When “Politics” Isn’t.

OUR MANAGER WALKED UP to me. “I need to talk to you about something.” He showed me a small rainbow sticker. “One of the staff members stuck this to the wall behind the bar. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to make political statements inside the pub.”

I agreed. “Let’s take it down,” I said. I was afraid of angering patrons and figured it was best for our company to stay out of the “political arena.” I thought it would be bad for business. And to some extent, it is.

But protection, visibility and affirmation for LGBTQ+ persons isn’t political.

And I know that now. And I suppose I knew it then (this was years ago). But I was afraid. Afraid of placing a wedge between the customers of our fledgling business and potentially losing them. But really, what I was doing was not affirming our staff and patrons who belong to this community. And that’s not okay. There is literally no upside for taking such a gutless stance. 

Ensuring equality in the workplace isn’t political, nor is it zero-sum. No one loses when everyone has the same opportunity, but the affected communities certainly lose when they don’t. The numbers on workplace discrimination (courtesy of Equality Michigan) show us just how much so:

  • The unemployment rate of the transgender community is three times higher than the national average. 
  • 46% of LGBTQ+ workers report being closeted at work.
  • One in four LGBTQ+ employees report experiencing employment discrimination in the last five years. 
  • 52.8% of LGBTQ+ employees report that discrimination negatively affected their work environment, and nearly one in two have left a job because the environment was unwelcoming. 
  • 51% of LGBTQ+ individuals have considered moving to a new location to live in a community more accepting of all sexual orientations and gender identities. 

The Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act, adopted by the State of Michigan in 1976, does not expressly protect sexual orientation and gender identity from discrimination in public accommodations (education, housing, and employment). Without legal protections, people from these communities often have no recourse but to move from job to job until they find a place they are welcome. Many companies aren’t proactive about these issues because the law doesn’t require them to be. But some are, and The Mitten tries hard to be among them. This took a lot of learning on my end.

The restaurant business is notoriously casual in the sense that offensive terminology and actions have long been tolerated as “part of the culture.” This culture has been particularly unkind to members of the LGBTQ+ community. In 2018 I joined the OutPro Council at The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce to advocate for our staff (15% of whom is LGBTQ+), and I asked our team members to tell me their stories so I could be more informed. It was eye-opening. One told me how she had been called a “dyke” by her manager at a major restaurant chain. A transgender employee shared all the times they had been asked inappropriate questions about their body by co-workers and management, and how they were laughed at when walking into a gender specific bathroom. Another recounted how as a manager of gay and lesbian employees, she was sometimes called to tables by guests who did not want to be waited on by “fags” or “dykes,” and how defending her staff in these cases was not an action supported by upper management.

And on and on. A recurring theme was how complaints are often trivialized and glossed over by management in the name of workplace harmony and “not making a fuss.” They are consistently told to be patient with their co-workers.

Allowing this kind of behavior to continue is not only morally bankrupt, it’s bad for business. The benefits of being allowed to show up as a whole person at work (and in all aspects of life) are plain to see. Courtesy of Equality Michigan once again:

  • 89% of Americans say they are very likely or somewhat likely to support or shop at a business that does not discriminate on sexual orientation or gender identity. 
  • 68% of Americans say they are likely to shop at or support businesses that take a public stance in support of LGBTQ+ equality. 
  • LGBTQ+ supportive policies and workplace climates are linked to less discrimination, greater job commitment, improved workplace relationships, improved health outcomes and increased productivity.

In the small business environment, where the biggest issue most companies encounter is talent recruitment and retention, the benefits of protecting and attracting good employees from this community (and every community) simply cannot be ignored. 

Of course, this isn’t just about the workplace. It’s about equality everywhere. And though we we see broad progress in popular culture, not every group has made inroads equally. Acceptance and protection of gender identity lags far behind sexual orientation, and the consequences are tragic. Transgender youth are three times more likely than cisgender youth to commit suicide, and name and identity affirmation are a large part of the reason why. A 2015 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded when transgender youth are affirmed with their correct name and pronouns, their suicide rates return to near cisgender rates.

Many things about entrepreneurship are confusing and difficult. But some aren’t. If either our staff or our customers expect their counterparts to be anything other than who they are, we should show them the door. And put up that rainbow sticker. Simple tokens may seem trivial, but they can contribute immeasurably to a sense of safety and welcoming for others. It’s the least we can do.

To join the voices of small businesses dedicated to amending the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include explicit protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations in Michigan, visit www.smallbiz4equality.com and register your company today.

Disclaimer: I do not speak for the LGBTQ+ community in any way. I’m an ally who hopes to add my voice and platform to the fight to expand our State Civil Rights Act.

Published by Christopher Andrus

Christopher R. Andrus is the co-owner of The Mitten Brewing Company and founder of 501(c)(3) Mitten Foundation, Inc. Besides growing his brewery from small startup to a $4MM+ company with three locations and more than 100 employees, Chris has presided over more than $250,000 in charitable gifts since 2012. ACCOLADES: • 2014 “Newsmaker of the Year” Finalist - Grand Rapids Business Journal • 2015 “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” - Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce • 2015 “Presidentʼs Award” - Association of Fundraising Professionals • 2017 “40 Under 40 Business Leader” - Grand Rapids Business Journal • 2017 “Community Partner Award” - Autism Support of Kent County • 2018 “Excellence In Business Award” - Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce • 2018 “Man of the Year” - West Michigan Leukemia and Lymphoma Society • 2018 “Great Equalizer Award” - Arts in Motion • 2018 “Beacon of Light Award” - Michigan Harvest Gathering • 2019 “Michigan 50 Companies to Watch” - Michigan Celebrates Small Business • 2019 “40 Under 40 Business Leader” - Grand Rapids Business Journal • 2019 “Twenty to Watch” - Michigan Delegation of the Congressional Black Caucus, Washington D.C. ADDITIONAL: Chris is a keynote speaker who has guest instructed on entrepreneurship and philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Alma College. He is a regular panelist for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Small Business Series. Chris has appeared on The Travel Channel and Food Network, and The Mitten Brewing Company has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, MSN, U.S. News and World Report, and many others. Chris is currently a member of The Westside Collaborative Board of Directors. He is a member of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce’s OutPro Leadership Council, is Vice-President and founder of Mitten Foundation, Inc., and serves on the Leadership Council for the West Michigan Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In 2019 he formed "Small Biz 4 Equality," a Michigan business coalition whose goal is to advocate for expansion of Michigan’s Civil Rights act to include protections for LGBTQ+ persons. Chris is also a campaign committee member and speechwriter for "Hillary Scholten for Congress" in Michigan’s Third Congressional District. Chris lives in Rockford, MI with his wife Shannon and sons August and Jude.

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