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Just pick up, dammit

Archival documents show how Bell fought queer employees

BEGUILED BY CHANGE. Bell Canada did not want to be a leader in employee equality in the early 1990s. Credit: (Corey Pierce)

Bell Canada Enterprises has, like other large corporations over the last couple of decades, learned the value of courting queer customers, faced the optics of discrimination and homophobia, and complied with new laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But documents dating back to the early 1990s show how much Bell, then and now Canada’s largest telecommunications company, dragged its feet when it came to ending discriminatory policies against its gay and lesbian employees. The documents of the Gay And Lesbian Organization Of Bell Employees (GLOBE), recently made public when the group’s founders donated them to the Canadian Lesbian And Gay Archives, show how Bell resisted treating queer employees fairly.

These documents provide a window not only into what the queer rights movement looked like in the early 1990s but also at what was once a staid and conservative corporate culture. The 10 volumes of GLOBE archives paint a picture of a Bell where managers routinely harassed gay employees and the company hid behind a fear of controversy in order to discriminate against queer workers, even as it was struggling to come to terms with a consumer base that was increasingly aware of gay and lesbian issues.

GLOBE started in January 1991 when two Bell employees, Carl Miller and Jari Dvorak, recognized each other in an elevator at Bell after seeing each other at a gay dance. Miller and Dvorak started having lunch together and invited other gay employees to join them. When they realized a dozen people were regularly showing up, they decided to get organized.

“There was one guy, Tom Stewart, who was out completely and actively seeking spousal benefits for his partner,” says Dvorak, who is now retired from Bell. “The group started to congeal around the same-sex spousal benefits.”

The group soon submitted a request to Bell, expecting the company to agree to provide benefits on the grounds of fairness. Instead, Bell’s first response expressed what would become a recurring theme of deflection of responsibility for the rights of its queer employees.

“We are not unaware of the lifestyle options available in today’s society,” wrote Aniko Galambos, a senior manager, in June 1991. “We realize that this particular issue is gaining greater and greater focus. As such, we realize that our employee body — which is representative of society at large — is equally impacted by this trend. However, at the present time, our policies in this area are formed on the basis of legislative requirements and the general acceptance of this issue by the external environment.”

One stumbling block for GLOBE in its early days was the lack of employees who were out.

“I think people feared that if they came out it would be held against them,” says Miller, who no longer works for Bell. “It was a shock then when people came out. You could go down the hall and talk to people and nobody would say they knew anybody who was gay or lesbian.

“Tom Stewart and I signed the first letter asking for spousal benefits. We had what we called ‘job security lunches’ together and it was clear for us that there was a downside to this. We essentially didn’t have any control over who got the information and how it would be treated, but we decided that if this is a career-limiting move, then I guess my career just peaked. If you don’t, what are you saying? You’re choosing to hide and if we did that wouldn’t be good for Bell Canada.”

In order to help GLOBE members organize and communicate with each other without being out, GLOBE utilized what was then a little-known and cutting-edge technology called e-mail, which all Bell employees had access to.

“E-mail was a crucial part of this,” says Dvorak, who administered a GLOBE listserv; he was not out at Bell himself. “We hoped e-mail would go under the radar. I don’t know how we would have done it otherwise.”

Over the listserv and at monthly meetings at the 519 Community Centre, GLOBE prepared a more detailed request for benefits, outlining the impacts of the lack of spousal benefits on queer employees and their families, estimating the cost of such benefits and playing up the advantages of how the equal treatment might look to the gay and lesbian market, which was just starting to become acknowledged. Bell’s then-director of benefits, Aurelle Quennevile, responded several months later.

“By deciding not to extend eligibility of benefits to same-sex partners, the company wishes to express its preference to let society make its choices known through legislation and high court decisions prior to proceeding with any changes,” wrote Quenneville in April 1992.

Quenneville elaborated in an August letter. “We believe that it is not simply for the company a matter of deciding to extend spousal benefits to same-sex partners but above all a decision that would evolve the definition of spouse. We believe that to be beyond the ‘jurisdiction’ of a corporation,” she wrote.

Later that year Michael Leshner, a lawyer in the Ontario attorney general’s office, successfully argued before the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) for same-sex survivor benefits, in a decision that had ramifications for all provincially regulated companies. Although the majority of Bell employees were located in Ontario, the telecommunications industry was federally regulated, and the OHRC decision had no legal bearing on Bell, then-Bell president Bob Kearney wrote to GLOBE in January 1993.

“As the recent ruling by the OHRC tribunal has not resulted in any change to the federal legislation, which governs Bell, we will not extend spousal benefits to same-sex couples at this time,” Kearney wrote. GLOBE then launched a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

GLOBE’s correspondence with Kearney included a general complaint about incidents of harassment and antigay slurs in the office. In his reply Kearney noted that he didn’t feel comfortable creating “guidelines on terminology” to govern employees’ behaviour, despite the clear effects of harassment on gay and lesbian employees.

Which is not to say GLOBE didn’t score any victories with Bell during this period. Members made planned donations to several gay and lesbian charities using Bell’s matching gifts program to get the company to contribute to queer causes.

GLOBE was also able to convince Bell’s employment equity division to support its work in creating a safe working environment for gay and lesbian employees. Bell gave GLOBE $200 to pay for a banner they used to march in Toronto’s 1992 Pride parade, and placed an advertisement in that year’s Official Pride Guide — it was one of only three major corporate advertisers that year.

Shortly after that Pride, employee Carrie Brown sent out a mass-distributed e-mail in which she came out as a lesbian not only to the GLOBE listserv, but to her bosses and coworkers as well.

“Being ‘in the closet’ is not only harmful to me as an individual, but in so doing I am contributing to the low level of understanding and acceptance there is in our world for lesbians and gays,” Brown wrote. “It can be very difficult for individuals to share the truth about their sexual orientations. This very real fear comes from many cultural sources, particularly the fear of losing one’s job, family and friends.”

Brown went on to become the cochair of GLOBE, and her articulate and passionate writing won GLOBE much positive media attention, including from The Globe And Mail, the CBC and Xtra.

It’s also clear from the archives that coming out in the ’90s carried obligations in the minds of some GLOBE members.

“Considering that there are not many people in this category, does it mean that a person who is out becomes automatically a role model to others?” wrote Dvorak to the GLOBE listserv in December 1992. “If the answer is yes, does it mean that this puts a new responsibility on the role model to behave in a certain way?”

In March 1993 the company’s newsletter, Bell News, ran a positive story about GLOBE’s work to promote a gay-positive environment at Bell. The article prompted a surprising number of letters and phone calls to the editor, an equal number of which were pro and con. One of each was published in the following issue.

Leading up to 2003’s Pride celebrations, GLOBE set up an information booth with the company’s blessing in the lobby of Bell Trinity Square. The event received news coverage from the CBC but was not without controversy; an angry Bell employee spent part of the day standing in front of the booth wearing a T-shirt with the words “AIDS kills fags dead” emblazoned across it.

The Pride booth was also a turning point for Dvorak, who found himself accidentally outed in the course of setting up the pink balloons that decorated it.

“I was still hoping I could sneak through with no one noticing,” he says, looking back.

On the legal side of things, good news came along in September 1993, when both of Bell’s employee unions joined GLOBE’s CHRC complaint. Two months later the commission ordered a tribunal to investigate same-sex benefits in federally regulated industries, and chose GLOBE’s complaint to represent the telecommunications sector. In its letter to GLOBE, the commission wrote there were more than 200 similar complaints filed at the time.

Shortly after, Bell lost a related lawsuit in which employee Rick Waller sued for same-sex benefits on the grounds that denying benefits violated the terms of his union agreement, which explicitly forbade discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Defiant almost to the very end, Bell met just the minimum requirements of the suit, and applied the benefits to only one of its two unions — and not to management.

Unfortunately Waller died of complications related to AIDS before the case was resolved. While Bell offered survivor benefits, equivalent to two years’ salary plus benefits, to his partner, those were tied up when Waller’s ex-wife made a claim in family court for them. The results of that case were not known to GLOBE members.

It wasn’t until Feb 10, 1995, after four years of fighting, that Bell announced it would extend its benefits policy to cover same-sex partners. GLOBE refused to drop the complaint until that August, when Bell awarded retroactive benefits to its members.

Looking back, Miller is sympathetic to the company’s stubbornness and believes that the battle was ultimately good for all parties.

“I think what we realized was that it was hard for Bell Canada,” Miller says now. “It was like coming out to your mother, because we came out over a number of years, and she has to deal with it on the spot.”

As for Bell, the early ’90s was a period of massive organizational change as well. Its monopoly was dismembered, its operations segmented and reorganized, and its workforce cut from 50,000 to 20,000 (BCE had more than 60,000 employees at the end of 2005.) Few of the major players in this drama still work for the company, and requests to Bell for comment on this story were not returned; its public relations wing says it could not find anyone who worked for the company at the time.

“What we did by opening up the discussion with Bell was that we did make some head roads on the hearts and minds, and we did it in a way that promoted communication and dialogue, in a way that challenged their thinking,” says Miller. “The legal judgment is part of what we wanted, but we also wanted to have the dialogue.”

Miller credits that dialogue with affecting many of the social changes that expanded queer rights over the next decade.

“I now have a husband, so I look at those things I did in the corporate sector as laying the groundwork for what we ended up with,” he says.