The diverse, liberal work climates touted by Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies first began with a push for increased civil rights by gay and lesbian employees in the 1980s. As companies like Apple and HP advocated for internal nondiscrimination policies and domestic partner benefits, news spread through the software, hardware and conventions created by the tech industry itself. Gay employee groups and business collectives led to expanded networks of in-person, internal and inter-corporate communication, which directly helped disseminate increased protections inside company walls and national politics.
The liberally diverse culture within Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies was sparked by an employee-led push for increased civil rights for gay and lesbian employees in the mid-1980s.
At a time when California politics, like Propositions 6 and 64, pushed ideas of removing gay teachers from classrooms and quarantining people with AIDS altogether, South Bay companies from Apple to Hewlett-Packard approved internal nondiscrimination policies, with domestic partner benefits following throughout the next decade.
In the high-tech industry—where Silicon Valley employers battled each other for a stiffly competitive pool of talent—more LGBTQ people flocked to jobs where protections increased. This snowballed into a cultural shift that eventually applauded diversity, moving away from tech’s more conservative roots.
But at the same time, the AIDS crisis was devastating the LGBTQ community. While it forced many people to come out to family, friends and coworkers, being out at work was terrifying as the lack of safety in the corporate world left workers vulnerable to lose everything: jobs, families and homes.
Some came out by necessity, others as an attempt to humanize the disease and advocate for change. Many employees, however, stayed closeted out of retribution or being passed up for promotions, especially in high-tech government jobs that demanded security clearances.
Employees pushed back in 1983, when the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office was sued by the South Bay-based group High Tech Gays (HTG) for subjecting gay and lesbian employees to more intense scrutiny and investigation for secret and top-secret clearances because of sexual orientation. A judge eventually sided with the Sunnyvale-based plaintiffs in 1990, closing the iconically named federal court case High Tech Gays v. DISCO.
The existence of HTG and conversation between gay people not only opened up a vision of possibility for other groups to start but also raised awareness with such a brazen name that was unable to be ignored.
Other unofficial gay employee social groups were established—such as Friends of Dorothy and the Gay and Lesbian Employee Network—which stretched across Silicon Valley corporations like HP, Sun Microsystems and Oracle.
Beginning as communities for connection, camaraderie and a dating pool, these gatherings soon led to redacted membership directories and discreet newsletters, which helped crowdsource knowledge of internal business practices across the high-tech sector to secure protections in workplaces at a time when no state or federal protections existed.
After a stint in political activism, Bennet Marks, a former Apple software manager inspired by stories from HTG and his experience on the company’s AIDS Response Committee, wanted to work directly with the company to develop staff policy.
He formed Apple Lambda in August 1986, and came out to the entire company in the process. Named after the Greek letter that had quietly emerged as a gay symbol at the time, the group welcomed in employees by word-of-mouth, even those otherwise afraid of retaliation.
Bennet said their work was the driving force behind Apple adopting nondiscrimination policies—the first Silicon Valley company believed to do so—and pushed others to follow.
By 1987, Apple Lambda marched in the San Francisco Pride Parade and started publicly shifting what was acceptable in the high-tech workplace.
But not all Silicon Valley companies welcomed these policies with open arms out of the gate. Older, more conservative companies took longer to welcome these employee protections.
Kim Harris, a manager at HP, learned from previous successes and failures in organization and advocacy from Bennet, with whom he was (and still is) in a relationship starting in 1982. Together, they eventually became known as the Silicon Valley poster boys.
Despite having one of the first unofficial gay employee groups, HP was hesitant to offer direct company resources. Kim began by stealthily parsing out company health plans, eventually calling out the denial of AIDS treatments for former staff.
“I marched right into HR and benefits, and I said, ‘Is this the kind of company you run? Is this the kind of company you’re proud of?’ Kim said. “All of a sudden it was approved.”
This got the ball moving at HP in working toward nondiscrimination and diversity education policies across the global company. After a unanimous “no” vote, Kim organized reader’s theater performances to dozens of executive staff, featuring personal stories from employees who dealt with internal harassment, jokes and the AIDS epidemic.
One year after the initial denial, an unanimous “yes” arrived in the late 1980s. Despite fears of negative reactions from the press and public, HP’s decision made only whispers in the local news. Combined with Apple’s work, however, the news started circulating regionally.
“Apple then was Apple; Apple now is Apple,” Bennet said. “It was my very strong opinion that anything we did at Apple would have ripple effects throughout Silicon Valley and throughout the country.”
It did ripple. The start of internal policies for gay and lesbian employees at Apple arrived not only before California state law, but also before federal precedent.
In September 1992, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed non-discrimination protections for sexual orientation into the state’s Labor Code—an effort first vetoed eight years prior. By 1993, there were around eight Fortune 500 companies that provided domestic partner benefits. The number was more than 100 by 2001.
This work was continued through external groups like the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC), Peninsula Business and Professional Association, and the invite-only HRC Business Council, as members met with hundreds of other gay employees and learned how internal business hierarchies and organization could advance approval of nondiscrimination policies.
Google, which was established in 1998, did not have any formal group until the Apple Lambda founder also helped create the Gayglers group in 2006.
That group continued to push for more civil rights for gay and lesbian employees, advocating in 2010 for “grossing up,” which increased compensation to offset unequal taxes for same-sex partners, and kicking off the nationwide “It Gets Better” project through Google subsidiary YouTube.
As LGBTQ issues continue to arise to the forefront, the work of gay employee groups remains vital to furthering liberal expectations for the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and across the country, especially as they worked to create new expectations of office life.
“I think every generation paves the way for the next generation,” Bennet said. “I believe that the Silicon Valley corporations had a direct impact on (protections) going through the legislature.”