The Biz

The loss of business or a job can be a wrenching setback. For photographer Laurel Scherer, an independent contractor, the experience has been especially hard; “struggle” is not too harsh a word to describe it, she tells The Biz, and it has been a protracted one, at that. In the more than two years since she lost her primary contract, the north Asheville entrepreneur is just now beginning to bounce back, she says.

Renewed focus: After more than two years of struggle, local lesbian couple Virginia Balfour (left) and Laurel Scherer are fighting to rebuild Scherer’s photography business Photo By Mariah Grant

If Scherer’s name sounds familiar, it should. In addition to losing her main source of financial sustenance, Scherer and her lesbian partner, Virginia Balfour, made headlines more than two years ago over their dispute with the owners of the Wolf Laurel Ski Resort in Madison County (see “Broken Vows,” Jan. 18, 2006, Xpress). After the couple got married legally in Massachusetts and ran a wedding announcement in the Asheville Citizen-Times, the resort’s owners terminated their contract with Scherer’s business, All Terrain Images, which took action photos of skiers and snowboarders for sale to customers, and also provided photos for Wolf Laurel’s marketing materials.

The seasonal contract with the resort netted Scherer approximately $25,000 annually and served as the couple’s main source of income. After losing that gig, stock-photography sales, sporadic commercial work and a lower-paying summer job taking action photos for a local whitewater-rafting company helped, as did Balfour’s side job as a physical therapist. But the impact of the contract termination still lingers as Scherer works to rebuild her photography business and add other services such as Web design, which she honed as a technology officer during a previous stint in the U.S. Air Force. She recently updated her Web site (www.allterrainimages.com) and, she says, is beginning to kick start an aggressive marketing plan.

“I didn’t really make any money last winter,” she says. “It got really disheartening, because it’s really hard to get a business going. And when you finally get something working and successful and then start over … you know, at times I was like, ‘I just really need to go out and get a job.’”

And despite the area’s large community of supportive independent businesses, many of them run by gays and lesbians, few rushed in with business offers—though Scherer’s summer clients, French Broad Rafting Expeditions in Marshall and Huck Finn River Adventures in Hot Springs, have remained staunch allies.

“I got maybe a couple of small things, initially, but nothing that was really going to pay the bills,” she says. “I didn’t have anybody running to my door saying, ‘Hey, I got work for you.’ But what’s important is really getting out there and trying to find work, and I’m doing that now. I’m starting to make some headway.”

It didn’t help matters that Scherer and Balfour found themselves, post-Wolf Laurel, playing the role of public advocates for workplace protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans-gendered people, helping to form the group Employment Equality for Gays and Lesbians (see “Whose Business is It?” April 14, 2007, Xpress). The group became a forum to spotlight not only Scherer’s termination, but also workplace discrimination affecting the LGBT community locally and throughout North Carolina. The group’s Web site (www.eegl.org) currently maintains a list of approximately 50 WNC-area employers with nondiscrimination policies or practices. A majority of those on the list comprises national companies with local operations.

North Carolina, like most states, does not offer individuals job protections based on sexual identity or orientation. However, there is currently legislation pending in Raleigh that would offer state-government workers such protection. Dual N.C. House and Senate bills, co-sponsored locally by Rep. Susan Fisher and Sen. Martin Nesbitt, are currently in committee, where they have languished for nearly a year. Late last year, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler voted against the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would protect gays, lesbians and bisexuals. The measure passed the House last November 235 to 84 and awaits further action in the Senate, though proponents warn the measure likely would not have enough broad support in either chamber to override a potential Bush veto.

While 19 states and the District of Columbia have laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, and many cities—including Asheville—offer similar protections for government employees, federal law offers no such shield, though it does bar discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, sex, age, disability and pregnancy.

“EEGL right now is laying low,” Scherer says. “It got to the point last year where I really couldn’t afford the time. I just really had to focus on how I was going to make some income. I pretty much put everything I was doing on the back burner to redo my Web site, and come up with a marketing strategy. And besides, I got a little bit disenchanted with EGGL, because it got be too much for me to handle to keep anything active going.”

However, the group still exists and maintains a Web presence, fielding the occasional call from an aggrieved employee—though there is very little EEGL can do to help under current laws other than suggest ways employees can work with bosses to find common ground and save their jobs.

“If there’s a situation that arises where we can be of some use, we will certainly mobilize and try to do whatever we can,” says Scherer.

Scherer and her fellow activists have also expressed dismay at the reaction to the group’s employer list. With a large local LGBT community, and with the success of Asheville’s “Purple Pages” directory of LGBT-friendly businesses, “We thought it would be a great idea; we’ll build this list, people will want to be on it. But we found the opposite,” she says. Again, part of the problem was finding enough time to devote to building the list. However, a large problem was antipathy and even fear in the local business community, Scherer says.

“It was really interesting to me, because as much support as I got personally, when it comes right down to it, when you’re asking somebody if they’re willing to put their business and their livelihood on the line to say you support equality, people waver about it. Nobody jumped up and said, ‘Yeah! I really want to do this.’ I expected more positive feedback … but it wasn’t really there, not even among many good friends of mine”—regardless of whether they were straight or gay, she notes.

Local businesses will bend over backwards to market to gays and lesbians, she says. But that doesn’t mean those businesses employ gays and lesbians or vow not to discriminate against those they do employ.

“When it comes down to, ‘Do you want to include LGBT people in a policy and say that you’re doing that?’—well, that’s a whole different story.”

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