Six months ago, Stuart Milk invited me to speak at a Cross Atlantic Global Summit (CAGS) on diversity and economic prosperity sponsored by the Harvey Milk Foundation. The foundation, named after Stuart's iconic Uncle, works to foster equality around the world, and particularly in areas where LGBT youth are at risk.
As president of the Metropolitan Business Association, Orlando's LGBT Chamber of Commerce, I readily accepted. But as the Oct. 4 date approached, I learned that the event was much more than I first believed.
First, it would be held in Milan, Italy. Second, there would be representatives from all over the world attending and speaking. And finally, this was a big deal for Italy, covered by multiple media outlets and with far-reaching political ramifications.
During a phone call a few days before the conference, Stuart casually dropped that 500 to 1,000 people would attend. Because of all the nations and languages represented, most be wearing headphones and many would have assigned interpreters. Think the U.N. General Assembly and you have an idea.
Stuart is a master of understatement, but the picture slowly downloaded for me. This would be an extraordinary event, and I was honored to be invited.
CAGS was presented by “ALL, Everybody and Together,” an Italian civil rights group conceived by Equality Italia Milano and Rosaria Iardino, a Milan politician and civil rights expert. In addition to representing The Harvey Milk Foundation, Stuart also appeared as “official Surrogate for President Obama.” CAGS co-sponsors included the Senate of the Republic of Deputies, Chamber of Deputies, the US Consulate General in Milan, the Equal Opportunities Committee of the Universita' Commerciale L. Bocconi and the Italian National Office Against Racial Discriminations.
The event was promoted in Italy, somewhat loftily, as “a new approach to the promotion and safeguarding of human rights through inclusion of differences and diversities in the pursuit of economic prosperity. “
I arrived in beautiful Milan at 6:30 a.m. the day before the Summit, and was promptly whisked to my hotel by a gorgeous Italian man who spoke not a word of English. Before I had unpacked, I was informed that Stuart wanted me to accompany him to a pre-summit meeting of equality advocacy groups operating in Italy. Not surprisingly, there had been in-fighting over strategies to best facilitate progress. I speculated that a few egos might be involved as well. The meeting was to ensure support for the Summit from all of the organizations represented.
Knowing his knack for understatement, I was concerned when Stuart told me the meeting could be “contentious.” It turned out to be the highlight of my trip.
At Rosaria's office, I sat as the leaders of the many pro-equality groups across Italy assembled. And as the meeting progressed, I recognized similarities with some of the ways we have grown and matured as a community in Orlando. Drawn into the discussion, I told them about the “Equality Through Economics” model that has worked so well here.
I outlined how our many LGBT groups came together to form the Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Alliance (OADO), and how each organization assumed a different role in the push for equality. I described the strong financial demographics of our local LGBT community, and how our outreach to major companies led to the formation and growth of Employee Resource Groups within them.
I shared how we made these companies aware of the HRC Corporate Equality Index, and noted their positive reaction as their own employees became involved in local equality initiatives. Some of these companies created more open and welcoming social environments where their employees could foster social and creative connections.
I explained that many of these companies have now formed productive partnerships with local LGBT organizations. In turn, these partnerships influence elected officials as we pushed social equality measures through city and county government.
I expressed my belief that social equality has now become a standard business model among major corporations in Central Florida. As a result, it's become easier to convince elected officials to act accordingly. In Orlando, a foundation of economic development has led to social change, and the local LGBT community is making real progress toward equality.
Even though we were using interpreters, the Italian activists listened attentively and expressed admiration for the lessons we have learned and the progress we have made.
At the end of the meeting, Rosaria hugged me and said, “Gina, you may have made a difference in Italy today.”