Despite changing attitudes and increased acceptance throughout corporate America, many openly gay builders are still told – or believe it is beneficial – to hide their identities.
LGBTQ entrepreneur Tommy Whitehead grew increasingly frustrated with the still-common occurrence and created Florida’s first Pride Construction Coalition (PCC) earlier this month. The Tampa-based contractor is a member of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), which operates a national initiative, but Whitehead wanted to focus on local advocacy.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor spoke at the coalition’s launch event June 8, and Whitehead said the nonprofit’s leadership has already received requests to expand into other cities. The goal is to mitigate frequent stories of employers telling colleagues, “It’s okay if you’re gay, just don’t tell the clients.”
“We’re just another group of community people that sometimes don’t feel comfortable telling the client about our family,” Whitehead said. “Do I mention my husband when they’re complaining about their husband? Do we talk about our kids when they have kids?”
Whitehead owns TomCo Solutions, one of only 50 LGTBE-certified construction companies nationwide. He noted that people, including PCC’s vice president, have wondered how many gay people work in the local construction industry.
Whitehead stressed there are “tons,” but said they typically feel the need to hide their sexual orientation more than people in other industries. He was once a part of that group, even after becoming an owner.
Like many others, he once worried that personal discussions – often a bonding mechanism – would alienate potential clients and employees. Whitehead explained that the only way to mitigate ingrained stereotypes is to increase visibility and let people see that while he has a husband, he is just another family man there to fix their house.
“And until we get more professionals comfortable in doing that, that they feel like their job is not going to be threatened, then it’s not going to be normal,” Whitehead added. “So, that’s what we’re working towards.”
PCC’s mission is uniting and empowering LGBTQ construction professionals and fostering networking and advocacy through diversity and inclusion. Whitehead said he immediately clicked with the nonprofit’s board vice president, David Lurie, at a Tampa Pride event.
Whitehead said Lurie was the only other construction vendor he found. He called PCC’s launch event a “smash hit,” with over 60 attendees who all believed in the mission.
There are now plans to open an Orlando and Fort Lauderdale chapter by the end of the year. What was supposed to be a Tampa Bay area resource, Whitehead noted, is already becoming a statewide initiative.
After growing up in a small town in Polk County, he is intimately familiar with the struggle for equal rights and opportunities. Whitehead recently took his son to Lakeland for his first Pride event.
Despite some “flashbacks of nervousness” due to the location, Whitehead called it amazing to see LGTBQ community members openly celebrating their identity. While the courtyard still featured protestors with “nasty signs,” he expressed relief that it was limited to four people.
He said 100 would have demonstrated against the event a decade ago and noted that attitudes are changing. However, Whitehead believes there is a long way to go, particularly in the construction industry.
“Listen, I hope the PCC is completely irrelevant in a year or two,” he added. “That would be optimal goals. That it’s like, ‘you’re gay, you’re not gay, we don’t care. Are you going to do a good job, are you licensed?’ That would be awesome.
“Right now, that’s not where we’re at.”
Whitehead mentors several business owners and said many in the LGBTQ community don’t realize the available resources. He showed a caterer how to receive the NGLCC’s LGBTE certification and said potential clients immediately inundated her with calls.
He also hosts a podcast, and a recent episode focused on how many people miss those opportunities. Whitehead noted that national corporations like JP Morgan Chase and Walgreens have diversity spending requirements and would “love” to work with LGBTQ construction professionals when building or remodeling facilities.
He called helping people from any marginalized background an incredible feeling that often promotes a giving cycle. For example, the caterer wants to spend her free time feeding local homeless residents.
Whitehead said that people from diverse backgrounds offer the most creative solutions. He also believes those varying perspectives benefit a company’s bottom line.
“We always do business with people we like,” Whitehead said. “When you see people that share your values – whatever those values are, but in this case Pride – you’re more likely to shop them. We’re just members of the community. We’re dads, moms and grandparents, just like everybody else.”