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Does corporate America really care about you?

Secret forced arbitration contract clauses undercut equality laws

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Cover of the 2021 Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index report. (Graphic via HRC)

The LGBTQ community first flexed its muscle with corporate America thousands of feet in the air.

In April 1993, an American Airlines flight crew messaged ground control to request a “complete change” of blankets and pillows onboard the aircraft because of a “gay rights activists group onboard” headed to the March on Washington. The message’s meaning was not subtle: the crew ignorantly thought the amenities had been sullied by openly gay people.

The reaction from LGBTQ advocates was fast, furious – and effective. In many ways, it forever changed the way corporate America saw — and marketed to — the LGBTQ community. The incident led American Airlines to form the first-ever corporate marketing team to support LGBTQ causes. That led to changes internally that made the airline a standard bearer for what constituted an LGBTQ-friendly business.

Business has been mostly supportive since then. Corporations responded swiftly when North Carolina adopted its “bathroom bill” targeting the transgender community. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – hardly an icon of progressive values – urged Congress to pass the Uniting American Families Act, a bill to allow lesbian and gay American citizens to sponsor their same-gender partners for residency inside the U.S., long before federal marriage recognition made that possible.

The Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, ranking businesses on their LGBTQ-friendly policies, and visionary marketing gurus like Bob Witeck, who pioneered many of today’s corporate equality practices, also made corporate America more supportive. (Full disclosure: my very first professional marketing job was with Bob Witeck, whose firm advised the American Airlines Rainbow TeAAm.)

However, one troubling trend has actually increased in recent years: the use of forced arbitration clauses to keep employees out of court. 

Arbitration is used by corporations to avoid true accountability. Its most common usage, until recently, was in consumer agreements. Buried deep within the contracts consumers sign for cell phones, rental cars and other services has long been the “fine print” saying you agree to bring any dispute in arbitration and not in court. 

That practice was bad enough, forcing millions into secretive arbitration proceedings where evidence cannot be shared or is rarely made public. Corporations usually prevail.

Now there’s another alarming new trend: in the wake of the pandemic, more corporations are forcing their employees to sign away their right to their day in court as a condition of accepting a job. The Washington Post recently reported that, “U.S. employers relied heavily on arbitration in the first months of the pandemic, pushing a record number of complaints involving discrimination, harassment, wage theft and other grievances through a closed-door system largely weighted against consumers and workers.”

For the LGBTQ community, that means employees must promise not to sue their employer in court if they encounter discrimination, harassment – or even physical assault – on the job. Instead, they must take their claim to arbitration which, the Post explained, “keeps employment disputes out of the public eye and fails to hold corporations accountable.”

So, if you’re a lesbian denied a promotion because of your sexual orientation or a transgender employee who is denied access to the restroom consistent with your gender, you have no way of taking your boss to court and little hope that, even if you pursue your claim in arbitration, your experience will ever come to light or help others facing the same situation inside the same company. Even in a world where the Equality Act becomes law, arbitration agreements would undermine that federal protection.

More and more employers are insisting employees sign away that right as a condition of being hired. “Most nonunion U.S. companies require arbitration, leaving 60 million workers without legal recourse, according to a 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute,” the Post noted. And the numbers have only grown over the past three years.

It is time for the LGBTQ community to see forced arbitration – and especially forced arbitration in employment contracts – for what it is: an increasingly pervasive tactic that helps enable employment discrimination, workplace harassment and other unfair practices. Our community must insist that businesses do better – or face losing our support and our money. We’ve done that before and we can do it again.

As a first step, the Human Rights Campaign should immediately begin scoring corporations’ arbitration policies as part of its Corporate Equality Index screening. Any company that forces LGBTQ employees into arbitration should be docked points on the Index. HRC should also endorse and score Members of Congress on their support for The FAIR Act, a bill pending in Congress that would significantly rollback the scourge of forced arbitration. 

Secondly, groups like Out and Equal must vigorously educate both employees and employers about the dangers of forced arbitration — how it impacts LGBTQ workers and why it must never be a condition of accepting a job. 

And finally, we must demand that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce drop their support of this discriminatory practice. The Chamber – far from its days of advocating for same-gender binational couples – is now the country’s top defender of arbitration that locks LGBTQ employees out of court.

It’s been nearly two decades since our community responded to that awful incident in the sky and insisted that, in order to be “something special in the air,” American Airlines had to commit to something meaningful here on the ground. Now we must find that same resolve – and use some of those same tactics – to help LGBTQ employees. Corporations that force employees to sign away their legal rights in order to earn a living do not deserve our business, our talent or the label of LGBTQ ally.

Steve Ralls, Director of External Affairs for Public Justice, previously served as Director of Communications for Immigration Equality and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

For more information about Public Justice and forced arbitration, visit PublicJustice.net.  

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An unlikely revolution is happening at Christian universities

More than half have enacted LGBTQ non-discrimination policies

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Recent headlines have been filled with messages of doom and gloom for LGBTQ people. From bans on transgender women competing in sports to “don’t say gay” laws, it seems evident that conservative Republicans are freshly committed to rolling back the rights of LGBTQ people across the United States.

Yet, despite such recent setbacks, a student-led movement for LGBTQ inclusion is gaining ground in what would seem to be one of the unlikeliest settings — Christian colleges and universities.

Over the past few years, I’ve collected extensive data on U.S. Christian colleges and universities’ policies toward LGBTQ students. In one study, I found that 55% of all Christian colleges and universities in the United States have nondiscrimination policies inclusive of sexual orientation. In another recent study, I found that nearly half of all Christian colleges and universities are home to officially recognized LGBTQ student groups. 

Even some of the most conservative Christian colleges and universities have changed their approach to LGBTQ students. When analyzing data collected in 2013, I found that nearly one-third of all Christian colleges and universities had adopted bans on so-called “homosexual acts” or “homosexual behavior” in their student handbooks. Yet, when reviewing Christian colleges and universities’ handbooks again over the past year, I found that under one-fourth of Christian colleges and universities had such discriminatory bans. 

Why are some Christian colleges and universities becoming more accommodating—and even welcoming—to LGBTQ students?

There are several major reasons, but one of the most important is that several Christian denominations already embrace their LGBTQ members. Denominations such as the Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Disciples of Christ, and Presbyterian Church USA, for example, allow ministers to officiate same-sex weddings. An increasing number of nondenominational churches also affirm LGBTQ people. Those Christian colleges and universities that are already associated with affirming denominations are certainly among the most likely to affirm their LGBTQ students. 

Another reason that many Christian colleges and universities are becoming welcoming toward LGBTQ students is that they do not necessarily believe their primary mission is to hold all students to the specific religious tenets of their associated denomination. Rather, they see their primary mission as providing an important service (education) to the broader society. Just as Christian hospitals do not refuse to provide medical treatment to people who are not members of their associated denominations, many Christian colleges and universities have chosen not to deny people an education simply because certain people are not members of their associated denominations. 

A rising number of Christian colleges and universities also recognize the harms that occur when people are discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. A recent survey by Religious Exemption Accountability Project shows that 12% of all Christian college and university students self-identify as LGBTQ. Because studies show that LGBTQ people in non-affirming Christian colleges and universities report greater rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, many Christian schools understand they would be harming a significant number of their students if they continued to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

And still other schools are simply concerned with their bottom lines. The United States is projected to go over a “demographic cliff” in 2025, at which time the number of 18-year-olds nationwide will drop dramatically. Some reports say that one-third of all private colleges and universities nationwide will face major financial crises over the next decade, causing them to close or pursue mergers. Many Christian colleges and universities recognize that adopting discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ students would alienate significant portions of their potential student body.

Certainly, despite these encouraging trends, those who are committed to LGBTQ rights should not be complacent. Many schools have still been slow to extend nondiscrimination protections and housing accommodations to trans students. And the Religious Exemption Accountability Project estimates that as many as 100,000 LGBTQ students are currently enrolled at Christian colleges and universities that still refuse to affirm the dignity and rights of LGBTQ people. That organization recently filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, challenging the federal government’s policy of providing loans even to Christian colleges and universities that otherwise violate Title IX protections for LGBTQ students.

It is likely the case that some Christian colleges and universities will not change their policies toward LGBTQ rights unless they are legally required to do so. Still, at Christian colleges and universities across the United States, LGBTQ students are not waiting around. LGBTQ students are actively mobilizing to bring about inclusive policies at their schools, and at a surprising number of schools, they are succeeding.

Jonathan S. Coley is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University and a Public Fellow at the Public Religion Research Institute.

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Positive signs for LGBTQ homebuyers despite hot market, discrimination

GenZ and Millennials coming out, living more authentic lives

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Jim Obergefell walked to the stage at our recent national LGBTQ+ Housing Policy Symposium to a standing ovation. He was speaking just a few blocks and almost seven years removed from the steps of the Supreme Court where he won his landmark June 2015 case that legalized same-sex marriage. He was with us on April 28 to share his thoughts on his life after the groundbreaking ruling, which now has him running for a seat for the Ohio State House, and ultimately a continuance of the “Rainbow Wave” we’re seeing in the political arena around the country.

The LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance, which is one of the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ trade groups with more than 2,200 members since our June 2020 founding, is also seeing an LGBTQ+ wave in the real estate industry and homeownership. We were proud, but not surprised, when our friends at Zillow shared last year that 12% of all homes sold in the United States were purchased by LGBTQ+ folks. We also know that Millennials and Gen Z’ers are entering (or will soon enter) their prime home buying years – many as first time homebuyers shifting from renters. Why does this matter? Well, GenZ and Millennials  are coming out and living more authentic lives at a greater pace than any other generations previously, with overall greater representation from our LGBTQ+ community. The impact this will have on homeownership for our community is unprecedented. 

Our most recent LGBTQ+ Real Estate Report (largely focused on discrimination) explored how Jim’s marriage equality win has played a dramatic role in improving home ownership opportunities for our community. Since then, 64% of LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance members have seen an uptick in the number of LGBTQ+ couples as homeowners, with 42% noticing an increase of LGBTQ+ singles entering homeownership. And 40% of our members have recognized an increase in LGBTQ+ homebuyers choosing to live in communities not traditionally known as “LGBTQ+-friendly.” There’s now some supporting data to show that folks are, in fact, moving into the suburbs to expand their footprint, and it’s tied to being able to be legally married and likely starting families.

Moreover, 40% of members reported their number of LGBTQ+ clients has increased over the last three years. That’s outstanding progress, especially given the aggressive market we find ourselves in as a country. 

We found that financial concerns are the overwhelming reasons why LGBTQ+ renters continue renting with home prices and lack of down payment funds as the largest barriers to homeownership. We also know that a lack of education and understanding about the buying and mortgage process exist. The fact remains, very few financial organizations or mortgage companies reach out directly to our community and try to being us information or encourage us to dive into the homeownership process. So, and that’s why it so exciting to share that the Alliance will host our second annual free virtual LGBTQ+ First-Time Home Buyer Seminar on June 14 from 7-9 p.m. EST. You can register at realestatealliance.org.

As many of us know first-hand, however, there is still far too much discrimination against community members during the home buying process. In fact, 38% of our members indicated that there has been no change in the amount of discrimination against LGBTQ+ homebuyers over the last three years, while 14% believe discrimination has actually increased. This discrimination can take on many forms including, but not limited to, unconscious bias and blatant discrimination exhibited by real estate professionals, sellers, lenders and the legal forms consumers have to complete like title documents, mortgage documents or even purchase agreements in certain regions.

Thankfully the real estate industry has been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ acceptance. The Realtor Code of Ethics prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which is more than we can say for the protections (or complete lack of) that Congress has continually failed to extended us. Along with National Association of Realtors and local associations, including the D.C. Association of Realtors, the Alliance has some of the largest real estate brands, financial institutions, title companies and insurance firms as partners. They are working closely with us to identify areas of improvement, and we are working with them to ensure they continue to support and push for passage of the Equality Act with their corporate influence. We all know ridding the industry and society of discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity will not happen overnight. It will take a lot of continued work; we are on that path and will continue to move forward despite the actions of select bigoted governors and politicians who want to erase us altogether.

Our LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance members are at the forefront of the fight. They take great pride in working within the community and do not shy away from “who they are” in generating business and income. Forty-six percent of respondents reported they are known in their company as an “LGBTQ+ agent,” and 79% report they want to be known as a professional who specializes in working in the community. 

While you can visit our website to connect with our members at realestatealliance.org, we will soon make it much easier. The Alliance will soon launch  HYPERLINK “http://www.lgbtqplushomes.com”LGBTQplusHomes.com and provide the LGBTQ+ community with a much-needed real estate resource. Along with the ability to easily reach local members, we will have content, tips, reports, trend lists, how-to vids, and so much more. 

Thanks to folks like my friend, and true inspiration to so many of us, Jim Obergefell, our community continues to be a force. We will push on. We will continue to fight for equality and equity. We will win our basic human rights! 

ABOUT THE LGBTQ+ REAL ESTATE ALLIANCE

The LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance is a 501(c)6 non-profit dedicated to empowering the LGBTQ+ community on the path to homeownership as we also advocate on behalf of the community on housing issues. The Alliance, founded in June 2020, is an all-inclusive organization that works to improve the professional lives of its members through a public-facing Alliance Referral Community. The Alliance began accepting members in October 2020 and has more than 2,200 members and 50 chapters in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. For more information visit  realestatealliance.org.   

Ryan Weyandt is CEO of the LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance.

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Musk’s ‘Free Speech’ Twitter policies could harm LGBTQ communities 

Disallowing anonymity poses grave risks to queer users everywhere

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Elon Musk (Photo by shganti777 via Bigstockphoto)

The recent news that Elon Musk plans to serve as temporary CEO of Twitter means the public won’t have to wait much longer to see how he will follow through with his promise to change Twitter’s approach to free speech and content moderation.

Twitter is billed as a social platform for everyone, but Musk’s approach – or lack thereof – to censorship and “free speech” has many advocates voicing concern about the consequences of reducing or removing content moderation on the platform, potentially making Twitter a platform rife with disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech targeted at minority and marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ+ community.

Each social media platform has its own social culture and Twitter offers a valuable virtual community for LGBTQ+ individuals. Erin Reed, a prominent LGBTQ+ activist with a Twitter following nearing 44,000, said the platform has been instrumental in communicating and organizing with other advocates and interacting directly with legislators. Many other organizations and advocates use the platform to communicate with, organize and mobilize marginalized communities.  Twitter has given birth to social trends such as #gaytwitter and #blacktwitter that fuel change and connection for marginalized communities as well.  

Twitter, like most major social media sites, has spent years creating elaborate guidelines to reduce the amount of disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech on its platform. The platform operates on carefully crafted online speech rules and policies around hate speech, misinformation, and political advertising. Content moderation is critical in that process but Musk has said that he supports vastly loosening the company’s content moderation policies, suggesting it should only remove content if it is required by law. This is problematic for LGBTQ+ and other oppressed communities around the world. 

While social media companies do make use of internal content moderating practices to set their own parameters and community standards, they must also consider established laws in countries where their users live. So as Musk pushes for Twitter to follow the laws of the countries in which it operates, he would reduce the safety of LGBTQ+ users who live in countries where LGBTQ+ speech is banned and taboo.

Russia is a prominent example where LGBTQ+ speech is banned and criminalized, and Twitter’s content moderation rules, if they merely follow the law, would lend support to the silencing of Russian LGBTQ+ speech. In our own country, a proliferation of “Don’t Say Gay” laws as seen in Florida and a dozen other states, are highlighting the ongoing risks to LGBTQ+ identity and speech here at home. 

More troubling, Musk himself has used the platform to repeatedly target and mock issues of importance to the LGBTQ+ community. His infamous tweet “Pronouns suck” is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2020, he said social media accounts displaying personal pronouns were “an esthetic nightmare.” Later that same year, the Human Rights Campaign demanded an apology after he posted a meme mocking users who put their pronouns in their social media bios and then tweeted a meme mocking transgender people.

In addition to concerns over how his personal views will influence the social environment of the platform, many have also raised concerns about Musk’s intention to require authentication for “all humans,” since this would make anonymous accounts on Twitter impossible and could disproportionately harm trans people on the platform. 

Requirement for authentication for “all humans” would force users to operate under their full, legal names, which many transgender people do not do. In addition to the proven benefits of using a transgender person’s chosen name, plenty of evidence refutes the notion that tying one’s online identity to one’s legal identity creates more safety for social media users

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has reported that anonymity is essential to protecting users who may have opinions, identities, or interests that do not align with those in power. LGBTQ+ individuals use Twitter and other platforms anonymously for fear of persecution or targeted harassment. In addition to social oppression, across the world, gay and transgender individuals face legal pushback including arrests, threats, and – in very real and extreme cases – the death penalty. Disallowing anonymity on Twitter’s platform would expose them to such harms and run counter to Musk’s touted mission of free speech at all costs.

Defaulting to the law of each individual country where Twitter operates allows the company to shirk its responsibility to manage content. Furthermore, it diminishes the safety of its marginalized users by leaving the door open for disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech and harassment.  Musk’s desire to restrain Twitter’s “overly aggressive content moderation policies” could eventually hurt us all, especially marginalized individuals and communities that will be subject to more harassment and hate speech rather than less if Musk’s “free speech” and anonymity policies are instituted by Twitter.

Carlos Gutierrez is deputy director and general counsel for the LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute, which works to improve access, increase inclusion, ensure safety and empower entrepreneurship for LGBTQ+ communities around technology.

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