I co-founded an LGBT Employee Resource Group: why being gay in the workplace should not be an issue

I co-founded an LGBT Employee Resource Group: why being gay in the workplace should not be an issue

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Etienne Germain

Beyounetwork launch the role model campaign "Gender Shapers 2020", a worldwide series of gender+ entrepreneurs' portraits. They will share their stories, their business journey and share advice to make an idea a reality, from launch to impact.

This week, we had a talk with Steve from LGBT Alliance. We talked about his experience as a gay man in the workplace, how he became a game changer in his company, and the importance of being confident.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for more than you think you are going to get, have confidence and follow your heart!”


I am Steve Smotherman. I am a husband and have been with my soulmate for more than twenty-five years.  I’m fortunate to be a father of two and a grandfather of four.  I have a very rich and busy life! I worked at Cracker Barrel, a restaurant-retail company for the last 15 years. Cracker Barrel is infamous for their homophobic policies instituted back in 1991. In 2009, I was a founding member and led the LGBT Alliance, an Employee Resource Group, promoting LGBTQ awareness and building workplace inclusion.

I grew up in rural Ohio in a conservative, religious family. We were a middle-class American family, my parents worked very hard. The area was not that unlike where I live now in Tennessee, which is a smaller town just outside of a large city. Everyone around me was white, Christian, heterosexual and that was what “normal” was in my world. My family would travel to larger cities sometimes and I would watch television shows (this was before the Internet - LOL) where it helped me to understand the world was full of different people and helped me even identify who I was and wanted to be.

I came out in 1993 when I was 31 years old. It was a different day and time in the world! When I was a young adult the AIDS crisis was in the headlines, people were dying everywhere. This led to my internal struggle to do what I had been told was right that pushed me even further back in the closet. Make no mistake, I do not have any regrets about being a late bloomer.  I have two amazing sons and a family that matters so much to me. 

When I came out, I knew I would have to be patient with my family and a lot of friends. They did not know the authentic me. I felt that friends and family would not accept or understand what I was feeling when it took me so long to come to terms with being gay myself. Once I got the confidence within myself and I realized for me to be truly happy, to be a good father, and a good spouse, I had to be honest and authentic. Most people dread and fear coming out, but I do not know anyone who has ever regretted it! 

The coming out process never stops. For every new person we meet, we have to make this decision again, from a stranger in a store, to a doctor, etc... Is this information about me relevant to share? Do I have the confidence and do I feel safe? This process is everyday with every person you meet.

I have seen how coming out improves people's work performance, I have seen how it affected my work and this is why I knew I had to do what I could to improve it. The inclusion work I do in the workplace is very personal. I think this is one reason I have such a passion for the work: it bubbled up like a pressure inside of me and once I came out I had to do something to make this world a better place. I could not change the whole world, but at least I could impact the people around me. 

Professionally, I began in retail at Gap Inc. and then I moved into Learning & Development, which included Diversity & Inclusion work

In 2005, I joined Cracker Barrel, a restaurant/retail company that is nostalgic and values old-fashioned sensibilities. It did not have a good reputation with the LGBTQ community and I hesitated when I had this career opportunity. As a gay man, when you apply for a place to work, the first thing you research is if you will be welcomed, because once you come out, there is no turning back! 

I knew there was a lot of work to do for making this new workplace inclusive, but during the interview process, I realized - they needed me more than I needed them. My friends were surprised. They asked me, “What are you doing? How can you work there?, They hate gay people.” For me it was simple: the work was what I wanted in Training, it was a short commute, and I enjoyed the people I worked with! The issue of being gay in the workplace is that it should not be an issue! 

For more than ten years of my time at Cracker Barrel, I had an emphasis on Diversity & Inclusion, especially with LGBTQ workplace inclusion. My training background allowed me to understand the steps of adult learning, facilitate difficult conversations and be effective at it Diversity & Inclusion content. 

I have had an interesting career path, as well as an interesting personal path, it has not been a direct linear path, neither what I had planned, I followed my heart more than always following my brain! 

I had been at Cracker Barrel for a couple of years and I wanted to have a broader impact and make a difference. I had no idea how this Employee Resource Group would end up impacting not only me, the people I worked with, the company nationwide, but people well outside the company. This interview being another example of the exponential impact, far bigger than I ever anticipated.  

I was a founding member of the LGBT Alliance, and led the Employee Resource Group for more than ten years. Creating an ERG was not so unique in the corporate world, but for Cracker Barrel it was monumental. Cracker Barrel had a Women’s ERG and an African-American ERG. We started the LGBT ERG with six people. Employee Resource Groups or Business Resource Groups help minorities to have a substantial representation, a voice and a seat at the table. 

Our ERG began by meeting after work in people’s homes. After a few months, we eventually became bold and moved onto corporate property, but four of our six people did not want to meet in a room that had windows. I can remember that day vividly! I said, “If we cannot meet in the room with windows because of our fear and the lack of trust in the people we work with, this is why we need starting this group!! When we have our meetings in the middle of the courtyard of the building with rainbow flags we will know we have made it!” Eventually we did that and much more! 

The ERG grew slow at first, but it was a bold move when you knew the history of the company. Cracker Barrel opened its first restaurant in the small town of Lebanon, Tennessee, a Southern conservative state. It was in 1969, just two months after the Stonewall riots. Cracker Barrel culture is deep in nostalgia, extremely old-fashioned. It has since grown to 670 locations nationwide, 3 billion dollars in annual sales, more than 76,000 employees. To better understand the stigma with Cracker Barrel and the LGBT community, let's look back at where I believe the disconnect started. 

In 1991, while the AIDS pandemic was at its height, the company instituted a policy that became famous and infamous. The memo of the policy stated, “Cracker Barrel is founded upon a concept of traditional American values, quality in all we do, and a philosophy of a 100% guest satisfaction. It is inconsistent with our concept and values and is perceived to be inconsistent with those of the customer base, to continue to employ individuals in our operating units whose sexual preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values which have been the foundation of families in our society.” As a result, eleven long-standing employees were fired and their termination paperwork clearly stated the reason for their termination “Employee is gay.” 

I did not work at Cracker Barrel at the time but I remember seeing it in the news and seeing the demonstrations. It made national headlines including CNN and the New York Times.  The terminated employees appeared on Oprah Winfrey, 20/20, Larry King, and other national television shows. Again this was 1991. The backlash was so inescapable and they only kept the policy for six weeks. It wasnt until 2001 that  the company added the sexual orientation in the anti-discrimination policy under pressure from its investors.

I joined Cracker Barrel in 2005 and we began the Employee Resource Group LGBT Alliance in 2009. We had four objectives to guide our ERGs work: 

  • Development - To provide a network that supports that supports the professional development of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender employees and their Allies
  • Education - To serve as a resource and point of contact for its members, those seeking or considering employment with the Company, and for other interested individuals or groups
  • Recruitment - To serve as a resource and point of contact for its members, those seeking or considering employment with the Company, and for other interested individuals or groups
  • Outreach - Strengthen Cracker Barrel’s relationship with the LGBT community

We learned to be bold, take a breath and jump off the cliff sometimes. We knew progress would never be as fast as we wanted but we knew not to be offensive and turn people off. I remember the first time I spoke in front of our entire corporate office of nearly 700 people about our LGBT Alliance. I reviewed our ERG’s four objectives. When I spoke about our Outreach and all the companies and organizations the LGBT Alliance had worked with, I noticed people were whispering to each other. I too realized how much we had accomplished and I explained,  “We have overachieved our fourth objective of Outreach. We have done so much in the community because we feel safer out there, than we feel in here, at work. We need to change that and you can help me change that starting today!”

This bold moment made us confident and we started programs to make us feel more comfortable and effective. One was the “Bringing Your Whole Self to Work” initiative.  We discussed how important it is to bring our whole self to work.  What if you do not? Would you raise your hand and participate at work? Would you share your ideas or filter them? Participants were invited to share their lives and family pictures.  There were multiracial families, spouses with physical disabilities, or some couples had age gaps. We displayed the pictures in the workplace and it created groundbreaking conversations.  This became an ongoing change agent in the company and made people proud to bring their whole selves to work. 

Our group became relentless in marketing, actually marketing maniacs! We branded our LGBT Alliance erg. We professionally designed our logo, we chose a font color, style, and size so people would recognize immediately our communications from emails to posters. We had branded ink pens, water bottles, backpacks, coasters, lip balm, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, mouse pads, T-shirts,… We had a small budget but we wanted visibility because it meant progress. 

Cracker Barrel sells a great number of rocking chairs, 10,000 most months and they are iconic to it’s brand. We designed a Limited Edition Rainbow Pride version of that famous rocking chair and utilized them in auctions for LGBT organizations fundraising. It became so popular bidders would pay $600 compared to the regular rocking chairs that sell for $160! The next year we wanted to go further and do something bigger so we had a massive one built, ten feet tall that seat 4 adults! We used it for Pride Festivals, Out & Equal Summit Conferences, and Cracker Barrel Manager Conferences. 

Beyond this visibility strategy, we influenced having gender identity added to the companies discrimination policy, same-sex partners benefits added and for the past year have discussed the need for offering transgender healthcare benefits. There is still a lot of work to be done but it is amazing the progress that we have made! 

Being able to express yourself, your truth, tell your story, embrace it, and love yourself are very important. There is nothing more hurtful or damaging than to be -phobic about yourself. It is self-destructive. We all have those biases, but you should love yourself and every part of who you are!  

When I started this advocacy work, I had to educate myself. I have not experienced the transgender experience, I do not know what it is like to be an LGBTIQ+ person of colour, but I still can educate myself. Information is key to be able to understand others, answer questions, and build credibility. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for more than you think you are going to get, whether it be fundings, sponsors, or volunteers. I would never imagined I would have an approval to spend $3.000 on a giant rainbow rocking chair. When I proposed it, I was professional, explaining what I thought we could use it for, we could use it repeatedly, and the decision makers saw the Return On Investment, I asked for more than we ever thought we would gain approval for. 

My advice would be if you have a strong network, reach out to people to ask for guidance, honest feedback or support. That is the strength of the current movement, Women’s movement, or the Black Lives Matter movement. It is important to have difficult discussions.  You have to open a heart before you can open a mind. It is not always one person in front of a thousand, it is usually one to one. Tell your story.

You have to be innovative, and be prepared to not take the most obvious path. If I had to tell the biggest mistake I made, it is the time I did not get out of my way.  I have learned to be outspoken because of it. Have confidence and go with your heart!

I am excited about living in this time because I feel we are at a turning point in our world’s history for equal rights for all. I plan to continue supporting and working with those in my network as well as continuing my work with the Human Rights Campaign's Business Advisory Council. I am honored to be involved with Bowie Gender+ Projects and offer my support. Together - Lets Change The World!

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