I once had a small pet grooming business, selling my services to the public in a smallish town in California. For five years in the mid-2000s, I engaged with potential and active clients, advertised my business, and built positive relationships…without disclosing the fact that I was gay.
During that time, I felt that it was risky to be an “out” small business owner, even in sunny, tolerant California. I had heard stories of anonymous or direct threats and insults, and even property damage, happening to “out” entrepreneurs. Had I reached out to investors to expand my business, I probably would have stayed closeted with them, as well. I dared not be open, or refer to my partner freely, for fear of a bad reaction and/or lost income. It was a painful situation to be in — to know that I would have to risk it all in order to be honest and truly myself with my clients and local community.
Well, times have changed, and I am now legally married and “out” to everyone I know, as are many of my peers in the LGBTQ community. Although there is still some degree of hesitation to be out when dealing with our small businesses, there is a bit of relief that comes as an LGBTQ business owner and with the discovery that I feel (generally) safe from judgement and repercussions from my customers.
That relief is increasing as we gain more and more support for our rights from the American public and attract allies who speak, lobby, and protest on our behalf. Straight people are more accepting and supportive of our lives and our businesses than at any time in history, and that is how it should be.
The younger LGBTQ generations will grow up without so much of the anxiety faced by their elders, and they may find it difficult to relate to what I am writing about. I truly hope this is so. For the rest of us, who have wrestled with inner conflict and external pressure about being openly ourselves in our professional lives, we can continue to support one another as we look forward to a brighter, friendlier future for ourselves, our loved ones, and our small businesses. We don’t have to hide. We don’t have to disclose. We can treat our sexuality and gender identity as the irrelevant personal matters they are, should we choose not to fly a rainbow flag over our storefronts. We no longer need to feel powerless in the face of open discrimination. We are legitimate and a force to be reckoned with as individuals and as a group, especially in the entrepreneurial world.
We, LGBTQ folks, are a dynamic part of the small business community, as well as a major consumer group with dollars to spend at friendly establishments. We are no longer ignored or disrespected by the media and marketers. Again, this time in our history is unprecedented. The time has never been better for LGBTQ entrepreneurs to start a business.
Despite my optimism, there is still lingering doubt among LGBTQ entrepreneurs in the United States when it comes to coming “out.” According to StartOut, 37 percent of LGBTQ entrepreneurs who are funded or seeking funding are not “out” to their investor partners. Of those, 47 percent said it was because it was not relevant, and the rest thought it wouldn’t help (6 percent), could hurt them (12 percent), or said it was for a different reason or just gave no answer (35 percent).
The good news is that today’s LGBTQ entrepreneurs have myriad resources and organizations dedicated to helping them succeed, especially because of that identity. From the Gay Entrepreneurs Network to the National Minority Supplier Council, small business owners have tremendous support and opportunities. And as members of a historically disadvantaged group, LGBTQ entrepreneurs have minority-owned-business status and can apply for federal contracts and other opportunities not open to just anyone. (For more information on that, check out the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce’s “Get Certified” tool.) There are many networking groups and communities just for us. To not take advantage of these resources would seem shortsighted, even if a person were usually private about their personal identity.
I encourage all LGBTQ entrepreneurs and small business owners to explore the LGBTQ organizations and communities that have been curated on Alice. I helped assemble this list of resources for Alice, and I know they all have excellent missions to assist us in any way they can.
LGBTQ represent 1.4 billion small business owners nationwide, adding jobs and growth to the United States economy. It’s time we come into our own, and we don’t have to do it on our own. Register for free on Alice and get the help you need to launch and grow your business.