A local grass-roots group is developing tools to help protect the Asheville area’s large lesbian-and-gay population from workplace discrimination. People for Employment Equality for Gays and Lesbians has created an online directory of employers who openly accept lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered (LGBT) individuals, whether through a written personnel policy or simply as standard practice, group chairperson Laurel Scherer explains. At present, neither federal nor state law protects North Carolinians against bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
For businesses without a written policy, the group is developing a certification program. Slated to be finalized this month, it will probably require employers to sign and accept an online form containing language typically found in written policies, says Scherer. Employers with policies already in place who wish to be listed can fill out an electronic form on the group’s Web site.
Scherer and her partner, Virginia Balfour, made headlines last year 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 in Massachusetts and ran a wedding announcement in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Wolf Laurel’s owners terminated their contract with Scherer’s business, All Terrain Images, an independent contractor that took action photos of skiers and snowboarders for sale to customers and also provided photos for the resort’s marketing materials.
“Basically, the overall goal is to build a somewhat comprehensive list, so that both potential employees and patrons of area businesses can use it as a reference when they decide to look for work or to shop,” Scherer explains. “We’ve run into a lot of people who just haven’t known whether or not [their] company has a policy.” And so far, “We haven’t really run into any hostility” from companies approached for information, she reports.
“I think our situation with Wolf Laurel really brought a lot of attention to the issue,” notes Scherer. “Then, I meet somebody who still has absolutely no clue that there are no [legal] protections” for workers.
“I think it’s important to keep that awareness level up in the community and continue to educate people—especially people who are in management and decision-making positions,” she says.
Making the list
At press time, 45 employers were listed as having nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation. Of those, 13 also included gender identity (i.e. transgendered individuals) in their policies. While a handful are locally based employers such as UNCA and Mission Hospitals, most are big corporations that have stores or offices here. The latter group includes such household names as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Starbucks. The growing list will supplement Asheville’s Purple Pages, an unaffiliated, consumer-focused directory of LGBT-friendly businesses. In addition, says Scherer, the group will accept information about employers who extend benefits to same-sex partners, for future inclusion in the listings.
Meanwhile, steps are also being taken at the state level. On March 29, Sen. Charlie Albertson, D-Duplin, introduced Senate Bill 1534, “Non-Discrimination in State Employment,” which would protect state employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Passage could make North Carolina the first state in the Southeast to enact such a law, according to Scherer’s group.
Albertson, a Democrat from Duplin County in the southeastern part of the state, was joined by 19 co-sponsors, including one Republican. Never before have so many Tar Heel senators sponsored such a bill, reports Equality North Carolina, a statewide advocacy group that works to secure equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered residents.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have already enacted laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation; seven others have laws protecting government employees, notes Scherer’s group. Asheville is one of a handful of local governments in the state that offer legal protection to their LGBT employees.
The N.C. bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, a co-sponsor. A similar bill will be introduced in the House in the coming weeks. At press time, Nesbitt had not returned calls seeking comment.
“We appreciate the dedication of our supporters who attended Lobby Day [recently] and helped our professional lobbying team secure this record number of sponsors,” said Ian Palmquist, Equality NC’s executive director. “Now we must continue working hard to get the bill through committee and to the floor for a vote.”
Although most major employers in North Carolina have adopted inclusive antidiscrimination policies, the lack of such protections in the public sector puts the state at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting and retaining the most talented employees, Equality NC maintains (see “The Economics of Tolerance,” Feb. 1, 2006 Xpress).
The bill would amend the State Personnel Act by adding sexual orientation to the list of groups protected against discrimination in hiring; denial of promotion, transfer or training; retaliatory demotion, reduction in force or termination; and harassment.
To learn more about People for Employment Equality for Gays and Lesbians, go to www.eegl.org .