can meet a need another organization can't, it will succeed, he said.

Douglas believes Indianapolis can support a gay chamber.

"Our real sales job is to get people to move to Indianapolis from other parts of the country," he said. "I think ... people will look down our membership and realize it is integral to the success of the community."

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