Watermark Exclusive! Bonus material from our interview with WDW President George A. Kalogridis

Whether you’re a gay bartender, a lesbian veterinary technician, a bisexual electronics engineer, or a transgender guest services manager, did you know Mickey Mouse is quietly helping to make your workplace a safe environment for being out and equal? A place where you can bring your true authentic self to work every day?

Last month Walt Disney World sponsored and hosted an LGBT workplace equality conference in conjunction with Out & Equal, the two-decade-old non-profit devoted to just such issues. The Out & Equal Equality Institute, held at Disney World’s Coronado Springs Resort in July, brought over 650 business men and women from 300 different organizations together to share strategies and build networks in the efforts to achieve workplace equality. For Disney, the day-long symposium was a dry run for the 2016 Out & Equal Summit, a similarly-themed four-day convention set for October 2016 at several WDW resorts with an expected attendance of nearly 4000.

At Disney World’s helm since January, 2013, is its president, George A. Kalogridis, who also serves on Out & Equal’s board of directors. As the person leading the largest single-site employer in the country, Kalogridis is the most powerful openly gay man in Central Florida.

Kalogridis has previously written about his experiences as an out gay executive in an essay published in the book “Out & Equal at Work: From Closet to Corner Office.” Among his stories of being a gay Disney Cast Member, Kalogridis also describes how Gay Day protest plans by an extreme right Christian group in the late 1990’s once threatened his personal safety.

But in a rare interview – and his first with the LGBT media since becoming WDW’s president – Kalogridis spoke with Watermark directly about a multitude of LGBT workplace issues. With space in Watermark’s printed edition at a premium, we wanted to share additional highlights from our chat with Walt Disney World Resort President George A. Kalogridis, including the importance of being out at work, Disney’s relationship with Out & Equal, and how creating an online anti-bullying video didn’t make things better for the company’s IT department.

On coming out professionally:
Obviously the generation that I grew up in, being openly gay was not nearly as mainstream as it is today. When I joined Disney it was probably my first exposure to people that were gay, or that I was aware of before. From the very beginning there was always an environment that was, in my opinion, safe. (As in the book), the seminal moment for me was in the late 1990’s when the protests were taking place for Gay Days and there was a threat that the security team had found on the internet. Prior to then, I never felt that being gay was something I would have to worry about. I didn’t talk about it, but I didn’t hide it. And it’s sort of like that now. It’s part of who I am, but I don’t come to work and act like a gay leader. I am gay and I am a leader. And I think that’s the right way to do it.

Issues… policies… those were things the company was implementing along the way, so it was nothing that I did or contributed to. On the other hand, in the last 10 to 15 years in particular, a commitment to diversity has been something that (Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO) Bob Iger is keenly aware of, focused on, and clear about – not just from sexual orientation but diversity in everything.

The one thing that’s different and better today – not that it was bad before – you would never, today, make a disparaging comment at a meeting and be working the next day. It just would not happen. It’s just unacceptable.

(Out & Equal) works with companies to help other executives feel comfortable to come out because there are many of our employees who are watching, and they’re taking the lead from us. If I am out then I’m sending a message to our employees it’s safe to be out. They can trust that I’m going to do everything possible to ensure that it’s a safe environment for them.

Everybody is different, as you know, and the process and the situation is different for every one of us. I think that’s why you’re seeing such massive change in the public perception now, because you have people who are stepping up. All of sudden it’s, “Wow, I didn’t really realize that; I never thought of that person as gay, and that’s fine actually because I work with him every day and nothing’s really changed.”

On support from family:
It’s different for everybody. Many people talk about “the conversation,” the moment they sat down with their family and said here’s the deal. In my case, there actually never was a conversation. I knew that my parents weren’t ready to have the conversation, but they were absolutely ready to provide unconditional love. My first partner – we were together in the late 70’s – I would take him to my parent’s house. We would stay for the weekend in the same room. His parents and my parents became very good friends. Nobody was hiding anything. We could do that and not have to have the conversation, and that was ok. At that time – again in the 70s’s – there wasn’t an Out & Equal. People didn’t know what to do, other than they loved their child and wanted to support them. And for me, that was all I needed.

On the security threat in the 1990’s:
I think it was a much bigger moment for me than it was for the people who were telling me (about the security threat). The media were more about the protests. The company policy was in place. These protests didn’t change the company policy, it was already there. It was more about what leadership looks like. When you see someone who is an employee who is perhaps being backed into a situation that is making them uncomfortable, a leader will stand up and make sure they explain to that individual, “Here’s what’s going on, we got your back, you don’t have to worry.” And that’s exactly what happened. (Writing about the situation for the book) was an opportunity to be very proud of our company and show how that played out. For me it was a moment of truth.

On participating in The Walt Disney Company’s “It Gets Better” video:
That video was grass roots. Viral was a new word at the time and it was starting to go viral pretty quick. It was coordinated through public affairs, which is important. Coordinated and supported. And it was shot in a span of two weeks.

The impact, as you might imagine, was incredibly positive. I mean, the number of emails… If you want to see how fast you can wipe out the email system in a company, do something like that. I think it sent a message that we have the right environment, we are inclusive, and we’re happy to make sure we share that with the world, not just waiting until someone asks us. This was something not focused on the company, but focused on saving lives.

On any differences between the various resorts’ (Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Euro Disney) Diversity Resource Groups:
I actually don’t see much difference at all. And this is a question that many people ask, whether it’s this issue or any other issue. We’re all here for the same reasons, and we all work for the same company. (The only differences are) cultural nuances. In France, for example, there is a bigger dependence on the government structure than on the volunteer structure, just because that’s the nature of the system in France. It doesn’t mean the people care any less. But you wouldn’t, for example, do a charity event to donate money to a cause. That does not happen. Because the tax system is different in France, people pay higher taxes and their expectation is that the government takes care of whatever the issue. In America we may do some kind of charity event to donate against. But at the end of the day, the cast members care equally.

On the importance of Disney’s Diversity Resource Groups:
I think one of the things that is so wonderful about these groups is that they are a sounding board. When we were developing product for a Christmas marketing campaign at Disneyland, they took that product to the Hispanic Diversity Group and made some changes, based on (their feedback).

On the symbiotic relationship between Disney and Out & Equal:
What Out and Equal has helped us do is understand how LGBT issues are handled at companies across the country. We use them as a resource. We also contribute our information to their data banks so when other companies ask questions we are part of that as well. And that is the intent: sharing information and providing training. In our particular case we have our own internal training. But many companies don’t necessarily have the ability to do that.

The intent of the conference was to say, this isn’t the only way to look at LGBT policies and environments. It was, here’s the way we’re doing it and we’re happy to share that. Hopefully we can engage those companies with Out & Equal in an ongoing dialogue in the future. It absolutely accomplished our goal.

On transgender cast member Heather Boyd’s presentation:
It was incredible and made me very proud. She spoke about the environment that existed that allowed her to be comfortable to move forward with this, and the audience was just mesmerized.

She was also very honest. She said, “I realize I’ve never done this before, I know there’s no recipe. And I realize that there are no recipes for companies to follow either. What was so wonderful was that we both entered this journey understanding that.”

For a lot of those companies, the transgendered community is the one that’s probably the least understood. Heather’s speech was an opportunity to give people a chance to see one way of how things are done.

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