This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, which is widely considered the launching point of the modern gay rights movement. In this edition of Suite Talk, Business Journal reporter Phil Hall interviews John Pica-Sneeden, the executive director of the Connecticut Gay & Lesbian Chamber (CTGLC), a trade association supporting LGBT-owned businesses, workers and consumers within that community.
When did the CTGLC begin and why did it begin?
“It originally began in 2007 under the name Connecticut Alliance for Business Opportunities (CABO). When we began it, discrimination against LGBT people was very prevalent and major companies would discriminate against LGBT people. The group was started by a group of LGBT people, but as you can see there is no LGBT mentioned in the acronym or title. In 2014, they renamed it as the Connecticut Gay & Lesbian Chamber.
“The reason it was started was because they wanted a safe place where people could do business and not be discriminated against. For example, I will not mention the fast-food restaurant, but it has been in the news and their CEO has basically come out and said he funds and supports the anti-gay movement. Why would you go there as an LGBT person and give money to people who are discriminating against you? Now, are all of their franchises that way? No, but they are still paying into it.”
Who belongs to the CTGLC?
“Anybody. LGBT businesses and anybody that has a business who would offer a safe place for LGBT people to spend their money and know that it is supporting the community. And it gives them an opportunity to expand to a demographic that has money.
“We’re at 162 members. Thirty-five or 40 of that are nonprofits. We have a social media base at about 5,600 followers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn and we have about 1,700 on Constant Contact.”
The CTGLC has chapters in every county in the state. What is the activity like in your Fairfield County chapter?
“We just had a meeting down here about a month ago at the Triangle Community Center in Norwalk, and we’re trying to build a bigger base for the LGBT community down here to invest in. We had about 20 people — some were members and some were guests. We would like to get more of a following down here.
“Connecticut is the third-ranked state with the largest number of LGBT business owners. Massachusetts is No. 1 and California is No. 2. We have a large LGBT population in Connecticut and that is a great thing, but we need to have a level of support for business.”
What are some of the activities that the CTGLC coordinates?
“One of the things we do that we take a certain amount of pride in is not being involved in politics, because you never know and don’t really want to ask what peoples’ political points of view are. If you are Democrat, Republican, independent, liberal, conservative, it doesn’t really matter if you want to belong to the chamber.
“We don’t do a lot of social events. We usually have an expo, but I think we’re going to stop doing it because nobody shows up. I have talked to other heads from major chambers around the state and they still will put them on. But we attended others and I had a table at one that I won’t mention and I was twiddling my thumbs — it was extremely disappointing. There were people, but not masses of people.
“This year, probably in October, I am going to try to work on putting an event together for a web designer who is redoing our website to come in and have a PowerPoint demonstration of our website now, what he has been working on and the new one. I will probably have another event on cybersecurity.
“In 2020, we are planning fund-raising events for us and our nonprofit foundation, the CABO Foundation, which gives scholarships to LGBT and allied kids in high school. It will be a dinner dance and we will work with the Arthur Murray Studios, which is a member, and we will offer 10 lessons that we will pay for — but you have to sign a paper that you are going to perform that night. And people will bid. It gets people out. I can go to the dance and dance with my husband, and the girls can dance with their wives — and the straight people can dance. We don’t discriminate.”
Speaking of discrimination, are you receiving complaints about current harassment in Connecticut workplaces or retail outlets against the LGBT community?
“I haven’t heard of any here or in the Northeast. A lot of the corporations I talk to are very welcoming and very eager to partner with or join with the chamber. But if you are looking at the rest of the country, absolutely. In the Midwest and the South, the discrimination is rampant there.”
Connecticut can be a challenging place to do business. Do you hear complaints about the state’s business climate from the chamber members?
“Yes and no. For small business, no. For big corporations, yes. Our small businesses are thriving here in spite of the taxes or whatever things are. But the corporate taxes are what’s killing the larger companies.”
This month, a lot of people are looking back at the past 50 years since Stonewall. What do you want to see in the 50 years ahead of us?
“My hope would be that we don’t have to continue fighting, although I doubt that would ever happen. But I would love to see not so much an acceptance of the lifestyle, but an intellectual understanding that there is nothing wrong with LGBT people. It is not a disease. It is not a stigma. It is something to embrace. And if you are an LGBT person, embrace your difference and do not be afraid of it. And remember where we came from and why we had to fight. There is a shirt I saw on Facebook that said ‘The first Pride was a riot.’ ”