By AJ Trager
AUBURN HILLS – In a decade where not all employees receive domestic partner benefits let alone healthcare for themselves, Chrysler has been taking the lead in appreciating the diversity of its LGBT employees and their loved ones.
For National Coming Out Day held Oct. 11, six cars, vibrantly colored from each end of the rainbow, were spread out in the heart of Chrysler's Tech Plaza. The display symbolized the inclusion and continued acceptance of the LGBT members at the company, in addition to the Gay And Lesbian Alliance's (GALA) Faces of GALA exhibition, showing off the faces and stories of some Chrysler LGBTA employees.
In 2000, along with GM and Ford, Chrysler began offering same-sex partner benefits to its employees. Eight years later, the company began covering medically necessary care for its trans employees. And this month, Chrysler continues to show its support of the LGBT community by displaying the LGBT flag, not only outside its company entrance, but also inside Tech Plaza with the rainbow car display, for the few days prior to National Coming Out Day.
"Right away, I knew that there was something different about this place and the culture. It still has that small company feel, but it is still very inclusive and accepting. I didn't even know Chrysler had an LGBT group when I started here, but something kept attracting me to that, so I eventually found out and applied to be a part of the group," said Tyler Slasinski, designer and lease engineer for steering of the Fiat 500 and a future Jeep program.
Slasinski has been with Chrysler for two-and-a-half years and sees Chrysler as a leader in LGBT workplace inclusion. He is proud to work for a company that "supports who you are and what you are all about."
Slasinski is joined by roughly 70 other active Chrysler employees and retirees who are members of the Employee Resource Group, GALA, whose mission is to "promote an inclusive culture within Chrysler through education and awareness, and to provide support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons through business and networking activities."
His coworker, Arana Long, has been with the company for 26 years. She is an active ally for the LGBT community and says that she has seen Chrysler and GALA go through a lot of change over the years.
"When the group first started, the focus was quite different. I'd say it was more foundational, with things like health benefits and domestic partner equality – all of it that many companies didn't have years ago, and Chrysler did have. So getting those put in place. Now it's really shifted into what the culture is. It had to go beyond just policies," Long said.
Doing the math, that meant that Long was a part of Chrysler before Melissa Etheridge came out as a lesbian, before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was enacted, before the beginning of DOMA and then the eventual strike down of DOMA. Long has seen the evolution of LGBT legal rights develop into the strong movement it is today.
The Faces of GALA exhibit showcases LGBTA Chrysler members and their stories. Greg Hawkins, process development engineer and chair of GALA, is one of those faces. He has been with Chrysler for four years and became a GALA officer one year after starting with the company.
"One of the primary goals is to lead us from being an ERG (Employee Resource Group) to more like a BRG (Business Resource Group) where we connect the activities of the resource group to the ultimate goals of the corporation. So we began to provide not only value to Chrysler, but we began to tap into that value that is there," Hawkins said.
Providing the company with visible LGBT members allows the faces and voices of GALA to be proud of where they work, because they can be visibly out, Hawkins said.
For eight years, Chrysler has received a 100 percent rating on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index. It is one of the most longstanding scores for auto manufacturers and currently the only auto signee to the Michigan Workforce Coalition.
"What that does is provide servitude for LGBT families who, when they move here, want to know if they will have benefits. They want to know that their company isn't going to fire them for being LGBT. They want to know all these things with certainty, and it does that not only for Chrysler but also for Michigan in general," Hawkins pressed.
Throughout the year, GALA strives to stay active in LGBT affairs such as Motor City Pride, where they host a big float in the Pride Parade, along with monthly meetings with other auto ERGs from GM and Ford. In those meetings, the ERGs talk policy and help each other become experts in certain areas while working to understand the current struggles of the LGBT community.
"We are making sure that employees understand that Chrysler not only supports them internally but also externally – that is a reality. So it's important that we have that message as well," Hawkins said.
The group holds board meetings once a month and membership meetings at least twice a year. The Faces of GALA exhibit was one of their largest undertakings. Members spoke about the idea for years and have, in the past, used LGBT celebrities to showcase inclusion in the company. This year, they decided to put themselves out there and show that these are employees who are within the company, who are also out and successful as LGBT members of the community. Each poster has a coming out story, whether it is from an ally or from Hawkins, describing his love of snowboarding and his love for his husband.
The entire LGBT community does not yet have the luxury of being out at work. Michigan has yet to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes of the state's non-discrimination law – but at Chrysler, it's OK to be out. Coming out is a process that is done often, if not daily, in the home and at work.
"They are exactly different and exactly the same. You're still worried about how you are going to be perceived, and you're still a little bit scared about being yourself. But at Chrysler, you don't have to actually worry, because the company really cares about you being you. You want to make world class products for people just like us. Being able to put a picture of your spouse on your desk is a small gesture, but is something that the company encourages and it affects our bottom line," said Ryan Joyce, senior designer for Jeep brand interiors.
Joyce has been an employee for seven years and a GALA board member for three and a half.
"It's grand gestures like this gigantic rainbow vehicle display in the heart of Tech Plaza that reminds me that this is a company that cares about the LGBT workforce and the diversity of the entire company as well. They want you to feel included and encouraged. So it's good to know that you are judged by the quality of your work and there aren't any limits – just what you put forward," Joyce said.
"I'm trying to decide if my desk is too gay. Now I have to ask my friends when they stop by if my desk is too gay," Hawkins laughed.
Being free to be out and authentically oneself at work relieves a lot of stressors that many face elsewhere. Many have to hide who they are or change pronouns for loved ones when they are telling their weekend stories to coworkers. But if big companies such as Chrysler, which employs 15,000 people (in Auburn Hills), continue to show support and make strides for LGBT employees, the possible innovations and creations made from LGBT people comfortable at work, and safe from discrimination, could be endless.