Straighten up and fly right

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

"EDS is an example of the changing workplace in that we're now required as a normal course of business to be very inclusive of many viewpoints, but we have to keep centered on the business issues that drive a competitive practice," Abercrombie says. "We want to empower people and place them in a position where they can perform at their optimum. They have to be able to operate in a very comfortable work setting."

Although American Airlines has not yet extended health-care benefits to domestic partners, Abercrombie says the changes the company has made are no less significant.

"[American] is a very strong example of the leadership that's necessary with key employers here to accomplish the goal of an inclusive atmosphere," he says.

GLEE, which was created three years ago and now has 50 paid members and a confidential mailing list of 150, keeps in contact with GLEAM and other gay and lesbian employee groups. The communication, Abercrombie says, forms another support network for employees who are seeking advice about how to approach their corporate managers.

Kincaid agrees.
"Sometimes it's nice to have another voice at the other end [of the phone] that understands your business and what things are like. You have to be supportive of their groups," Kincaid says. "We've heard from Delta, Southwest, TWA, Northwest, United, and Alaska Airlines."

That support is all the more important, Abercrombie says, because he and his colleagues learned long ago that the best way to effect change is from inside the company.

"We argued why, from a business point of view, it made sense and also that it was a correct human stance," Abercrombie says of EDS' new policies. "When we see how the competitive factors entered into [the decisions] and our objectives, this just fits. It's absolutely part of an overall strategy of becoming world-class."

And sometimes those internal struggles aren't well-received when news of them reaches the outside world--especially in Texas.

"Here in the heart of the South and the Sunbelt, there are certainly conservative elements that are having difficulty separating out the human rights issues from a religious perspective," Abercrombie says. "We are providing benefits to employees with equity. It's not about 'special rights'--it's about equity. It isn't necessary to change people's religious views to have this happen as a business issue."

Crandall's refusal to cave under the pressure from the religious right is particularly important in the wake of Ross Perot's decision last week to cease offering health benefits to unmarried domestic partners for new employees at Perot Systems Corp.

Abercrombie calls American's decision to stand firm in the face of the right wing's campaign key to bringing about workplace equality in corporate America.

"It's an indicator of a changing environment," Abercrombie says. "American is a company that is serving people throughout the world, and they cannot let their business practice be dictated by one constituency."

But back inside American Airlines, gays and lesbians will continue to push for additional policy changes and increased understanding among their coworkers.

Next on GLEAM's agenda, Burr says, will be the thorny issue of domestic partner health-care benefits. The group presented American's top management with a detailed health-care proposal more than a year ago. The company had put the decision off until a lawsuit filed against the city of San Francisco by the Air Transport Association was resolved.

Just last week the ATA, of which American and all major U.S. airlines are members, successfully blocked an ordinance there that would have required all companies doing business with the city to provide health benefits to domestic partners. The ATA argued that only the federal government has the ability to regulate the airline industry.

"We're simply fighting for the right of companies to make those decisions and not have them mandated on them," says ATA spokesman David Fuscus.

According to Kincaid, his understanding of American's position on the issue of benefits for domestic partners isn't a question of if, but when. Now that the San Francisco issue has been decided, Kincaid hopes the company will move forward.

In the meantime, Burr says that she's been impressed by the way her co-workers are responding to her relatively new status in the company as a lesbian and that, in the process, she's growing more comfortable herself.

As an example, Burr recalls the first time she was faced with the dilemma of deciding whether to bring her new partner to a Christmas party two years ago.

"I asked a colleague at work, who I was out to, what did she think? She said, 'Oh, I really don't think you should do that,' and I didn't," Burr says. "I knew...that I would never ever do that again because the pain of going off and leaving my partner behind, who really wanted to go, was certainly more painful than being there with her and being shunned."

Last year, Burr not only brought her partner with her to the black-tie affair, but she showed up in a tux.

"The initial barriers were there, but after a while they [her coworkers] were like, 'OK, she's got a tux on; it's OK, though,'" says Burr. "We didn't dance together. We didn't push 'em that far. But we will next year."

To hear Robert Knight's comments about American from The Beverly LaHaye Show, and for links to more information, check out the Dallas Observer Web site at www.dallasobserver.com.

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