Straighten up and fly right

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

Leaders of the nation's most influential conservative religious groups didn't kick up much dust when they arrived in Fort Worth late last month for an unprecedented meeting with executives at American Airlines, including President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Crandall.

Some of America's top moral crusaders were on hand for the March 23 meeting, led by representatives of the Southern Baptists, Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America, Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, and Gary Bauer's Family Research Council.

These were the same people who a year earlier had generated headlines by announcing they opposed American's practice of marketing to gays and lesbians and sponsoring gay, lesbian, and AIDS-related organizations.

As part of the right-wing effort, which paralleled campaigns launched against the Walt Disney Co. and the television sitcom Ellen, the groups threatened American with boycotts and called upon their followers to bombard the airline with complaints that its policies imperiled the sanctity of the American family.

But in late March, the groups came to American's expansive cube-like headquarters along the Dallas-Tarrant county line on a more diplomatic mission, aimed at wooing the airline back into the homophobic fold. By all accounts, the meeting went well. Opinions were exchanged, and the religious conservatives quietly left town without attracting the attention of the press.

The quiet wouldn't last long.
Conservatives across the nation soon would hear that their yearlong campaign had paid off. Their leaders, they were told, had scored a major victory at American.

"American Airlines Pledges to Stop Promoting Homosexuality," said a news release issued by the Concerned Women for America a day after the meeting.

"No longer will air travelers on American Airlines fear that a portion of their fares is funding activities that may be in direct conflict with their religious beliefs," the release stated. "We are so pleased that American has decided to stop endorsing this deadly behavior."

The news release went on to claim that American had agreed to stop sponsoring "homosexual parties," cease targeting and promoting the homosexual travel market, and halt charitable contributions to gay and lesbian organizations, namely the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Teachers' Network.

Later that week, a representative from the Family Research Council went on the air and boastfully laid out the details of American's surrender during a broadcast of LaHaye's nationally syndicated radio talk show.

To conservatives, the news certainly seemed like an occasion to rejoice: A small battle in the war against homosexuality had been won inside one of the country's largest corporations.

The only problem is, there was no anti-gay victory at American Airlines. The truth is, Robert Crandall met the groups face to face and politely told them to bugger off.

Outside Texas, the nation's religious conservatives certainly have scored some victories in their moral crusade against gays and lesbians, whose lives they call "immoral, unhealthy, and destructive to individuals, families, and societies."

In February, Maine repealed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Last year, Chrysler Corp. and J.C. Penney pulled advertising from television network ABC when sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres became the first lesbian to come out on prime time.

In both cases, the conservative groups issued "action alerts" encouraging their supporters to send letters to legislators and to network representatives.

But while the religious right continues to flex its considerable political muscle, its threats and boycotts against major U.S. corporations are not bringing about the economic Armageddon its vocal leaders have been predicting.

Evidence of that came last fall, when Walt Disney Chairman Michael Eisner appeared on 60 Minutes and told the nation that Disney's profits were up despite the boycott launched in 1997 by the Southern Baptist Convention. The convention's members opposed the company's decision to give health benefits to domestic partners, to allow Ellen to come out (Disney owns ABC), and to allow "Gay Days" at its theme parks.

Still, Crandall's willingness to stand up to the religious right is something of a surprise, coming as it did in Dallas, a town not known for being particularly gay-friendly, in a state where gay sex is a crime and employers can fire workers because of their sexual orientation. Even more surprising is the quiet revolution under way at American. With little fanfare, the $18 billion behemoth has become a leader in workplace equality for homosexuals.

American is the first airline to prohibit discrimination of its employees based on sexual orientation and the first Fortune 100 company to create a sales team geared specifically for the gay and lesbian market--a hint that American's new-found open-mindedness might be driven by business as well as humanitarian motives.

American is also one of the few airlines with an officially sanctioned gay and lesbian employee group, which shares equal status with nine other employee groups, including one for Christians. Outside the corporation, American also has emerged as one of the most generous contributors to gay and lesbian organizations and has been a major fundraiser and sponsor for AIDS-related causes in the metroplex and across the nation.

For American, the long journey toward progressiveness began with two giant missteps five years ago--embarrassing gaffes involving gay and lesbian passengers who were mistreated by crewmembers. Rather than simply apologizing for the incidents, American began to implement changes that are setting corporate milestones locally and nationally.

Despite the claims now flowing from the nation's religious right, the one thing that's clear in the wake of last month's meeting at American is that the airline has steered out of its cloudy past and has no plans to turn back.

The thunder of passing jets and the quiet, steady chirping of birds challenge the conversations taking place in an open patio outside American's bustling headquarters on this warm Wednesday afternoon.

It's is April Fools' Day, and two members of American Airlines' Gay and Lesbian Employee Association (GLEAM) are here to speak candidly about their employer.

Robert Crandall declined to speak to the Dallas Observer about American's policies toward gays and lesbians. His spokesperson explained that he "doesn't want to talk about this anymore." But the idea that two GLEAM members were allowed to spend two hours of company time discussing American's policies speaks volumes about the freedom they have gained in the workplace.

Robbin Burr, a GLEAM co-chair, and Tim Kincaid, one of the group's founders, have built successful careers at American Airlines--Kincaid is a five-year employee in the company's corporate communications office. Burr, an 18-year veteran, is the new national sales manager for the gay and lesbian community. They also have gone through the uncomfortable process of coming out in the workplace, and they continue to work on improving gay relations from inside the company and out.

On this unseasonably warm afternoon, Burr and Kincaid recall the trouble American flew into in 1993, when the airline suffered two blows to its image that would ultimately change the course of the company's policies toward gays and lesbians.

The first occurred in April of that year, when a crewmember requested that all blankets and pillows be changed on a D/FW-bound flight that carried a group of gays and lesbians who had participated in a march on Washington. The crewmember's request was leaked to the press, and the incident immediately captured national headlines.

Seven months later, American again made news when a passenger suffering from AIDS hung an intravenous bag over his seat and refused to cover open sores on his face at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. When the passenger refused to leave the plane, he was dragged off screaming and charged with disorderly conduct.

"It was shocking inside and outside the company. We were all horrified to see that," Kincaid recalls. "It was very public, and it was very ugly. It was like strike two, I guess. Lightning struck twice on about the same issue, on the same group."

Shortly after each embarrassment, American issued a public apology, and all employees were issued a corporate statement that laid out the facts of how AIDS is transmitted. Although the incidents faded out of the public memory, Kincaid says, American realized it had a problem.

The task of repairing the damage done to its corporate image began when American adopted a policy banning discrimination against employees based on sexual orientation. Other airlines soon followed suit. Next, American retained two consultants from the Washington, D.C.-based firm of Witeck-Combs Communications.

"They said they would only take the job on the basis that this isn't window dressing, [that] there have to be some genuine changes," says Kincaid. "They became instrumental in advising human resources on the steps to recovery, not only in a marketing and PR sense, but also a sense of employee relations within the company."

As the months rolled on, employees were given AIDS training, while American officials contacted gay and lesbian organizations locally and nationally to ask them what the company could do to improve its image.

The gay and lesbian community began to take notice.
"A lot of travel agents started calling, saying, 'We like what we're seeing there. We'd like to give you our business. We want to reward a company that's at least acknowledging that they made a mistake and they value gay people as customers,'" Kincaid says. "I didn't know what to do with these calls."

With new customers suddenly clamoring for American's business, Kincaid enlisted the help of co-worker Rick Cirillo, who in 1994 began handling gay and lesbian travel arrangements on an experimental basis. That year, American became the second major U.S. airline to join the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, and Cirillo booked $20 million in business.

The numbers impressed the company's top brass, who suddenly saw the wisdom in marketing directly to the gay and lesbian community. The marketing team has since been expanded to five members, and last year it landed a whopping $139 million in sales--more than any other niche group to which the company advertises.

When Burr saw her current position of national sales manager for the gay and lesbian community advertised internally in 1996, she says, she knew it was finally safe to come out at American.

"That's when I knew that the baby steps had really made a difference over time," Burr says.

From his position inside corporate communications, Kincaid assisted the company as it implemented new policies toward gays and lesbians. But at the same time, he remained in the closet, wondering when and how he should come out.

"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.

"That was seen as a clear benefit to people who had domestic partners, heterosexual or gay, and also to people who were dating or single and just wanted to travel," says American spokeswoman Andrea Rader. "We had our gay and lesbian employees in mind when we did it, but we had our other employees in mind as well. It was a big deal."

Ultimately, Kincaid hopes GLEAM will help create a corporate atmosphere where all gays and lesbians can feel comfortable being open about who they are, but he recognizes that coming out is a very personal process.

"We have some people who are instrumental in GLEAM who are still in the closet, which is a dichotomy, I guess, but I'm seeing some progress there," Kincaid says. "And I don't mean being an activist and marching around, but just being known as a gay person in the workplace."

The Wednesday, March 25, episode of The Beverly LaHaye Show, titled "The Radical Gay Agenda," began with the show's co-hosts Carmen Pate and Jim Woodall joyously repeating the news of a March 23 ruling by the California Supreme Court, which determined that the Boy Scouts of America can actively exclude gays from its membership because it is a "social organization" and not a business.

After reciting the Boy Scout's pledge, Woodall and Pate turned their attention to special guest Robert Knight. He represents the Family Research Council, a Washington-based "pro-family" lobby that believes homosexuality is "unhealthy, immoral, and destructive" and "opposes any attempts to equate homosexuality with civil rights," according to a position paper posted on the group's Internet site.

Knight, the FRC's director of cultural studies and a former journalist, is well known among religious conservatives for his various anti-gay essays and speeches, such as one he gave at Harvard University last fall titled "Nobody has to be Gay."

Knight was one of nine conservative leaders who had traveled to Fort Worth two days earlier for the meeting with American Airlines, and he was on the show to discuss what happened.

A year earlier, on February 18, 1997, a coalition of 19 conservative religious groups, including the FRC, sent a letter to American's Robert Crandall informing him that they opposed his policies toward gays and lesbians.

The most vocal member of the coalition was Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America, a Washington-based "pro-family" lobby that boasts an $11.4 million income and is guided by the mission to "protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens, first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society."

The rambling, six-page letter, which focused mostly on sexual issues, laid out the groups' contentions that homosexuality is an unhealthy, destructive "choice." The letter also informed American that it had gone "beyond mere tolerance" and was promoting homosexuality.

Although the groups did not state that they were boycotting American (a difficult task given the company's regional dominance), the threatening tone of the letter was not subtle.

"Corporate acceptance of the gay rights agenda would also alienate millions of American's customers who are pro-family," the letter stated. "Most people with traditional values do not adopt the tactics of disruption that the gay militants use, but they do vote with their pocketbooks."

Knight began the LaHaye show by detailing how the conservative contingent was received when it arrived in Fort Worth.

"I expected a defensive, hostile posture...but it was nothing like that. Mr. Crandall and his staff were very gracious," Knight announced. "Crandall chose to bring in his top executives, and that really made a difference. They really listened. They gave us plenty of time to make our case."

At that point, Knight's assessment of the meeting was accurate. What followed, however, is a matter of debate.

The "upshot" of the meeting, Knight reported, was that American Airlines had agreed to "stop promoting any partisan political activity of any kind, which means not funding the Human Rights Campaign, the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, all these groups," Knight said.

They also agreed to "not sponsor any homosexual events or organizations or publications," Knight continued, adding that the company did reserve the right to advertise anywhere they wanted but suggested that the company agreed to stop marketing to the gay community and sponsoring gay-related events.

"We still made it clear that we don't think they ought to be advertising in any gay publications. They kind of dug in their heels on that," Knight said. "Mr. Crandall warned us, and his marketing director warned us, that there are a couple of events in the pipeline that will still have the American Airlines logo on it, and we won't like it, but he said two or three months, and it's over."

American spokeswoman Andrea Rader says she is "mystified" by the claims of Knight and his allies.

"We told them that we appreciated talking to people, but that we intend to stay neutral," Rader says. "We intend to make our marketing decisions based on employee need, consumer need, and [our] shareholders."

At no point, Rader says, did American agree to stop marketing to the gay and lesbian community or cut off any of its charitable funding to AIDS efforts or gay and lesbian organizations. Those activities, she says, will continue.

"In their view, we were in a position of promoting homosexuality. We made it clear to them that we were not promoting anything," Rader says. "We're not making any judgments with respect to people's [sexual] orientation. We are engaging in business behavior and will continue to do so."

In the CWFA press release, Pate claimed that American would stop its aggressive advertising for "discount fares for 'domestic partners' and discount tickets to 'cruise' parties." The claim was inaccurate as well as misleading, Rader says.

The company has never given discounted fares to domestic partners.
"We do not have a gay discount, where you could walk up to the counter and say, 'I'm gay; give me a discount'," Rader says. "If we did that, I have the feeling that suddenly everyone would be gay."

The Concerned Women were also apparently mistaken about American's new policy on "circuit" parties, which up until early 1997 the company had sponsored.

On weekends throughout the year, gay men travel to designated cities for the parties, the proceeds of which are donated to AIDS organizations. In 1995, for example, Out and About magazine reported that circuit parties raised between $4 million and $6 million.

In recent years, circuit parties have become controversial within the gay community, in part because of Michelangelo Signorile's 1997 book Life Outside, which detailed how the parties have become rife with drug use and unsafe sex--that's ironic, given the parties' purpose of raising money to fight AIDS.

American stopped sponsoring circuit parties last year because of the bad publicity surrounding them, says Rader. The company made the decision independently of demands by the Concerned Women and their allies. Instead of sponsoring the parties, American shifted its support directly to the organizations that benefit from the money the parties raised.

"They [the religious right] took away from that that we were going to quit sponsoring all these activities," Rader says. "What happened was, we saw that circuit parties were controversial, even within the gay community. We decided, 'Let's not have our logo in places that we're not comfortable.'"

Why exactly the conservative groups came away from their meeting with Crandall and claimed a victory is difficult to know.

When asked to explain the confusion, contacts at Concerned Women, the American Family Association, and Focus on the Family either declined to comment or refused to respond to repeated requests for interviews.

"I'm not sure what ought to be said," says Tom Minnery, the vice president of Focus on the Family. "I realize that Concerned Women for America put out a press release. I'm not going to contribute to the confusion by adding my two cents."

The only person who agreed to an interview was Knight, who maintains that American agreed to stop sponsoring and contributing to organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign.

"If he [Crandall] assured us that partisan organizations will no longer receive funding, then I believe him," says Knight, who concedes that Crandall never specifically agreed to sever its ties to any particular group or cause.

"He wasn't specific. He indicated he understood our concerns and that he was only interested in marketing the airline and not supporting partisan causes," Knight says. "I got the impression that he understood those organizations [such as the Human Rights Campaign] were indeed partisan."

The confusion surrounding the meeting aside, another curiosity about the religious right's campaign against American is its version of the chronology that led to last month's meeting in Fort Worth.

During his live report on the Fort Worth meeting, Knight told LaHaye's listeners that they helped force Crandall to show up at the negotiating table and, later, concede his mistakes. Woodall, who also attended the meeting but played the role of interviewer on the show, asked Knight whether he was shocked when Crandall supposedly admitted that he was wrong.

"He conceded the point early on, before we had even made our case. I don't think he realized how far out his marketing people had gone toward promoting homosexuality," said Knight, who later spoke directly to the audience. "Because of your pressure, they opened the doors to us. If it weren't for your letters, we wouldn't have gotten a seat at the table.

Yet Knight failed to mention that in August a group of Christian employees at American traveled to Washington at their own expense in the hope of opening up a dialogue with the conservative groups.

John Darbo, who led the American contingent, says he and his fellow Christian employees asked the company whether they could travel to Washington after they read what they considered unfair representations about American coming from the national groups.

One of the items Darbo refers to is a statement by Family Research Council President Gary Bauer in a March 10, 1997, news release announcing Bauer's opposition to American.

"I've joined other pro-family leaders to try and protect the rights of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim employees of American Airlines who are being forced to promote behavior that their faiths declare to be immoral and destructive," Bauer stated.

Darbo, a senior administrator for flight safety, says he was disappointed to see the groups make the false claim without contacting anyone at the company beforehand.

"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).

"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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