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It’s time for CEOs to do more for the LGBTQ community than flash rainbow logos

Opinion by Richard Ditizio for CNN Business Perspectives

When my brother died of AIDS 26 years ago this week, there were no celebratory Pride flags waving, no rainbow-clad corporate logos flooding social media with support. Instead, on that June day, I had to peruse a scant list of crematoriums willing to burn his virus-ravaged body, then flew back home with a plastic container holding his ashes between my feet.

Much has changed for how we treat LGBTQ people since then; but it has not been enough. As we celebrate Pride month, it’s important to acknowledge that not only does discrimination still exist, it continues to be codified into laws across the nation at an alarming pace. Case in point: The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is forecasting 2021 to be the worst year for state legislature attacks on LGBTQ people in history.

Now is the time for corporate leaders to go far beyond their rainbow-clad media presence and use their platforms to take real action. CEOs have a responsibility to stand up for their LGBTQ employees, customers and shareholders by demanding that Congress pass the Equality Act, which would expand federal civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. The House of Representatives passed it earlier this year, and the Senate is expected to vote on its passage soon.

Being White, male and president of a global think tank, I realize I have much privilege and access in society. But as a gay American, I am subject to unrelenting judicial and legislative review of my rights — as if the very protections afforded me as a US citizen are somehow subject to interpretation. In fact, on two ‘landmark’ occasions, the highest court in the land had to decide I could marry the person of my choosing, and could not lose my job for bringing him to the company picnic. The Supreme Court simply does not decide these matters for straight people.

Through 1.4 million LGBTQ-owned businesses, the LGBTQ community employs millions of workers and adds more than $1.5 trillion annually to the US economy. Corporations have taken notice of this rich marketing opportunity, as evidenced by the sheer volume of Pride merchandise available at any neighborhood superstore. And while many corporations have led the way on creating a level playing field for their LGBTQ employees inside their organizations — 767 companies earned a 100% rating this year on HRC’s measure of ‘best places to work for LGBTQ equality‘ — many of those same employees often reside in states where laws allow for LGBTQ protections to be less than for other citizens.

In Arkansas, for instance, the governor recently signed SB289, which makes it legal for a health care provider to deny a particular health care service to LGBTQ people based on their conscience/religious beliefs. In March of this year, South Dakota enacted a religious freedom bill that, according to the HRC, opens the door to discriminate against LGBTQ people across a wide range of goods and services. And just last month in Tennessee, the governor signed a law that could restrict transgender students’ ability to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity in public schools. The list goes on.

It is half-hearted then, for companies to so vocally express unyielding support for the LGBTQ community at work, when in 27 states those employees lose these protections when they exit the building. By using their platforms to lobby the Senate to pass the Equality Act, CEOs would equalize the playing field so many strive for inside their companies with laws that protect their employees. And given the plethora of rainbow-themed sales ringing up across the country, it would be meaningful to divert some of the profits generated from Pride toward groups lobbying for LGBTQ rights globally.

The economic heft of the LGBTQ community needs to be leveraged toward action. Without a federal law broadening civil rights under the Equality Act, these tax-paying LGBTQ citizens’ dollars fund public programs that can lawfully exclude their own participation. That is patently unfair.

Corporations need to further demonstrate the leadership they have shown on diversity and inclusion issues by demanding Congress pass the Equality Act. Leveling the playing field in such a way might finally, at long last, take us over the rainbow.

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