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Columbus native Brian Walters knows firsthand that some people living in his hometown do not like homosexuals — and let them know in public and in broad daylight.
Walters said he has walked with his partner through downtown Columbus to go to local restaurants and people have stuck their heads out of their car windows to shower Walters with homophobic slurs.
Usually Walters just ignores the epithets and anti-gay rhetoric — but they do get to him.
“It makes me feel unwelcome,” he said. “Sometimes it makes me wonder why I still live in Columbus.”
But he stays, because Columbus is his hometown and because he tells himself that the majority of the city’s residents truly believe in diversity and equality for everyone, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning community.
And he is helping a group of Cummins employees who are using their analytical skills to identify the scope of the problem and to generate an effective strategy to make the community more welcoming for all.
Diversity-oriented surveys by Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County from 2004 and 2011 showed that most of the 1,400 respondents reported that Bartholomew County had made strides in welcoming others. And yet, some groups reported little to no improvement, especially Latinos, the socioeconomically disadvantaged and the LGBTQ community, said Tracy Souza, Heritage Fund president and chief executive officer.
Souza said the surveys were inspired partially by author and professor Richard Florida, whose research indicated a link between a community’s success and its acceptance of people who were different from the norm.
Local employers, such as Cummins Inc., have said that policies and attitudes that make some people feel unwelcome will harm their business because they will make it more difficult to hire the most talented employees.
Souza said that results from the initial survey prompted community members to launch some community groups, including the Columbus Young Professionals and the Columbus Area Multi-Ethnic Organization, which helped address some of the problems the survey identified.
However, the second survey indicated that more work remains, Souza said.
Cummins spokesman Jon Mills said the company is committed to diversity and inclusion for everyone, and that while Columbus generally is a diverse and welcoming community, data have shown that the LGBTQ community does not feel welcome in the city.
With the help of other community stakeholders — including the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, Heritage Fund and the Columbus Human Rights Commission — Cummins employees will gather information and use the data-driven Six Sigma process to understand the origins of the problems and how they can be addressed in a positive and meaningful way, Mills said.
Cindy Frey, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber believes that the community must foster a welcoming community to help local businesses attract and retain talented employees.
For that same reason, the chamber supports groups such as CYP and CAMEO.
Walters said that beyond economic repercussions on the community level, the intolerance felt by some members of the LGBTQ community also can have significant financial repercussions on a personal level.
Walters said he knows lots of people who worry about their bosses finding out about their homosexuality, because no state or federal laws provide employment protections on the basis of sexual orientation.
“They’re concerned about their jobs,” Walters said. “You can basically be fired for being gay.”
Walters said the city of Columbus, like Bloomington, could amend its human rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in areas such as housing and employment.
While such an ordinance would be difficult to enforce, Walters said it would at least symbolize “that Columbus is a welcoming community and that it does take the civil rights of everybody seriously.”
Frey said the project is in its early stages, which focus on data collection.
Mills said Cummins hopes to complete the project by the end of the year.
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