April 27, 2004

Fleming Speaks on Gay Rights

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Michael Fleming, executive director of the David Bohnett Foundation, spoke at a luncheon at the Johnson Graduate School of Management yesterday, addressing an audience of 40 students, faculty and Ithaca residents about issues in the gay community. Fleming, who previously worked with the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, has been recognized in the gay community for his work in fundraising and policy changes. In his speech, Fleming discussed community outreach, coming out in the workplace and equal marriage rights.

Fleming was invited to speak by Out for Business, an LGBT student organization at the business school. Out for Business was founded in fall 2002 to “increase the gay friendliness of the Johnson School,” said Mark Mitchell JGSM ’05, executive vice president of corporate and alumni relations for the group. It was created in response to an April 2003 report that rated business schools across the country based on their “gay friendliness” for spring and summer of 2002. The report gave Cornell a D.

In opening his speech, Fleming discussed the business and personal history of David Bohnett, an openly gay man who founded GeoCities in 1994. Cited by Newsweek as one of the “100 People to Watch in the Next Millennium,” Bohnett used his technology fortune to create the foundation.

As a business student and then employee at top corporations, Bohnett decided to keep his sexuality a secret even after coming out as an undergraduate. “He had a private life and he had a public life,” Fleming said. Bohnett finally came out when a reporter asked what his inspiration was for starting GeoCities. The website allows visitors to build homepages for their interests, ranging from Irish harp music to gay culture.

“It was his recognition, as a gay man, of the power of community,” Fleming explained. Fleming said Bohnett’s example gives three important lessons for life.

“You have to love what you do and follow your dreams no matter how outrageous they are,” he said. Bohnett, after all, left a stable, successful job at Anderson Consulting to start the website.

Second, Fleming said, Bohnett’s story teaches the value of an MBA in managing and leading any organization.

Finally, and most importantly, “there is power in community,” Fleming said.

As one of its outreach projects, the David Bohnett Foundation created 18 “CyberCenters” at LGBT community centers across the country. Classes are offered in accounting, resume building and even GED qualification.

The foundation recently allocated $1 million to fight for marriage equality on the local, state and national levels. Fleming called it “the civil rights issue of the coming decade,” and said it is a top priority for business and political leaders alike. Explaining that Fortune 500 companies often allow benefits for same-sex partners, Fleming said, “Wall Street is more socially aware than Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Risa Mish, director of alumni relations at the business school, said there is now an effort to create a network of LGBT alumni. She agreed with Fleming’s statement that companies are growing friendlier to the community, noting targeted recruiting tactics and benefits for domestic partners.

“There’s a war for talent. [Companies] ought to be as welcoming as they can,” Mish said.

Fleming said although there is usually infighting among various interest groups in the community, “I’ve never seen folks work better, and faster.” As soon as the federal marriage amendment was brought up, pro-marriage equality groups rallied quickly.

“They didn’t wait,” he said.

The marriage debate has also put a new image of the LGBT community in the public eye, Fleming said.

He described a scenario of “vaguely chubby 40-year-olds with a stroller in front of City Hall.” These two men or women will yell out that they have been together for 20 years, have children, and just want to get married. Fleming said this is an important image for politicians to see. The foundation is currently working on the logistics of a consortium of organizations that will fund grassroots programs to promote marriage equality.

“There is a battle out there to be joined,” Fleming said.

Fleming also addressed the debate between marriage and civil unions. For the most part, Fleming said, marriage is the best option. “If that’s the currency in which you trade, we have to have access to that currency as well,” he said, explaining that laws cite the word ‘marriage’ too frequently for civil unions to be acceptable.

“As the gay community unites around marriage equality, it’s good to know that well-financed influencers like the David Bohnett Foundation will be leading the charge,” Mitchell said.

The David Bohnett Foundation, founded in 1999, is a non-profit organization that funds grant requests, “focusing on improving society through social activism,” according to its mission statement. The foundation has six main giving areas, including voter registration, animal language research, mass transit and the environment, handgun safety, community based social services for the LGBT community and the promotion of positive media images of the LGBT community.

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Writer