photo by Kent Priestley
In the summer of 1996, the Rev. Kathryn Cartledge, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, was excited to be starting a new job as a chaplain for a local drug-and-alcohol treatment center. With a firm job offer in hand, she says, the Asheville resident called family and friends, bought some new clothes and even decided to celebrate with a stay at an out-of-town bed-and-breakfast.
But Cartledge’s appearance rattled nerves at the center, and without ever working a day there, she says she was simply dumped.
“I guess I’m one of the more obvious-looking lesbians,” Cartledge says with a laugh. At the time, however, it was no laughing matter: It brought on a period of deep depression and unemployment, she reveals. And to her surprise, the state’s antidiscrimination laws offered her neither protection nor recourse.
Cartledge’s experience mirrors that of Laurel Scherer and Virginia Balfour, an Asheville lesbian couple who say their independent photography business’ sudden eviction from Madison County’s Wolf Laurel Ski Resort cost them upward of $25,000 in winter-season income (see “Broken Vows,” Jan. 18 Xpress). The resort’s owners declined to comment on the matter, and attempts to contact the drug-and-alcohol center’s former director proved unsuccessful.
But such incidents, and the message they send to potential employees, could ultimately hamper local efforts to grow a bustling, technology-based economy, some noted economists contend.
“The creative and innovative people driving the tech economy seek places high in cultural and racial/ethnic diversity — and so do gays and lesbians,” wrote Urban Institute researcher Gary Gates in a 2001 study done in partnership with nationally known public-policy and economic-development specialist Richard Florida of George Mason University in Virginia. “It is likely not a coincidence that high-tech centers like metropolitan San Francisco, Washington, Austin, Atlanta and San Diego also have large and visible gay populations.”
And as Asheville and surrounding mountain counties struggle with the loss of jobs in manufacturing and agriculture, gays, lesbians and other once-marginalized groups could play key roles in boosting the region’s economic future, these experts say.
Putting out the welcome mat
Tolerance, argues Florida, is a key reason that cities such as San Francisco, Boston and Seattle have reaped windfalls from the new information-based, high-tech economy in terms of job growth, economic development and generation of new wealth.
The author of two acclaimed books, The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2002) and The Flight of the Creative Class (HarperCollins, 2005), he posits that cities welcoming such high-impact employees have an economic leg up on less tolerant locales.
In 1998, for example, Florida compared his own ranking of leading high-tech cities with a Gay Index that Gates, then a grad student at Carnegie Mellon University, had created using census data. The result, says Florida, was a revelation: The cities with the highest concentrations of technology-based firms also had the highest concentrations of gays.
And in a speech last September to a crowd of Charlotte civic and business leaders, Florida cited new, unpublished research suggesting that “employee engagement” is six times greater at companies whose work environment is considered fair and inclusive, compared to more tradition-bound, conservative firms. That research has big implications for attracting and retaining key employees, he says.
“Talented people seek an environment open to differences,” Florida told his audience. “Many highly creative people, regardless of ethnic background or sexual orientation, grew up feeling like outsiders, different in some way from most of their schoolmates. When they are sizing up a new company and community, acceptance of diversity and of gays in particular is a sign that reads ‘nonstandard people welcome here.'”
Altitude and attitude
If Florida’s theory is to be believed, the Asheville metro area should have a head start on other places seeking to reinvent their economies. According to the latest census data, Asheville has an unusually large gay and lesbian population. Just how large is hard to say with precision, but Gates’ Gay Index provides a snapshot based on the number of adults who identified themselves as living in same-sex households during the 2000 census. The index does not include single gays and lesbians, or couples living separately, because the census form gave them no way to identify themselves.
The Gay Index sets the national norm at 100. But Asheville’s combined index is 183 — 83 percent higher. Broken down by gender, the gay-male index is 166, while the lesbian index is a whopping 202 — or more than twice the national average. Based on those rankings, Asheville has the 16th-highest percentage of same-sex households among the more than 300 metropolitan statistical areas included in the census.
Gay people are not necessarily more creative or technologically adept, says Florida, but places open to gays are generally open to creative people of all sorts. That includes “bohemians” (artists, writers, musicians and craftspeople) and foreigners — the two other important subgroups of Florida’s “creative class” theory, who often either precede or follow gay-and-lesbian migrations, he notes.
Together, these groups can have a profound effect on a city. Indeed, all three categories — but especially gay and lesbian entrepreneurs and bohemians — have become a vital part of downtown Asheville’s economic and cultural revitalization during the past two decades.
A 2004 survey by the Asheville-based nonprofit HandMade in America found 170 downtown buildings (47 percent) occupied by members of the creative class. That amounted to 1.7 million square feet of commercial space with a tax value of $39.3 million and a market value of $62 million. And those figures don’t include noncraft establishments that might be owned or occupied by members of the creative class.
The city of Asheville and some local private employers — such as Mission Hospitals, WNC’s largest private employer with 5,600 employees — do offer protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. But North Carolina, like most states, does not. Outgoing Virginia Gov. Mark Warner recently signed an executive order making his state the 13th to outlaw such bias.
Asheville’s policy did not come about without controversy. The city’s addition of sexual orientation to its antidiscrimination policy raised a ruckus when it was adopted by City Council in May 1994 on a 4-3 vote. Two weeks later, Council voted to delete the list of protected categories in its law and substitute a blanket prohibition against bias “for any reason that is not related to bona fide occupational qualifications.” The original language has since been put back in, however, and the city has expanded its policy to also cover gender-identity bias.
Beyond the law
“It may be liberal here in some senses, but it’s not altogether. All the little hippies downtown just make it look that way sometimes.”
— Asheville resident Kathryn Cartledge
Despite those protections, however, some say such discrimination remains rampant locally. Cartledge, for example, says she’s been fortunate to work at MANNA FoodBank, where her sexuality is not an issue, for the last six years.
“It’s very hard here to find positions in ministry, or anywhere, as a lesbian,” she says. “It may be liberal here in some senses, but it’s not altogether. All the little hippies downtown just make it look that way sometimes.”
But Cartledge maintains that businesses shoot themselves in the foot when they close the door to the many gifts and talents that gay and lesbian people possess.
“I know many gays and lesbians who are employed who are not ‘out.’ You can’t be open and share who you are,” she says. “You can’t go to work and put your spouse’s picture on your desk, or have someone ask you what you did over the weekend. You don’t get to share your life, and you don’t get the support other people take for granted.”
If you’re straight, notes Cartledge, you can “go to work and say your kid is sick, or you and your wife are having trouble. … All the little ways that [straight] couples and individuals are supported in our culture, gays and lesbians can’t have if they are not able to be open. If you run the risk of losing your job because you are gay, you can’t afford to do that. It just keeps people closeted.”
That suppression, she continues, hurts everyone involved. “The many gifts and talents we bring as individuals — that has absolutely nothing to do with our sexual orientation — is being untapped in many places. And there are many places you just don’t apply because you know you’re not going to get hired.”
Going where they’re wanted
Nationwide, a savvy population of in-demand workers will go where they feel welcome, reports University of Washington economist Marieka Klawitter. More and more economists are working to quantify the economic lives of gays and lesbians, she adds. And while some have cited the alleged prosperity of lesbians and gays as an argument against antidiscrimination laws, Klawitter dismisses that idea (see sidebar, “Too Rich to be Victims?”).
“People who are gay, lesbian or bisexual know a lot about what the laws are and where there are protective laws,” she says. “So if you want to attract the best workers, and assume that some of those are gay and lesbian, having those protections in place makes a difference. Knowing those laws are in place … means that you, as a business, might recruit someone there who otherwise might not want to come.”
Hiding one’s sexual identity can also be a drain on productivity and job performance.
“Gays and lesbians might not become team members in the same way if they are not protected” notes Klawitter. “They have to hide their home situation — they might live farther away from the office than otherwise; they might not interact with co-workers at the same level — and that might prevent the team from performing so well.”
Plus, she adds, “Having protections in place helps create norms for everyone. So a co-worker who is ‘out’ might be treated better, and other employees might be willing to get along with them better if they know there is this norm that we don’t discriminate. It helps create an environment of nondiscrimination that’s helpful to both the gay people and to the nongay people, who can then let that issue go and focus on the work.”
An obvious welcome mat — an antidiscrimination law, or a company’s written equal-opportunity policy that clearly includes gays and lesbians — can be incredibly effective, says one local business owner.
“I know it makes a difference if you work somewhere and they have that policy up,” says Bridgette Cannon, a lesbian who publishes the Purple Pages, metro Asheville’s gay-friendly business directory. “It just makes you feel good. It’s really hard to explain not being accepted and then being accepted — the comfort. It’s a weight lifted off your shoulders.”
Cannon says she’s had her share of uncomfortable experiences trying to sell ad space to some in the local business community.
“We run into business owners who refer to the gay community in a derogatory way but then say, ‘I’ll take their money.’ We run into that a lot,” she says. “We get e-mails that are mean and hateful, and every now and then we’ll get a written letter. People go out of their way to tell us not to ever call them or deal with them, or that we need salvation.”
Cannon still believes Asheville is more gay-friendly than a lot of places, but not to the extent that people think it is. “It’s a misconception that Asheville is really, really gay-friendly. We’ve still got a lot of old-school, old-money business owners who have been here 20 or 30 years — they don’t want anything to change here.”
What’s tolerance got to do with it?
So, with the creative class seemingly firmly in place, why hasn’t the Asheville area made significant progress beyond its low-wage tourism and service-based economy? Despite a fledgling tech economy consisting mostly of small, niche firms, Asheville has yet to see a more substantial payoff.
One local economic expert, speaking off the record, argues that it’s not due to intolerance, which he feels many of Florida’s disciples tend to overemphasize. Florida’s theory is based on what the economist calls the “three T’s”: technology, talent and tolerance. And the real problem here, says this local observer, is a lack of technology.
“What nobody understands in this region is that the three T’s are not equal parts,” he says. “Technology is 75 percent of the equation. The other things make up 25 percent — and we’re only good at the 25 percent. Think of it like a cake. We only have the icing; we don’t have the cake. Basically, we’re missing some of the infrastructure for the technology economy to grow here.”
Among the biggest missing pieces, he says, are private equity capital, aggressive “get it done” visionaries, patentable ideas, and a top-tier research university.
In 2004, for example, WNC garnered a measly 1 percent of the total private equity capital invested in North Carolina by high-net-worth speculators funding early-stage companies. And though Asheville leads both Charlotte and Greensboro in patents per capita, too many of them are held by retirees who made their primary contributions elsewhere. And while local institutions and business leaders are working to forge a stronger partnership with the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee to promote more scientific innovation in the region, it may take years to bear fruit.
Keeping the heat on
Meanwhile, local lesbians and women’s organizations, incensed about Scherer and Balfour’s experience, seem determined to keep the discrimination issue front and center.
“This is an absolute outrage that in 2006, we are still fighting against the puritanical views that would shut out an entire population of citizens based solely on the fact that they prefer to share their lives with same-sex partners,” wrote Debbie Metcalf, president of the Asheville chapter of the National Organization for Women, in an e-mail to this reporter in response to the Xpress story on the Wolf Laurel case. “The citizens of Asheville need to recognize that just because North Carolina is in the ‘Bible Beltway,’ we are not Neanderthals and will not put up with discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation.”
At press time, Metcalf and her group were awaiting a permit from the city to bring that message to the masses via a Feb. 18 protest in downtown Asheville’s Pritchard Park. Several other local groups, including the nonprofit crisis-intervention agency Our Voice, were slated to attend, along with the president of NOW’s N.C. chapter and other officers and members of NOW from across the state, says Metcalf.
And for their part, Scherer and Balfour are continuing to publicize their story as they scramble to make ends meet.
“I don’t have income for this winter; I’m trying to find other ways to generate income,” says a frustrated-sounding Scherer. “If I had been in a situation where I had tried and tried and couldn’t make it work, then maybe I’d have to fold the business. But I think I’ve worked hard and done everything right. The only reason I can’t continue with my business is because I got married to another woman and decided to put our announcement in the newspaper. It was a very small thing; it didn’t even mention Wolf Laurel. … And that’s what is tough to take.”