The History of GM PLUS, GM’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Employee Affinity Group

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By Kevin Luedtke, GM PLUS Communications Officer

To most GM employees, it has probably never occurred to them that there have always been lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people working at GM. Even in the days of Billy Durant and Alfred Sloan, there were LGBT people working at GM. Our workforce has always reflected the larger world around us – although admittedly not always in an accurate proportion – so LGBT people have not necessarily felt safe to be open about their orientation. But since 1993, there has been an employee affinity group (also known as an employee resource group) that has actively campaigned for equal treatment and safe, accepting working conditions for all GM employees. That group would eventually become known as GM PLUS.


The Origins of GM’s LGBT Employee Group

Today, GM PLUS (People Like US) is known as the affinity group for direct, contract and retired employees of GM Corporation, its subsidiaries and affiliates, in support of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) workplace equality. To my knowledge, I am currently the longest-standing member of GM PLUS, and have become its unofficial historian. As much as I would like to claim that I was “present at the creation,” I didn’t learn about the new group until several months after it started up.

Sometime in early 1993, a salaried employee from the GM Building in Detroit founded a gay employees group. It was established as an informal social networking and mutual support group, and had no immediate focus or agenda.

Unfortunately, within months, the founding employee decided to take a position with Ameritech in Chicago, and the fledgling group was effectively rudderless. Believing that the existence of such a group was still important, the helm was soon taken over by a manager from the Cadillac Motor Car Division, who was one of four Manager-level gay male employees at Cadillac that served as a stable nucleus for the nascent group.

The group gradually began to gel. The first formal meetings took place at Affirmations Lesbian & Gay Community Center in Ferndale MI, and the numbers began to grow slowly through word-of-mouth.

The need for such an organization was apparent even as the organization was electing its first officers in 1994. There was a lot of fear among some members that taking an outspoken stand in favor of gay rights could possibly lead to blacklisting or termination. The group's treasurer did not want their name to appear on any documents – not even on bank statements or checks.

It was during this time that the group adopted the name GM PLUS, which stood for "People Like US."

During these early years, GM PLUS was mostly male, and it had a decidedly inward focus. It remained mostly as a social and support group.


The Environment Begins to Change

Meanwhile, positive things started to happen at GM that were still external to PLUS. During 1994, Saab made history by becoming the first automaker to buy advertising nationally in a gay publication, with ad buys in both The Advocate and in Genre. In 1995, GM modified its training materials to acknowledge that sexual harassment may occur between two people of the same sex. Also that year, the infant Saturn brand ran the first-ever automotive advertisement in a national LGBT magazine – one issue of OUT. A female safety engineer appeared in a man's tuxedo next to her air bag systems to enjoy her "fifteen minutes of fame," but according to the ad copy, her "fame" only lasts 1/10th of a second – the length of time it takes for an air bag to deploy. Saturn's pioneer ad only ran once in the one magazine, but like Apple's iconic "1984" ad, it is still well-remembered.

1996 marked our first joint efforts with our local sister Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Ford GLOBE (Gay, Lesbian Or Bisexual Employees) and Chrysler POD (People of Diversity) joined with PLUS to inaugurate the monthly Big Three Coffee Socials.

Also during 1996, Allan Gilmour retired as Vice Chairman and Chief Financial Officer of the Ford Motor Company. In December, in an article in the Michigan LGBT paper Between The Lines, Mr. Gilmour came out publicly as a gay man. This story was picked up by Automotive News and the national media, and was perhaps the first widespread acknowledgement of the fact that there were LGBT people at the automotive companies.

1997 was very significant in two ways. In October, Public Policy Vice President Rod Gillum and Director of Diversity Initiatives/GM Foundation President Lorna Utley start to lay out a new GM diversity policy. Committees of executives were established for each of the proposed ERGs or "affinity groups," one of which was a "gay & lesbian" group.

While 1998 didn’t see many changes at GM PLUS, GM Chairman Jack Smith unveiled a key piece of the Corporation’s Core Values, a foundational element of Diversity Initiatives. Smith introduced GM’s sixth Core Value: “Individual Respect and Responsibility.”


The Transformation to an Agent of Change Begins

1999 was a year of great change for GM and GM PLUS. First, sexual orientation was added to the GM non-discrimination policy.

The ERG study groups that were started in late 1997 submitted their final reports to Gillum and Utley. The conclusions reached by the gay & lesbian group directly lead to GM PLUS being recognized as one of eight official affinity groups by GM.

Saab began sponsoring The Advocate Poll, an online poll for readers of The Advocate magazine. This advertising relationship lasted for several years.

During 2000, GM, Ford, Chrysler and the UAW jointly announced the auto industry’s first same-sex domestic partner health care benefits. Also, the affinity groups at GM were assigned their first Leadership Liaisons, most of who were from senior Corporate leadership. GM PLUS’ initial Leadership Liaison was the vice president of Global Human Resources.

Finally, GM PLUS began to become more diverse itself, in that we gained our first lesbian on the Board.

2001 started out as a much quieter year than 2000 had been, and GM PLUS was in an acclimation phase. PLUS began to host tables at PrideFest (later Motor City Pride) and at the Michigan Pride March & Festival in Lansing. Also of note was that Saab was a Festival Level sponsor of the 2001 Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, held in October.

GM PLUS took a big step forward by sending one person to join representatives from Ford GLOBE and DaimlerChrysler POD at the 2002 Out & Equal Annual Workplace Summit in Orlando. Out & Equal is the leading organization advocating for LGBT workplace equality, and the Workplace Summit is a multi-day event where ERG members can attend seminars and share best practices in creating positive workplace change.

It was also during 2002 that GM PLUS membership exceeded 100 for the very first time.

The entire GM PLUS Board attended the 2003 Out & Equal Annual Workplace Summit in Minneapolis. Among the many ideas we learned at Out & Equal was the basis for the “Can We Talk?” fishbowl exercise. The technique helps executives to listen and learn, and assists in "putting a face on LGBT." It was used by the members of the Eastman Kodak LGBT ERG, who put on a demonstration of it at the Summit.

Another interesting event for 2003 was the premiere of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Bravo TV. Significant for GM was the fact that a GMC Yukon Denali was seen in every opening sequence for the next 5 years.

The Yukon Denali and the Fab Five were also featured in a cover story in Ward's Automotive magazine on the topic of marketing to the LGBT community. This was the first time that LGBT marketing had been featured and discussed in an automotive industry publication.

The membership of GM PLUS grew to 140 members during 2003.

As the Board picked up more and more knowledge from Out & Equal and as GM Diversity Initiatives encouraged us to become more and more active, PLUS became very busy for2004. GM PLUS began attending diversity media events at various large auto shows, starting with the 2004 Chicago Auto Show.

We also produced our first "Can We Talk?" for our executive leadership, starting with GM's head of global human resources and about a dozen of her staff. The experience was enlightening, educational, and eye-opening, and paved the way for further discussions with other key GM leadership groups. Other firsts for the year included the first LGBT market research conducted by GM Global Market & Industry Analysis, the industry's first ride and drive exclusively for LGBT journalists, hosted by GM's West Coast region, and the first annual PlanetOut Entrepreneur of the Year Award, sponsored by Cadillac.

GM PLUS membership reached 150 in 2004, and as a result of our learnings at the Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Tempe, the Board decided to add "Bisexual and Transgender" to the logo and to the focus of GM PLUS.

2005 was another blockbuster year for GM PLUS. Sexual orientation was added to GM's proprietary Buyer Behavior survey, the second annual West Coast LGBT journalist ride & drive event was held in San Francisco, Cadillac ads began to appear on gay.com, and members of the GM PLUS Board met with GM’s marketing chief Mark LaNeve to discuss LGBT marketing strategy.

A huge announcement for our Greater Detroit area LGBT community was the General Motors Foundation’s $250,000 donation to the Capital Campaign for a new Affirmations Lesbian & Gay Community Center building. Ford and DaimlerChrysler announced their own donations in the same amount. Each of the $250,000 donations marked the largest gifts by a Fortune 500 company to an LGBT organization.

The work that the Board initiated with GM Global Human Resources, and assisted by our Leadership Liaison, Global Vice President of HR, Katy Barclay, paid off greatly during 2006. The official addition of gender identity and gender expression to the GM non-discrimination policy enabled GM to score a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index for the first time. The award was announced in September at the Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Chicago. The Summit was attended by the GM PLUS Board and our new Leadership Liaison, Vice President of North American HR, Bill Tate.

Other highlights of 2006 included the hosting of the third annual West Coast LGBT journalist ride & drive event in Laguna Beach CA, GM PLUS membership exceeded 200 people, and Will & Grace broadcast its final new episode.

2007 turned out to be another banner year for GM PLUS. GM made the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, for the first time, at #34. GM also provided formal support for the transgender-inclusive version of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

Cadillac launched its (and GM's) first targeted gay ad, in what commercialcloset.org would call the "gay-vague" category. Two young men wearing South Florida club clothes were photographed paparazzi-style at night, leaving in a DTS sedan. The ad ran first in Instinct magazine, and also in the Cadillac & LaSalle Club's monthly newsletter. The ad was featured on Commercial Closet, along with an interview with Cadillac's national advertising manager. The ad was also highlighted on the "premium blog for modern gay men," Towleroad.com

GM retained its perfect 100 score on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, and was listed as one of the "Best Places to Work for GLBT Equality" by HRC.

GM PLUS decided to add "Allies" to the logo and to the focus of our group, and 2007 also marked our first attempt to promote National Coming Out Day at GM.

Significantly, in our 2008 elections held in November, the members of GM PLUS elected their first straight ally to the Board, as well as its first two transgender people.


The Future

As you can see, GM PLUS has already had a long and illustrious history, but the story of PLUS is far from over. There is much education and bridge building that remains to be done in support of our mission, which is to act as a research, marketing, educational and advocacy resource for GM and its subsidiaries and affiliates, on topics relevant to the LGBT and allied community. Our vision is that all GM employees feel safe, respected, valued and supported in their workplace. LGBT and allied employees will work in an inclusive environment that will enable them to contribute fully to GM’s business success. GM PLUS works with its fellow affinity groups through the GM Diversity Council to help everyone to implement and reap the benefits of that vision.

As GM Diversity Initiatives so aptly and succinctly puts it, “Many People, One GM… NOW.”


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