Equal benefits: Needed now more than ever

  • by Jeff Sheehy and Ken McNeely
  • Wednesday May 31, 2017
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Twenty years ago Thursday (June 1), San Francisco's Equal Benefits Ordinance became law. It is a simple law with a powerful purpose �" making sure companies doing business with the city provide every employee the same benefits no matter who they love.

When the Equal Benefits Ordinance was conceived, the challenges to the LGBT community were severe. On the heels of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the so-called Defense of Marriage Act was moving forward at the federal level. In legitimate anger and frustration, three leaders of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, Geoff Kors, Jeff Sheehy, and Carol Stuart, got together on a sunny Saturday afternoon and Kors put forward the idea for the Equal Benefits Ordinance.

They took the proposed legislation to the Board of Supervisors, and with the leadership of out Supervisors Tom Ammiano, Leslie Katz, and Susan Leal, the Equal Benefits Ordinance was passed without a vote in opposition and signed by Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. into law. The city's Human Rights Commission, led by chair Martha Knutzen and Executive Director Cynthia Goldstein, developed regulations and enforcement mechanisms that gave the measure real teeth. Then-city Attorney Louise Renne and her deputy, Dennis Aftergut, brilliantly worked to defend any legal challenges against the ordinance.

While a handful of companies took issue with the law and sued, other companies in San Francisco, such as AT&T, stood with LGBT activists and local government due to the foundational support of their internal LGBT organizations. Thirty years ago, AT&T employees came together to form the LGBT employee group LEAGUE �" one of the first of its kind in the country. During the equal benefits campaign, this group was already a decade old, making it a valuable partner.

Companies realized the law would also improve their bottom line by attracting and retaining dedicated employees from our community. That was the case with companies like AT&T, who along with supporting San Francisco's effort adopted one of the nation's first domestic partner benefits programs for its LGBT employees, and it has turned out to be the case across the country.

Even though our quest for full marriage rights would be undeniably delayed by DOMA, community members knew equal benefits provided tangible results for our families right away. Eventually over 7,000 companies with millions of employees complied with the law.

This activism in the workplace fueled the culture change in corporate America that realized that LGBT rights are human rights. During the Supreme Court case on marriage equality, 379 companies and employer organizations signed an amicus brief on the side of history. From AT&T to United Airlines and Ben & Jerry's to our world champion San Francisco Giants �" diverse companies led by example and lent their voices to our cause. Very few companies lined up in opposition.

Support from businesses provides a valuable resource when many states and localities lack legal protections for LGBT residents or pass discriminatory laws against LGBT residents. The goal must always be to convince government to provide full legal recognition of our rights and relationships. In the meantime, workplace policies on non-discrimination and equal benefits mean even in every state, an employee can find work at a responsible company with confidence that if she gets married one day, she won't be fired the next.

Ken McNeely. Photo: Courtesy AT&T

San Francisco has a key choice to make moving forward. We can keep the status quo or we can align this 20-year-old law with today's modern realities. Respecting gender identity as well as sexual orientation must be a focus of our collective work.

AT&T ranks at 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index because it prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression in all operations and offers transgender-inclusive health coverage, as well as having an employer-supported Employee Resource Group. This comprehensive approach to equality should serve as a model of responsibility to replicate. And during Pride Month this year, employees' stories of coming out will be shared through powerful videos that will be broadcast to visitors at AT&T's One Powell store.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will begin working this summer to update the city's equal benefits and contracting laws to better align our city's values with our dollars. At 10:45 a.m. Thursday (June 1), we'll join City Administrator Naomi M. Kelly and other leaders at City Hall's North Light Court to celebrate 20 years of the equal benefits ordinance and discuss the meaningful impact it has had in our communities.

The challenges ahead for LGBT people are daunting and unknown, especially at the national level. As we develop strategies to protect LGBT people, respect and dignity in the workplace must remain a top priority. Now more than ever, the actions of state and local governments and responsible employers will play a large role in determining our future progress. We invite you to join us in the next citywide conversation on workplace equality to make equal benefits stronger now and for the next 20 years.


Jeff Sheehy is a longtime HIV/AIDS activist and represents District 8 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Ken McNeely is the president of AT&T California and the first openly gay officer of AT&T Corp.