NEW YORK — It happens a few times a year: A customer refuses to work with Dave Greenbaum because he's gay.
Greenbaum, who owns a computer repair business in Lawrence, Kan., often needs to go into customers' homes. Some people realized he is gay after he was quoted in a newspaper story about gay rights. They told Greenbaum, "I don't appreciate your lifestyle and I don't want you in my house." Others canceled appointments saying, "I found out you're gay."
Despite increasing acceptance of homosexuality in the U.S., gay small business owners say they still encounter discrimination from possible customers and investors. The discrimination is often subtle. An owner senses from a potential client's body language or from a sales conversation cut short that they're uncomfortable. Sometimes it's more overt, like the rejections Greenbaum has gotten.
The need to raise public awareness about AIDS, which has affected many gays, and the fight for legalization of same-sex marriage have encouraged more gays to be open about their sexual orientation and has increased acceptance of them by others. Still, gay rights advocates note that 29 states don't prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Business owners are also vulnerable, they say.
"They're at a business meeting, and no one's particularly identified as gay, and then there's a gay joke or gay slur," says Gene Falk, CEO of StartOut, an organization that supports gay entrepreneurship. "You don't have to go through that too often to develop a real sense of what you're up against."
Publicist Sam Firer specializes in working with chefs. He finds many American male chefs don't want to work with him; they meet with him but choose a woman-owned public relations firm. Firer, who co-owns New York-based Hall Co., says he doesn't believe those chefs act out of malice. He thinks they're uneasy around gay men.
"Stressful and busy people want to be as comfortable as they can from moment to moment," says Firer, who does have accounts with male chefs who are from other countries. Some who initially reject him later call him for help.