New chamber of commerce to focus on business concerns of gay community

With its dark mahogany walls, sparkling wine glasses and 19th-century-era paintings, the Quinnipiack Club is suffused with tradition.

But innovation overtook tradition yesterday when the Qpack Club played host to Connecticut’s recently inaugurated Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Chamber of Commerce, one of over 40 American GLBT chambers that have opened up in the last five years.

Officially called the Connecticut Alliance for Business Opportunities, the GLBT chamber will feature networking and educational events common to most chambers and will tackle issues concerning businesses and employees nationwide, such as health care, workers’ rights and equal access to employment.

But supporters said the chamber will also bolster GLBT-owned businesses, GLBT-friendly businesses and GLBT consumers by introducing different groups to one another and advocating for issues of interest to the GLBT community.

National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce co-founder and CEO Chance Mitchell said America’s GLBT community wields $690 billion in consumer power, $40 billion more than last year. CABO co-founder Dena Castricone said the chamber will allow businesses to tap into a unique market.

“There is plenty of market research that [proves] the GLBT market is one of the most loyal markets out there and also has a bit of discretionary income,” she said. “So as a business, in making decisions with other businesses, it makes good sense to focus on the GLBT market not only for just community.”

Compared to other demographics, the GLBT community tends to travel more and invest early in new technology, Mitchell said. Although GLBT chambers, like traditional commerce chambers, are concerned with health care, he said, GLBT communities are also keenly interested in particular topics such as HIV/AIDS.

Beth McCabe, who sits on CABO’s board of directors, said CABO will pursue networking and educational initiatives similar to those of the New Haven Chamber of Commerce while also advocating for a population that so far has been largely considered economically insignificant.

“The difference is a lot of times we’re not discriminated against but made to feel more invisible,” McCabe said. “People aren’t as open about what they are or what they do, although I think it’s changing with chambers like this.”

Accountant Yvette Larrieu, who lives in Branford, said that while she personally does not feel any more open about her sexual orientation at the Chamber, she said CABO’s GLBT focus makes GLBT community members more comfortable.

“It would give people a safe space to start from,” she said. “People would assume you’re gay rather than straight at an event like this.”

Representatives from both national and local companies were also present at the chamber’s networking event on Thursday. Jennifer Polls, a financial adviser to Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, said MetLife is one of the few insurances companies in the country that support same-sex couples seeking to protect their spouses legally.

Joe Goodwin, the owner of 168 York Street Cafe, said he attended the event less for his business than because, as a gay man, he wanted to show his support for CABO.

Gricel M. Ocasio and Nicole Lashomb, a wife-and-wife publisher-editor team for the New England GLBT monthly The Rainbow Times, said they made the hour-plus-long trip from Northampton, Mass., because their home state lacks a GLBT business organization.

“I think in the Northeast people are just starting to realize the power the LGBT community has fiscally, financially, economically,” Lashomb said.

Economists such as George Mason University professor Richard Florida have shown that talent is most concentrated in cities that embrace diverse backgrounds, CABO co-founder and secretary Scott Healy ’96 said. As Connecticut’s most progressive city, New Haven in particular stands to benefit from the addition of a GLBT chamber of commerce, Healy said.

“New Haven … has a high number of gay-owned and gay-friendly businesses,” he said. “When businesses look to expand or move their headquarters, they want to be in a city that’s progressive and of diverse backgrounds.”

On the national level, Mitchell said, NGLCC has made significant progress promoting GLBT-owned businesses. For example, he said, NGLCC has worked with IBM, Motorola and other corporate partners to certify GLBT-owned businesses.

CABO supporters said they have not encountered any resistance to the chamber since it opened last month. While individuals may oppose the GLBT community, Mitchell said, local and state GLBT chambers of commerce can bring their critics to the table to discuss their common business interests.

“Some of the more fringe or conservative folks around the country may not necessarily agree with the notion of LGBT business of LGBT equality, but I think it’s difficult to dispute that the things that are fundamental to business and the fair practices associated with that are of concern to all Americans,” Mitchell said ”It’s a great place to find some common ground for dialogue.”

Over 25 groups have joined CABO since it formed last month. Castricone said CABO hopes to attract 100 members by the end of the year.

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