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It’s Gays in Space!
by Megan Smith  •  Photo by Dalton DeHart

In celebration of LGBT workplace equality for those working with the final frontier, Out & Equal Houston and the Johnson Space Center Out & Allied Employee Resource Group hosted Out in Space!—a forum on leadership, inclusion, and innovation—on August 10 at the JSC Gilruth Center.

Johnson Space Center Out & Allied Employee Resource Group’s event Out in Space! included almost sixty attendees from Out & Equal Houston, a local organization working to foster LGBT-inclusive workplaces in Houston-area businesses, over sixty NASA personnel, and many members of the public. Attendees enjoyed a lunch, panel discussion, and VIP tour of Johnson Space Center Building 9, Mission Control Center, and Rocket Park.

The group was welcomed by Dr. Ellen Ochoa, Deputy Director of the Johnson Space Center (JSC). Ochoa expressed her goal to have every JSC employee undergo basic inclusion training to make sure no one in the workplace ever feels like an outsider. Not a member of the LGBT community, Ochoa nevertheless frequently feels out of place as a woman in physics and seeks to eliminate an atmosphere of exclusion from the JSC environment.

This year marks the first anniversary of the JSC Out & Allied Employee Resource Group, which values the unique experiences of LGBT employees and works to maintain diversity in the workplace. Ochoa emphasized that, with the work of this Employee Resource Group (ERG), fear is eliminated from the workplace, inclusion is expanded, and everyone is able to bring a lot more energy and passion to their work. “Obviously, what we want to do is try to make this a welcoming place for everybody, where people feel valued and respected, and where they feel comfortable to speak up in meetings,” Ochoa said.

Following the welcome was a panel discussion facilitated by Gemma Burns, co-chair of Out & Equal Houston. Panel members were LGBT workplace equality champions Mike Craig, Senior IM Consultant and Information Architect for Chevron; Chad Libertus, Tax Partner with KPMG; Nancy Mace, Community Engagement Director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates; Steve Riley, Group Lead of the Mechanisms and Maintenance Group for NASA; Bryan Snook, Assistant Chief of the Operations Technology Facility Office and Information System Security Manager for Mission Systems in Mission Operations Directorate at NASA; and Elisa Vega-Burns, Senior Business Operations Consultant at EMC Corporation.

Craig, Vega-Burns, and Libertus all helped their companies achieve 100 percent ratings on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, marking significant inclusion in all areas. Vega-Burns stressed that companies need to be kept in-check, and often are not as inclusive as they are believed to be. By developing ERGs specific to the LGBT community, Vega-Burns believes companies are providing a safe haven for queer employees to be themselves and speak freely without having to worry about judgment. “When people feel safe, they become empowered,” she said. “When they become empowered, they’re able to affect change within the organization.”

Riley shared his experience with the progress JSC has made since he first started as an employee in 1996. He described how, at that time, you could be denied a security clearance if you were openly LGBT. There was very little openness in the workplace, he said, and he would have to censor himself and change pronouns when talking about a significant other or interest.

In 1998 a measure passed that overturned this exclusion, and the door for Riley to come out in the workplace opened. Since then, he said, he has been working as a leader in the Out & Allied ERG to make JSC a place that welcomes people of all gender identities, expressions, and sexual orientations. “I don’t want any other employees who come here to feel like that for one day, much less the two and a half years that I did before I was comfortable enough in my work to be who I really was,” Riley said.

Both Riley and Snook encourage others who want to start an ERG at their company to make a business case out of its formation. By increasing inclusion, they believe, companies see better productivity from their employees and overall workplace satisfaction increases. “We have a lot of challenges ahead, and I will tell you one thing we really like here at JSC, and at NASA in general, is a challenge,” said Melanie Saunders, associate director for Mission Support at JSC. “We just have to keep working and keep making a difference every day.”

For more information on how to start an ERG at your company, visit http://outandequal.org/resources/groups.

SIDEBAR

How They Rate—Apple, Exxon, and more

In 2012 the Human Rights Campaign celebrates the ten-year anniversary of their Corporate Equality Index (CEI). The index is an extensive analysis and rating of large U.S. employers and their policies toward LGBT employees. Employers are rated based on in-depth criteria including: having an equal employment opportunity policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, providing equal benefits for same-sex partners and spouses, and ending benefits discrimination for transgender employees and dependents. This year, 189 participants received CEI’s highest rating of 100 percent. Still, many companies fall behind.

Selected employers with a CEI rating of 100 percent:

• Abercrombie & Fitch Co.
• Apple Inc.
• Kellogg Co.
• The Coca-Cola Co.
• Chevron
• Wells Fargo

Selected employers with a CEI rating of less than 50 percent:

• AutoZone Inc.
• Exxon Mobil Corp.
• The Container Store
• Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc.
• Dole Food Co. Inc.
• Overstock.com

For a complete list of CEI employer ratings, visit hrc.org/resources/entry/corporate-equality-index.

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Megan Smith

Megan Smith is the Assistant Editor for OutSmart Magazine.

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