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More inclusive or a retreat to the closet?

Gay and Lesbian Business Association wrestles with name change

'We could have been a hat makers' association. It didn't make sense to deny the identity of the organization.' -Vince Connors Credit: Robin Perelle photo

When the Gay and Lesbian Business Association (GLBA) of Greater Vancouver last year set about the process of renaming itself and expanding its mandate to include businesses province-wide, some of its 400 members saw a golden opportunity to consider a complete title overhaul that would be more inclusive of the diverse community the organization claims to represent.

So the GLBA’s directors held a referendum to see if the membership’s mood for change was limited to geographic inclusion, or extended to the very core of the organization’s name and its emphasis on “gay and lesbian.”

The ballot choices?

Keep the Gay and Lesbian Business Association, but replace “of Greater Vancouver” with “of British Columbia;” or go with the naming committee’s recommendation: Spectrum Business Alliance of British Columbia.

With a little less than half the membership responding, 100 cast their vote for the first option, while 71 supported wider ranging alteration.

But the numbers alone do not capture the essence or the emotion of a debate that speaks to a wider, ongoing evolution of the politics of identity and inclusion within a community that seems to be running out of letters in the alphabet to capture its diversity of genders and sexualities.

Travel consultant Rick Hurlbut is opposed to dropping “gay and lesbian” from the association’s name.

He argues that the word “gay” has historical resonance and is unambiguous terminology to mainstream corporations wanting to do business with the GLBA. Removing the word “gay” and adopting an alphabet soup approach to the renaming process would actually be an exercise in self-exclusion, he says.

Besides, Hurlbut adds, like IBM, McDonald’s and Hyatt, the GLBA is a hard fought-for, established and respected brand within and without the community.

Feng shui interior designer Tien Wee disagrees.

The words “gay” and “lesbian” have exhausted their utility, he says, and do not speak to the up-and-coming crowd of 20 and 30-somethings.

Many of the arguments marshalled for and against change now parallel those made over 10 years ago when the association’s first name change–from the Greater Vancouver Business Association (GVBA) to the current Gay and Lesbian Business Association–was implemented.

Back in 1995, when the GLBA was still the GVBA, then-chair Vince Connors and “an overwhelming majority of the membership” felt the time was right to out the organization, to call “a spade a spade.”

“It felt very closeted. With a name like Greater Vancouver Business Association, there was nothing to distinguish us from any other business association. It was confusing and there was no recognition of the reality behind this name. We could have been a hat makers’ association. It didn’t make sense to deny the identity of the organization,” says Connors.

Hurlbut, also a member of the original GVBA, who remembers “cutting his teeth” as a young activist on the Toronto bathhouse riots of the 1980s, says change was a foregone conclusion in light of what was happening on the wider social and legal landscape.

“We were still in the afterglow of Gay Games III. It was a matter of saying, ‘look at what we did with the Games.’ We were enjoying the benefits of the Charter of Rights, sexual orientation was read into Section 15 of the Charter and there was a sense we could move forward with a greater sense of boldness without fear of a backlash. And if that backlash came, the law and the constitution would be on our side. You could see what was coming down the road, and it was an emotional thing.”

Both Connors and Hurlbut recall the fear and disaffection of a few members who balked at the idea of adding “gay” and “lesbian” to the association’s title–either because they were not out in their professional circles, or because they felt the additions sexualized the organization, putting the focus on areas other than business networking.

But Connors and Hurlbut say there was the big picture to consider. Positioning “gay” and “lesbian” front and centre was not only an acknowledgment of the association’s true identity, but a means of making sure non-gay businesses couldn’t hide behind an innocuous name.

“If you’re a well-known brand,” says Hurlbut, “whether you’re Ford or Starbucks or whoever, and you want access to the gay market, but you are reticent about hanging your shingle on the word “gay” and “lesbian,” then you shouldn’t be there. You shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind an innocuous name, and GVBA was innocuous.”

Fast-forward to 2006 and the current debate and Wee’s arguments, with nuances here and there, could sound similar to those of the pro-change forces of 1995.

For Wee, the benefits of a name overhaul are two-fold: one, speaking to the need to tangibly demonstrate the association’s inclusiveness of the various communities within an evolving LGBT community; and the other, a recognition of the kind of re-branding opportunities that would present themselves in a contemporary marketplace that runs the gamut of small businesses and is thus quite different from the one of 20 or 30 years ago.

“Being specific, stepping up to the plate and saying this is who we are, and this is what we do, is important,” says Wee, who is transsexual. “The argument that we can still be the Gay and Lesbian Business Association but will include all other kinds doesn’t work for me. The stronger we stand up for who we are, better enables us to distinguish ourselves. Standing behind our core identity will make those who do business with us come back. And even if they don’t relate to us, at least they know what we stand for.”

Longtime members like Hurlbut admit that while “gay” was an inclusive name 20 or 30 years ago, over time it has come to mean male homosexuals, which then lead to a movement in which a number of organizations added the word “lesbian” to their titles. But there comes a point, he says, when adding more names becomes self-defeating.

“How many references can you put in before it becomes too cumbersome?” he asks. “Somebody else will always come along and say, ‘what about my particular inclination?’ Yes, there is an argument to be made that if you’re going to say gay and lesbian business association, you might as well add all of those other references. On the other hand, when the mainstream comes looking for the gay community they don’t use the alphabet soup approach. For them, the words gay and lesbian, and maybe bisexual, pop into their minds.”

While Connors and Hurlbut assert the need to honour diversity and inclusiveness, they see words like “spectrum” as nondescript and likely to create the “unforeseen consequence” of re-closeting the association.

Wee admits getting a lock on an all-encompassing designation was and still is difficult. But he rejects arguments the association will lose its audience with a change of name, saying this is a fear-based mentality. “This is the idea of what if, what if, what if. I’m not an unrealistic person, but if we choose to do things based on the fear of what could happen, we wouldn’t get anything done.”

Wee recalls asking, when he was first approached to join the GLBA, “Where is the T?”–to which he says the response was: “You can be the T.”

“That’s the glib way people still think about this. That that’s okay, you can still come. It reminds you of the old question: ‘Why would a gay person go to a straight bar?’ And getting the answer: ‘We don’t mind gay people, gay people are welcome.'”

Hurlbut says the GLBA has attempted to address ideas around diversity and inclusion in many ways. He points to the new and improved GLBA business directory with its switch to member photos which visually showcase the association’s diversity.

“I don’t think there is any objection to what a lot of members are trying to achieve in terms of coming up with creating a more diverse organization. I have no idea what will happen at the AGM in two weeks. But anyone with a vested interest in the outcome should make themselves available the day the question is asked.”

The GLBA’s members will get an opportunity to vote on the organization’s new name at their annual general meeting, May 16.