President George A. Kalogridis and the quiet evolution of LGBT culture at Walt Disney World

By : Kirk Hartlage
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This summer’s historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality was indeed a watershed moment for the LGBT community. Before the last piece of celebratory confetti had hit the ground, civil rights leaders were quick to point out that the fight for complete equality is not yet over. While gays and lesbians can now legally wed in all 50 states – well, with the exception of that one Kentucky county where the local clerk is dragging her heels in a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – there are still 31 states that lack protections for LGBT workers. Indeed, it’s possible that a Florida lesbian can marry her wife on Saturday, have it announced in Sunday’s newspaper, and be fired on the basis of sexual orientation at work on Monday.

That, most likely, appears to be the movement’s next big fight: securing non-discrimination protections in the workplace throughout the entire country instead of less than half of it.

Every battle has its front-line activists rallying the troops, who, by their very nature, typically receive the most attention simply because they are in the foreground. But oftentimes it’s the quiet leaders in the back who truly steer the drive to victory. Intentional or not, one of those quiet leaders creating change appears to be Central Florida’s very own Walt Disney World – the largest single-site employer in the nation. And at its helm, since January, 2013, is its openly gay president, George A. Kalogridis. Without a doubt, Kalogridis is the most powerful gay man in Central Florida.

Now, the Disney folks are likely quick to point out that when it comes to hot-button political issues, they are by no means rabble-rousers. You’ll sooner see publicity photos and advertisements about a new attraction at the resort than you will, say, an announcement about the company’s support of something controversial like giving two men who love each other the legal right to marry. But the Walt Disney Company was, in fact, one of nearly 400 companies that quietly signed a “friend of the court” brief filed with the Supreme Court prior to their hearing arguments on the case for same-sex marriage.

Disney, however, was not one of the many companies that issued rainbow-ed logos or chants of “love wins” on social media the weekend of the Supreme Court ruling. It didn’t stop cast members and other supporters from posting their own pictures of iconic WDW structures lit in rainbow hues. So, no, those pics of Cinderella’s Castle or Space Mountain were not new or for Gay Day; Disney officials say they were most likely from previous Magic Kingdom nighttime special events, such as Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, Grad Night, and the Spectro-Magic parade.

As for the LGBT community at large, WDW is a constant presence at Central Florida’s Come Out With Pride parade and AIDS Walk Orlando. And you can’t get to 25 years of a non-Disney-sanctioned event like Gay Days – as was just celebrated in June – without some type of support from the local LGBT community.

When it comes to its LGBT employees – “cast members” in Disney-speak – the corporation is indeed doing the “right” things: the Human Rights Campaign consistently awards Disney with a perfect score in its Corporate Equality Index, which rates American workplaces on LGBT equality. Disney receives top marks for its employment benefits for workers and their spouses/partners, as well as offering transgender-inclusive health insurance. Also considered in HRC’s scoring system is a company’s public commitment to, and responsible citizenship towards, its LGBT employees.

Disney has also partnered with Out and Equal, the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to achieving LGBT workplace equality. For nearly two decades, Out and Equal has collaborated with Fortune 1000 companies and government agencies to provide a safe, welcoming and supportive environment for LGBT employees. The Walt Disney Company is one of the group’s top-tier presenting partners and Kalogridis serves on Out and Equal’s Board of Directors.

Last month, Disney sponsored Out and Equal’s Equality Institute at WDW’s Coronado Springs Resort. The day-long seminar brought over 650 business men and women from 300 different organizations together to share strategies and build networks in the effort to create and build workplace equality. It’s all a precursor to Out and Equal’s annual Summit, a four-day conference for companies big and small looking to put their corporate commitments of diversity into action through developing policies and programs that lead to equitable work environments. This year that all takes place in Dallas, Texas, come October with an expected attendance of over 3500; the 2016 Summit will be hosted by Walt Disney World at the Swan and Dolphin and the Yacht and Beach Resorts.

Selisse Berry, founder and CEO of Out and Equal, says the focus of Institute was on medium and smaller sized businesses, particularly those in the South, an area that “still has a little ways to go” with LGBT workplace equality. One particular challenge of the region is a higher-than-average number of workplaces where many employees come from a very religious anti-gay placewho don’t want to go against their beliefs.

“We’re not trying to change beliefs,” Berry says, “We’re saying if you’re going to work in this workplace you have to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”

Another challenge Out and Equal has faced is from corporations hoping to use their participation with the organization as an opportunity tomonopolize their industry’s shareon the LGBT market. Berry says she’s often approached by airlines or credit cards, for example, looking to be the only airline or credit card involved with Outand Equal.

“We have to help them understand that the work we’re doing is really about bringing everyone on board,” Berry says. “We’ve had situations at our Summits where the Target employees and the Wal-Mart employees are talking, saying, ‘How did you get that done?’ They’re learning from each other, setting aside any differences trying to figure out how to make their workplace a little safer place for LGBT people.”

At the Institute, Berry also spoke of the importance of enjoying the moment that marriage equality has passed, but recognizing that the fight for complete equality is not yet over.

“Marriage equality levels the playing field because everyone is talking about it,” Berry says. “People are realizing its time to get on the right side of history. It also allows us to shine the spotlight on the fact that we can now get married in all 50 states but still be fired in a majority of them. The workplace is really the next frontier.”

Disney likely saw last month’s one-day event as a practice run for next year’s multi-day convention. Resort president Kalogridis called it a success.

“It absolutely accomplished our goal,” Kalogridis said in a rare interview that was also his first with the LGBT media since becoming WDW’s president. “The intent of the conference was to say, this isn’t the only way to look at LGBT policies and environments. It was, here’s the way we’re doing it and we’re happy to share that. Hopefully we can engage those companies with Out and Equal in an ongoing dialogue in the future.”

Kalogridis says many attendees already have protective policies in place; the pressing issue becomes how to take the next step into implementing proactive procedures.

“In our particular case we have our own internal training,” Kalogridis says. But many companies don’t necessarily have the ability to do that.”

Kalogridis became a Disney cast member fresh out of high school in 1971; he’s seen numerous changes in the overall acceptance of gays and lesbians, both at work and throughout society.

“Obviously the generation that I grew up in, being openly gay was not nearly as mainstream as it is today,” Kalogridis says. “When I joined Disney it was probably my first exposure to people that were gay, or that I was aware of before. From the very beginning there was always an environment that was, in my opinion, safe.”

Until it wasn’t. In an essay published in “Out and Equal at Work: From Closet to Corner Office,” Kalogridis describes how Gay Day protest plans in the late 1990’s threatened his personal safety.

“Disney security became aware of a message posted on a website belonging to an extreme-right Christian group, advertising the fact that I was gay and telling people how to get to my office,” Kalogridis writes.

“Prior to then I never felt that being gay was something I would have to worry about,” Kalogridis says today. “I didn’t talk about it, but I didn’t hide it. And it’s sort of like that now. It’s part of who I am, but I don’t come to work and act like a gay leader. I am gay and I am a leader. And I think that’s the right way to do it.”

As for changes to company policies regarding the fair and equal treatment of LGBT employees and other corporate commitments to diversity that have been made throughout his tenure, Kalogridis quickly gives credit where it’s due.

“In the last 10 to 15 years in particular, a commitment to diversity has been something that (Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO) Bob Iger is keenly aware of, focused on, and clear about– not just from sexual orientation but diversity in everything,” Kalogridis says. The former busboy-turned-exec admits that it hasn’t always been that way. He points to a story shared by one Disney cast member who spoke at last month’s Institute. Working at Disneyland in the late 1980’s, the cast member was informed by his manager that he was not going to receive a promotion because “the powers that be” thought he was gay.

“That would not happen today, for sure,” Kalogridis says.

Kalogridis recognizes the importance of being out at work, something he says Outand Equal encourages.

“We work with companies to help other executives feel comfortable to come out because there are many of our employees who are watching, and they’re taking the lead from us,” Kalogridis says. “If I am out then I’m sending a message to our employees it’s safe to be out. They can trust that I’m going to do everything possible to ensure that it’s a safe environment for them.”

Cast member Heather Boyd discovered that safe environment first hand when she announced she was transgender to her coworkers just a few days before she transitioned this past May. In meetings with her area management team and coworkers, Boyd prepared them for the upcoming changes, covering topics of pronoun use, and how she may need her coworkers to step in when another cast member or guest was unwilling to work with her.

By the end of the presentation, Boyd says she was emotionally spent and near tears. She closed with telling the room that, come the next day, they could call her “Heather.” Head bowed, trying to collect her thoughts, and on the edge of crying – much like she is when relaying this story today – she heard someone clapping. Then more applause. And as if straight out of a Disney movie, the room gave Boyd a standing ovation.

“It was so touching and so emotional,” Boyd says. “Everybody here has been just incredible. I can’t believe how well I’ve been accepted. Although a lot of companies have diversity programs, and talk about diversity, we live it here. We live diversity. We live it every day.”

Like Kalogridis, Boyd has made a career working for Disney. She started with the company in 1978 while still in high school, has worked a variety of roles during her tenure, and is currently a Guest Services Manager with the resort’s Transportation department. She shared her story to a captive audience at the Institute.

“It made me very proud,” Kalogridis says of Boyd’s presentation. “For a lot of those companies, the transgender community is the one that’s probably the least understood.” Kalogridis says Boyd’s speech allowed attendees to see one way of how a company can work with a transgender employee in transition; the goal is that attendees will turn to Out and Equal as a resource moving forward, because they’re the organization collecting information on how other participating companies resolve those issues.

Besides working with WDW HR representatives, Boyd also received assistance from the company’s Diversity and Inclusion department. Members of that team made presentations to transportation salaried staff to help the other managers understand company policies and procedures. That division of the company serves as internal consultants for the various business units within the Disney organization, making sure they have the tools and resources needed when dealing with matters of diversity.

The DandI department also oversees eight employee diversity resource groups,each dedicated to a different population represented in the resort’s workforce. Among them: those of Hispanic and Latino heritage; those of African and Caribbean descent; Asians and Pacific Islanders; and those with disabilities. The LGBT employee group is aptly named PRIDE: People Respecting Individual Diversities in Everyone.

The group is active beyond WDW’s borders. PRIDE hosts an annual mixer with Central Florida’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the Metropolitan Business Association. They’re also responsible for those must-have mini Mouse Ears hats that have become commonplace at the yearly Come Out With Pride parade. The group partnered with other divisions within the Walt Disney Company to produce an “It Gets Better” video as part of The Trevor Project’s campaign against bullying. Released in December, 2011, the video opens with a then-Disneyland Resort President George Kalogridis addressing “anyone who has ever been bullied, teased, or harassed for being different.”

And if you’ve ever wondered just how all those red t-shirts and rainbow tchotchkes and treats “magically” appear at the front of nearly every Magic Kingdom merchandise shop each first Saturday of June, you have Disney World’s own gay and lesbian employees to thank, in part. Disney officials say PRIDE members have provided feedback and perspective on food andbeverage product offered during Gay Days; the group has also engaged in theme park merchandise product review for development of souvenirs designed to resonate with the LGBT community.

With recent legal changes and growing public acceptance, Disney should be able to expand its external marketing efforts to the gay and lesbian community at large.

Orlando and Walt Disney World are among the top tourism destinations in the world. But according to the 2014 LGBT Tourism and Hospitality Survey by Community Marketing Inc., Orlando didn’t even crack the top ten when responders were asked what destinations had done the best job outreaching to the LGBT community over the last year. The good news is that Orlando ranked highest as a vacation destination for LGBT families with children

It may have been a missed opportunity by not issuing an official ROY-G-BIV-ed image of Cinderella’s Castle when same-sex marriage was legalized. But it also kept the company from appearing to jump on the bandwagon and from deciding just how long to leave the image up once the topic stops trending. As it turned out, the company took the same hands-off approach publicly with marriage equality as it has with Gay Day, and gotten the same effect: there’s no need for Mickey to get involved and do it himself when there are plenty of Disneyphiles who will.

Yes, even at 25 and counting, Disney World has yet to fully embrace Gay Days Weekend. But it now seems more possible than ever that the Mouse House could someday soon commit to the annual celebration by throwing its own LGBT parties and events as it does with Night of Joy, its contemporary Christian music festival. Utilizing the All-Star Sports Resort as a host hotel for lesbians and Wilderness Lodge as base camp for bears seem like no-brainers that would certainly give Gay Day weekend organizers from Girls in Wonderland and Tidal Wave a run for their money.

And though Disney has offered commitment ceremonies to same-sex couples since 2007, with marriage equality now the law of the land, more concerted efforts such as LGBT-specific marketing by Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings group could be in store… though when asked why the wedding group doesn’t do much marketing of any kind, a Disney insider familiar with the overwhelming demand for on-property ceremonies said, “They don’t have to.”

Still, the Mouse is making strides, big and small. Working with Visit Florida, Disney World partnered with Universal Orlando and SeaWorld on an ad buy that went into select LGBT magazines and Web sites. And without any fanfare, the Nikon Picture Spot at EPCOT’s Germany pavilion now features a male couple with kids in its featured photo. It’s been up without comment or controversy since July. Of last year.

(We can only imagine the German pavilion was chosen for the inaugural gay photo as the country is no stranger to the concept of persecution.)

Small, subtle changes like that are reflective of how Disney finds ways to incorporate its diverse audience. And while it may not be subtle to host and throw an event dedicated to making every workplace in the country a safe and welcoming one for LGBT workers, the repercussions of sponsoring next year’s Out and Equal Summit could ultimately find Disney having a far bigger impact on workplace equality becoming law. With Disney’s assistance, Out and Equal may be focused on companies changing from within, but the potential political ramifications of internal corporate policies overflowing into governmental law can’t be denied.

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