Earlier this year, when Chamber Executive Director Mark Guenther shared his excitement over plans for a networking event sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency, he might as well have said, ''I think it might rain later.''
''The CIA is LGBT-friendly and they are actively spreading the word through LGBT chambers of commerce,'' Guenther added when he realized the intelligence had gone right over my head. Even then, it struck me as odd. But over the course of the past few months, knowledge about the CIA's relationship with the LGBT community has allowed me to peel away layers of counter-discrimination and bias toward this government agency.
In 1989 a federal appeals court found evidence that the CIA routinely denied security clearance to LGBT individuals. That same year, Tracey Ballard, a technical intelligence officer came out to her supervisors, risking her security clearance and her job. Ballard kept both job and clearance and bravely faced difficult times, as some employees still held on to the McCarthy era notion that LGBT people pose security threats because we are subject to blackmail, while other gay employees were uncomfortable being seen with her for fear of losing their jobs.
In 1995 President Bill Clinton signed an executive order stating, ''The United States government does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or sexual orientation in granting access to classified information.'' This order finally allowed gay and lesbian employees at the CIA to self-identify and opened doors to opportunity for other qualified individuals to gain employment at the agency.
In 1996, Ballard founded the agency-sanctioned employee group ANGLE, meaning Agency Network of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Employees and Allies. Today the group, which Ballard still co-chairs, has over 230 active members. The agency is a founding partner of OutServe – now OutServe-SLDN – an organization that represents LGBT active military personnel, including those within the CIA. The CIA has policies in place protecting the rights of LGBT individuals, including workplace-harassment protections. Prior to receiving a letter of conditional offer of employment, individuals are not asked about sexual orientation.
The CIA hosted the first Intelligence Community (IC) LGBT Summit, where best practices for agencies to welcome LGBT individuals in the workplace were discussed. The CIA's ''pride month'' theme in 2012 was ''Inclusion For All, Celebrating With Pride,'' and the agency actively participated in Capital Pride in June.
Last year, the CIA launched an initiative in Florida to build relationships with LGBT organizations across the country, attending events hosted by the Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Business Association of Orlando, Central Florida's LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
On April 29, the CIA will sponsor an Information and Networking Event with the Chamber on the rooftop terrace of the Liaison Capitol Hill. CIA officers from the LGBT Employee Resource Group will be attending to share the agency's LGBT history and find opportunities to establish new relationships. While not a recruiting event, a recruiter from the CIA will be present to answer questions about careers within the agency.
Perceptions are vital to the stories we tell ourselves, and I admit my assumption of the CIA's policies toward LGBT individuals was unfounded. It was based on my general perception that the government discriminates against LGBT individuals. Every once in a while, however, it's good to be wrong and I'm glad to know that ''CIA'' rhymes with ''Gay.''
The CIA Information and Networking Event is Monday, April 29, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., on the rooftop of the Liaison Capitol Hill, an Affinia Hotel, 415 New Jersey Ave. NW. Free for Chamber members, $25 for others. Registration required at caglcc.org/CIA2013.
Ernesto M. Santalla, CAGLCC board president, owns Studio Santalla Inc., a full-service architecture and interior design firm in Washington; online at studiosantalla.com.
Santalla is also a photographer and blogger.
Winner of the 2012 Chamber of the Year Award from the NGLCC, the Chamber Means Business. For more information visit caglcc.org.