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For Laurel Quarberg, being the owner of a welcoming business has probably come easier than most.
“The Ghent area has always been known as a progressive area that attracts progressive-thinking people,” says Quarberg, co-owner of New Leaf, a florist located in Norfolk’s historic Ghent district, which has long had a reputation for being a gay-friendly section of the city.
It helps that Quarberg, and her wife, Sarah Munford, have been involved over the years with Equality Virginia, the commonwealth’s top LGBT rights organization. But Quarberg’s stance on being welcoming to all customers is practical, from a business standpoint, rather than based on her personal feelings.
“It’s good business to be inclusive,” she says. “If you’re not, you’re excluding a large part of the population that possibly brings talents to your business, or ignoring consumers who could be a potential source of strength for your business.”
It’s that message of inclusivity and the dividends it can pay for small business that LGBT advocates hope to drive home with Virginians, particularly the commonwealth’s political class and its General Assembly, which is practically antediluvian in its approach to LGBT issues.
That’s why Equality Virginia, along with fellow LGBT rights organizations Equality North Carolina and South Carolina Equality, has launched “Equality Means Business,” a campaign to enlist and showcase businesses that are equal opportunity hirers when it comes to LGBT people, and that have a policy of not refusing service to potential customers for those same reasons. The three organizations hope to demonstrate how common it is for businesses to have strong LGBT-friendly policies in place as a way of eventually building support for legislation that would prohibit discrimination in employment and in public accommodations. Similar programs have been launched in other Southern states, such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas and Florida.
“Most state groups are recognizing that businesses getting behind LGBT equality issues actually helps move some legislatures, because businesses give a lot of the money to political campaigns,” says James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia. “The three of us together can really bring in a number of businesses, and create this narrative in the South, that businesses want public accommodations for LGBT people. They think it’s not good business to turn people away.”
“When you open a business, that business must be open to everybody — that’s the bottom line,” Raul Cantu, owner of Nacho Mama’s, said at the official campaign launch. “I believe in equality, and I welcome all people at my business.”
To become an officially listed member of the Equality Means Business on Main Street coalition, a business must fill out a short informational form, sign a statement promising not to turn away potential customers or clients based on a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and attach a copy of the company’s LGBT-inclusive equal employment or nondiscrimination policy. If the business does not have an inclusive equal employment policy, state organizations like Equality Virginia can direct them to online resources that provide examples of model policies. Because the application form and pledge only take up half a printed page, it’s a fairly simple process, but it also means that it’s easy for the average Virginian to print out the form and present it to their favorite local businesses to further expand the program’s ranks.
Moreover, the streamlined nature of the sign-up process means that businesses that cross state lines only have to seek certification once, rather than multiple times. And the similar design of the campaign’s fliers makes it easy to identify which businesses embrace equality, and, therefore, are more deserving of LGBT dollars.
“What we like about this campaign is that if I go to Alexandria, or to Carytown, and I see this flier with this symbol in the window, saying ‘Equality Means Business,’ I’ll know that this company has a good hiring policy, and that they support LGBT inclusion in public accommodations,” says Parrish. “Then I go down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and I see this in a window, I’m going to know what that means.”
It’s a program that other businesses may soon be taking advantage of, particularly if advertising their nondiscrimination policies can bring them more business from LGBT customers and straight allies.
Sarah Lakey, of Red Rocks, a locally-owned pizzeria chain with restaurants in Arlington and Alexandria, said that being welcoming to everybody, regardless of sexual orientation, is just part of the company’s philosophy of service.
“They’re all customers to us,” Lakey says. “We want them to be happy and have a good time.”
That attitude also extends to the company’s hiring policy. “As long as who we have is a great worker and provides excellent service, we think their private life is their business,” she adds.
The close ties Red Rocks has with its customers — including the LGBT community, as when the pizzeria played host to NOVA Pride’s Trivia Night last Thursday — have allowed Lakey to keep tabs on what’s going on in Virginia. She was aware of an attempt to pass a bill, introduced by Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas Park, Sudley, Bull Run), that, in practice, would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers, something she said Red Rocks outright rejects.
“I wouldn’t say it was something we even considered or would want to be associated with,” Lakey says of Marshall’s proposal. “It’s not something we would take into account as a business model, and we haven’t come across anyone who’s been speaking in favor of it.”
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