'We will get through Donald Trump.' Companies at Philly conference vow to protect LGBT employees

More than 4,000 people have convened at the Out & Equal Workplace Advocates Summit at the Pennsylvania Convention Center this week to discuss how companies can protect LGBT employees from workplace discrimination. The opening day featured music and speeches from businesses and Mayor Kenney.

Squeezed into seats and standing against the back walls in a hot and stuffy room at the Convention Center, more than 150 people watched a PowerPoint presentation display a relentless timeline of Trump administration challenges to LGBT people’s rights.

There was July 26, when Trump vowed to bar transgender people from serving in the military; Sept. 7, when his administration defended a Colorado baker who had refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple; Oct. 4, when the Justice Department — reversing the Obama administration’s policy — said federal civil rights law does not protect transgender people​ from workplace discrimination.

“Every day we get hit with new and depressing news,” said Michelle E. Phillips, a White Plains, N.Y., lawyer who specializes in employment law and LGBT issues.

Such events created a sense of urgency at the Out and Equal Workplace Advocates Summit, which brought more than 4,000 people to Philadelphia this week to talk about what companies should do to protect LGBT employees, particularly as the administration takes steps to remove safeguards. At least 100 companies, including Comcast, Aramark, and Wawa, sponsored the summit, which ended Thursday.

Among attendees, the disdain toward Trump was no secret.

“This is one of the most difficult times that I remember in my lifetime in this country,” Mayor Kenney told summit participants Tuesday. “The last time I felt so unsteady was 1968, when I was 10 years old and the world seemed to be coming apart, like it is today. But the thing I know about 1968 is, we got out of it. We got through it.”

Then he dropped a line that drew resounding applause: “And we will get through Donald Trump.”

Inside Room 121B, people shook their heads upon hearing tales of discrimination — from a boss who considered an employee a “butch” lesbian and said women shouldn’t have short hair, to coworkers who feared sharing a bathroom with transgender colleagues.

Phillips, who counsels companies on how to address inappropriate comments made by their employees, said the transgender topic in particular has caused employees in some companies to scoff.

“Over my dead body,” was one person’s response, she said. Another suggested transgender people put a sign on the door when they use the restroom, so everyone would know.

“I try and understand what’s going on for people, because it’s so strong, the reactions,” Phillips said. “What’s the fear?”

Companies can prevent discrimination — or at least reduce the likelihood of it — by having clear and inclusive diversity policies and continually educating employees, she said. Transgender employees, for example, should be addressed by the correct pronoun and preferred name.

Balancing beliefs is also important, Phillips said: While a company shouldn’t force employees to partake in religious activities or take a stance on LGBT issues, it should require those who disagree to respect one another.

“You don’t have to be best friends with someone,” she said. “But you do have to respect them.”

The majority of Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the number of businesses creating such policies is growing rapidly, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, has taken the opposite approach. In court papers filed in July in the federal case of a skydiving instructor who alleged he was fired for being gay, the Justice Department argued that federal civil rights law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. (The Justice Department doubled down on that argument this month when it said federal civil rights law does not protect transgender people from workplace discrimination.)

Matthew Edgar, 50, a Colorado man who attended the Philadelphia conference, said he was amazed by the constant back-and-forth debate in courts on LGBT rights, and particularly the administration’s actions.

“I don’t know what they think they’re trying to accomplish at this point,” he said. “Just let people live their lives.”