Viewpoint: Charleston businesses shifting views on LGBT economic impact

Published Aug. 25, 2014

In 2006, the Alliance for Full Acceptance worked with the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce to craft an economic impact study that focused on LGBT spending in the local region. The findings were clear: Spending by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender customers was potentially big, and progressive legislation could make it even better.

A local news organization covered the findings and asked a handful of area businesses how they felt about forgoing potential LGBT spending with no progressive infrastructure in place. Numerous businesses said they were happy to lose those LGBT dollars to other markets. We were disheartened, to say the least.

imageFast forward to a few weeks ago, when the same media outlet reported on the auction of a same-sex Charleston wedding package that has 20 generous local businesses donating goods and services. After the article ran, I received numerous calls from local businesses — many of which are not owned by LGBT community members — clamoring to contribute. For free.

Let me be clear: Dozens of local businesses were offering free goods and services for one reason: to be supportive of our goal to bring LGBT-friendly laws to the South.

In much of the country, the LGBT pendulum has swung fully. And clearly, based on my calls that day, here in greater Charleston there has been at least a partial swing. So when, given that 8-year span, did it become “OK” to be openly LGBT in the business community? And when did businesses begin courting the gay consumer?

Not long ago, many individuals nationwide lived in fear of revealing their true selves at work (surely, many still do). Harassment or firing were and are a real concern. Imagine the amount of energy and effort it takes to shield one’s personal life from work life.

Gradually, businesses have learned that it is cost-effective to have a workforce focused on their product and not distracted by the real fear of being fired for whom they love.

As early as the 1970s, companies began shaping policy to end employment discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation. South Carolina has no such protections.

And yet, 91% of the Fortune 500 companies protect their workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation; 61% of those companies also have protections in place based on gender identity. A growing number of municipalities have some form of nondiscrimination policies to protect LGBT people, though most of these cover only housing and public accommodations.

Recent surveys, including one from Harris Interactive and Witeck Combs Communications, show that two-thirds of all LGBT adults would be likely or very likely to remain loyal to a brand they perceive as gay-friendly or supportive of the LGBT community. That remained true even if less “friendly” companies offered a better deal or more convenience. Simply: “You stand by me, and I’ll stand by you.”

This proves once again that any group marginalized in their day-to-day life, be it by race, language, ethnicity, orientation, etc., will choose to spend their money in places they feel welcome. Still not convinced that LGBT-friendly policies make good dollars and cents? Consider this: Based on U.S. Census and survey data, the buying power of the LGBT adult community in 2013 was $830 billion. That is disposable personal income available after taxes, pension and retirement contributions. This clearly is an identifiable community large enough to court.

Markets don’t exist in a vacuum. Many businesses in places with policies and legislation that treat everyone equally are seeing greater growth than “unfriendly” peers. States like Illinois that have allowed same-sex couples to marry are already seeing an economic boon — as in $74 million in wedding industry and $29 million in tourism spending. What could this, the nation’s second-most-popular destination wedding locale, reap from gay-friendly legislation?

We LGBT advocates know this is an awkward dance, led alternately by culture and economics; logic and emotion.

We would like to think policy can change simply because it’s the right thing. But as we know, the balance sheet often trumps everything. In the past 50 years, leaders in the nation’s largest companies embraced the fact that a diverse, respected workforce is a profitable venture. Rewarding talent and effort — not sexual orientation — improves the bottom line.

As I write this, we are in the midst of Charleston’s fifth annual Pride Celebration — a festival that grows larger every year. I’ve been to pride festivals in other, more diverse cities in our nation, but what comes home to me each year in Charleston is the essential decency and openness of people throughout our region. Here’s hoping that, one day in the not-too-distant future, our policies reflect that basic integrity and are a source of real pride and economic health.

Warren Redman-Gress is the executive director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance, which is based in Charleston.

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