As more cities and states enact legislation to ensure contracting opportunities for LGBT business owners, advocates rejoice - and set their sights on federal-level policy shifts. (Credit: Creative Commons Zero, MaxPixel)
As more cities and states enact legislation to ensure contracting opportunities for LGBT business owners, advocates rejoice – and set their sights on federal-level policy shifts. (Credit: Creative Commons Zero, MaxPixel)

LGBT business owners in New York City may have reason to celebrate.

Earlier this year, NYC councilman Ritchie Torres introduced a bill that would give LGBT business owners unprecedented access to government contracts. The agency that distributes them — the Department of Small Businesses Services’ Division of Economic and Financial Opportunity — currently only considers firms that are certified women- or minority-owned. The new law would require that LGBT entrepreneurs get a shot at those contracts as well.

“Even though the LGBT community creates immense economic activity to the city, and the city is known as the bastion of LGBTQ equality, there’s no certification that recognizes LGBTQ business as part of the diversity of the marketplace,” Torres said to the Wall Street Journal. He added to radio station 1010Wins that the law, if passed, would be implemented in three stages: first by getting LGBT businesses certified, then placing them on a public registry, and then lastly creating programs specifically designed to foster economic opportunity for them.

[Related: On Being an LGBT Entrepreneur]

Advocates say it would be at step in the right direction, but more still needs to be done for America’s 1.4 million LGBT business owners — in particular, getting more of them certified throughout the country.

“We’ve all heard, many times over, that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” says Jonathan Lovitz, senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC). “Certification is a way to pull your seat out and get yourself a place at that table.”

Legislation Around the Nation

The first state to enact legislation addressing access to contracting opportunities for LGBT entrepreneurs was California, in 2015. That law requires public utilities to report how often they work with LGBT-owned businesses, to ensure these firms get equal access to contracts.

Massachusetts followed suit later that year, by way of an executive order to include LGBT businesses in its diversity contracting initiatives. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued a similar executive order months later, with New Jersey hopping on board in 2017. On a city level, San Francisco and Seattle led the campaign to include LGBT firms in consideration for government contracts. And expansion into other areas has been swift, with Baltimore, Nashville, and New Jersey cities Jersey City and Hoboken joining that list via their own executive orders within the past year.

And now, “after years of quietly working with members of the city council to get them to understand” the importance of inclusion for government contracts, New York City is one step closer to bringing such a law into effect, Lovitz says. “It’s the biggest pot of them all, out of the country.”

Yet certification, while important, hardly addresses all of the struggles of the LGBT community, he adds. “Unless you allow LGBT people to thrive in the workforce, supply chain and community, they’re never going to be able to successfully contribute” to the economy.

The Need for Certification — and Protection

LGBT business certification is reserved for businesses that are 51-percent owned by a member of the community. There are other criteria, but this item is the most critical, because certification is designed to provide opportunities for people who have been frequently denied access.

[Related: The Business Benefits of Women-Owned Certification]

Working as an LGBT person is still risky business. “There are only 12 states in the country with nondiscrimination laws on banking and access to credit — something every small business needs to get going,” Lovitz says. He also noted that legal protections for LGBT employees’ jobs are scarce, and LGBT customers are still not guaranteed services at every business they solicit.

Lovitz and other activists want to see federal legislation that fills in the gaps in protections under existing civil rights codes, specifically by conferring protected class status unto LGBT people. After all, anti-LGBT actions and sentiments are far from being a thing of the past. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate groups are still as active as ever — more so under President Donald Trump, in fact.

As a result, many LGBT people have had to be entrepreneurial in their personal lives to overcome adversity and thrive as individuals. And as a bit of silver lining, “applying those same lessons to business have helped us succeed,” Lovitz adds.

The Impact of LGBT Entrepreneurs

Identifying as a certified LGBT-owned business is “an important narrative piece,” Lovitz says. At present, he points out, LGBT people are not included in the U.S. census, and are rarely — if ever — included in economic data compiled by the Small Business Administration or other research bodies. As such, “we need to do our own storytelling.”

The information obtained through certification applications gives the NGLCC a way to paint a clearer picture of what the LGBT economy looks like. Prior to its own report, “the only numbers people knew were around buying power.” To be sure, that is impressive itself — LGBT consumers spend $917 billion each year. But “it’s a drop in the bucket to what we add to the GDP as job creators and business owners,” he adds. That figure hovers around $1.7 trillion dollars, the NGLCC reports.

[Related: Speaking to Transgender Customers]

In short, if LGBT business owners were to break off and form their own nation, “it would be the 10th wealthiest country — and the fiercest place to live,” he says.

He adds that these firms are as diverse as the LGBT entrepreneurs managing them. They are women, men and nonbinary people, people of color, veterans, immigrants and people with disabilities. Their ventures run the gamut from “mom-and-mom or pop-and-pop shops pulling in a couple thousand a year” to “multinational LGBT ‘platinum’ firms doing $4 million or more.” They are operating in sectors ranging from IT and furniture to office supplies and national defense security.

And that’s just who we know of. Certification and legislation that has been enacted from California to Massachusetts — and bills that are being considered in New York City, and introduced in Orlando, Atlanta and Miami — pave the way to helping even more LGBT people “bring all of themselves to their work or business,” Lovitz says.

[Related: ‘Women Owned’ Logo Offers a Marketing Edge]