Straighten up and fly right

American Airlines refuses to let a threat from the religious right steer the company off its gay-friendly course

"It was a very lonely feeling, because I knew we were everywhere, but no one would say it. No one would do it," Kincaid says. "So I stuck my toe out the door and started becoming more and more visible."

When American began to reassess its policies in 1993, the unofficial policy inside the company was "don't ask don't tell," Kincaid says. And it was a policy to which he adhered.

Kincaid recalls how awkward he and his partner of 10 years, who also works at American, felt as they made the arrangements for their commitment ceremony but kept them secret from their co-workers--right when American was in the midst of its public relations crisis.

"We planned it on our own, and I was doing it in whispered tones on the phone. It was just like slinking around," Kincaid says. "It was painful to do that, because this was arguably the biggest day of my adult life."

Kincaid was reminded of how excluded he felt soon after the ceremony, when the woman in the cubicle next to his began planning her own wedding.

"It was like the Von Trapp wedding," Kincaid recalls. "We had books of this and that to choose from, and the whole department was updated all the time on what colors there were and where they were registered. I thought, why is her relationship and wedding any different than mine?"

By then, Kincaid had grown tired of the secrecy, and the idea of starting GLEAM took root.

Until the company adopted its nondiscrimination clause, gay and lesbian employees could be fired simply for coming out in the workplace. But the loss of employment wasn't the only factor keeping many gays and lesbians inside the corporate closet.

"You saw every range of concern," says Burr. "The fears ran the gamut from one end of the spectrum of just being concerned about privacy all the way to, 'I'm literally fearful of my safety.'"

"Exactly," Kincaid adds. "And you still may today. The job isn't done."
Those fears raised a dilemma for the founders of GLEAM: How do you approach people you think may be interested in joining, but you're not sure because they've never said they were gay or lesbian?

"Timing is everything. There were a lot of people who were ready to make the step with us," Kincaid says. "The one thing about the gay community is they're very networked. We have this hard-wired sense of who is [gay], who is friendly, and who is not."

Along the way, Kincaid says, he ran into resistance.
"There were a lot of people who were horrified that we were doing this," Kincaid says. "They said, 'Just shut up and keep working; don't do this. Don't make a scene. We've got it just the way we want it.'"

In late 1994, GLEAM had its first meeting on a Saturday afternoon inside a stale American Airlines conference room at D/FW International Airport. Kincaid recalls meeting Burr that day for the first time.

"Robbin came to our first meeting wrapped up; she had on a hat," Kincaid says.

Burr claims Kincaid is exaggerating, but she concedes that the decision to go to the meeting was a big one.

"I actually spent the first 15 years of my almost 19-year career at American as a married employee with a child, living a very heterosexual life," Burr says. "It just goes to show you how difficult it is for some of us to come to terms not only with our own orientation, but then deciding whether it's appropriate to be out in the workplace."

Neither Burr nor Kincaid can recall how many employees turned out for the meeting, but they remember that a broad spectrum of employees flew in from across the country, including secretaries and flight attendants, pilots and maintenance workers. To quell fears among the group, a senior vice president was on hand to welcome them.

"He said, 'We support you.' His boss was there and some other brass. Their presence meant a lot," Kincaid says. "At that very powerful, scary time for everyone [their presence] gave us a chance to see what it's like to be gay at American Airlines."

After its formation, GLEAM met some resistance from employees, but overall Kincaid says the transition has been smooth.

"We had some problems getting some things posted for meetings, for instance, until someone from this building [headquarters] called someone in that building and said, 'They can do this,'" Kincaid says. "Since then, I don't think it's been a problem."

Today, GLEAM's membership has grown to 200 employees, who are free to use the company's voice mail, e-mail, computers, and office space to meet and communicate.

Besides giving gay and lesbian employees a support network, Kincaid says, GLEAM's main function is to act as a liaison to the company's senior officials, keeping them abreast of employee concerns and updating them on what's happening in the gay and lesbian community as a whole.

GLEAM is not a union, but it has helped bring about changes that have benefited all employees.

One popular change occurred in 1995, when the company agreed to revamp its policy of allowing relatives of employees to travel at a reduced rate. Historically, the company would only extend the discounts to direct relatives, such as legal spouses, children, and parents. Today, employees can offer their "buddy passes" to anyone they choose.

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