Straighten up and fly right

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

"I am not aware of anybody in the Christian resource group that they talked to prior to sending that [press release] out," Darbo says. "I don't know who they talked to. I do know that the process we started to organize a Christian resource group had nothing to do with the gay and lesbian issue."

While in Washington, Darbo says, he and his colleagues listened to the group's concerns and offered to assist it in bringing its message to American's top management. When they got back to Fort Worth, Darbo says, they suggested that Crandall consider meeting with the groups.

"We felt like we opened the door," Darbo says. "We believe that continuing dialogues will help all parties in achieving their goals and improve AMR's (American's parent company) image in the marketplace."

The employee group also defended American.
"The Christian Resource Group strongly feels that AMR Corp. is a stand-alone leader in its posture toward religious freedom," says Darbo, who was disappointed that Knight failed to mention his group's visit to Washington during the LaHaye show.

Knight says the omission was an oversight.
"We didn't talk about wheat in China, either," Knight says. "If they want to take credit, that's fine. I have no doubt that they had some influence, and we're appreciative of that. I still think it was outside pressure from [our] constituents that played a big part in their decision to meet with us."

Despite the Christian employees' efforts, the conservative groups' decision to continue publicly attacking American soured their relations with Crandall, who was offended by a letter posted on the Internet last fall.

"The tone of your letter, and your decision to publish it on the Internet, leads me to think that you are not seeking a genuine dialogue," Crandall wrote in a November 5, 1997, letter, which was subsequently posted on the American Family Association's Web site. "Rather, it appears, you seek to intimidate us into adopting an attitude of hostility toward gays and lesbians in general."

Knight and his allies say they will continue to monitor American Airlines, but their efforts aren't likely to convince Crandall to go backward in time.

Today, American Airlines is a member of the National AIDS fund, a sponsor of the National Association of People with AIDS' Speakers Bureau, and the official airline of the San Francisco AIDS Action Foundation and the D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign.

"Some of our proudest moments have come on the three occasions we transported the AIDS Memorial Quilt," the company states in a posting on its World Wide Web site.

In the metroplex, American is known for its support of the AIDS Resource Center of Dallas and Oak Lawn Community Services, among other groups. Crandall has twice walked in the annual AIDS Lifewalk and served as the event's chairman in 1996.

American spokeswoman Rader will not say exactly how much the company contributes to AIDS causes or the gay and lesbian community, but she describes it as a substantial amount that usually comes in the form of discounted or donated tickets.

Steve Atkinson, the president of the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance, one of the largest gay and lesbian political groups in the country, confirms that American's reputation as a generous contributor is sound.

"They're way at the top of the list, maybe at the very top as far as the amount of the support that they give and their sponsorship of different events," Atkinson says. "Our community is very clear in our support of American Airlines."

American's motivation to give is certainly inspired by the returns it gets in increased business from the gay and lesbian community, which is known for its loyalty to companies friendly to gays.

The company's more open policies toward its gay and lesbian employees also are inspired by the bottom line: The company performs more efficiently, and therefore more profitably, when turnover is low. At the moment, a shortage of skilled workers is making fierce the competition to attract and retain qualified employees.

"Corporate America is recognizing at a greater and greater level that it's good business for them to recruit and retain the best possible employees, and often those people are gay and lesbian people," Atkinson says.

While it may be tempting for critics to discount American's new gay-friendly face simply as a strategy to make profits, Atkinson says American's actions are helping set new standards in corporate America that benefit all gays and lesbians. When large, influential companies like American Airlines take the first step, other companies are more likely to follow suit.

"American Airlines has been a part of that big picture, and it certainly is progressive in its policies as they relate to gay and lesbian people," Atkinson says. "That certainly encourages other companies."

Although many smaller companies in the metroplex have progressive policies, American Airlines is one of only a handful of major corporations that have taken steps to recognize the importance of its gay and lesbian employees.

Texas Instruments and Electronic Data Systems both have gay and lesbian employee groups and nondiscrimination clauses; more notably, they have extended health benefits to domestic partners. At EDS, the policy changes took effect January 1 as part of an overall strategy of inclusion, says Kirk Abercrombie, a member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance at EDS (GLEE).

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