In 2007, the decades-long lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement was gaining momentum in the U.S., with several states passing same-sex couple legislation and banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the private sector.

That same year, Sara Oliver-Carter, vice president of Highmark’s Diversity and Inclusion department, brought into Highmark’s Pittsburgh location a group of speakers to talk to employees about LGBT issues in the workplace. She also organized a Business Resource Group (BRG) “boot camp” for employees interested in forming BRGs. (See sidebar to learn more about BRGs in general.)

“There were groups of employees already meeting informally around different interests,” says Oliver-Carter. “Creating formal BRGs was a logical next step that we saw would have tremendous value for individual employees as well as for the business. Our role wasn’t so much to create the BRGs outright as to make sure our employees had the information, resources, encouragement and internal connections they needed to found and shape these groups for themselves and in support of the business.”

Louise Stutler (former claims platform director at Highmark and now a leader with Allegheny Health Network’s revenue cycle applications team) recalls that the LGBT presentation included a video with Susan Whitewood — then senior vice president at Bank of New York Mellon, and eventually a plaintiff in the case legalizing gay marriage in Pennsylvania. As an LGBT person, Stutler says Whitewood’s video struck a chord in discussing the challenges that LGBT employees face. “I remember her saying how difficult it is to not be able to have your family’s picture on your desk,” says Stutler.

She also admired the fact that Whitewood took action by starting a BRG for LGBT employees at her company. Stutler reached out to Whitewood, and the two began having lunch meetings about starting a similar BRG at Highmark. By 2008, a larger Pittsburgh LGBT Corporate Round Table group had formed, co-chaired by Whitewood, with representatives from a range of corporations meeting regularly to discuss LGBT workplace issues and best practices for LGBT resource groups.

After much hard work and outreach, Highmark’s LGBTA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies) BRG was officially launched as one of the company’s first two BRGs (the other was the Black BRG). The group’s first officer elections were held in July 2009, with Stutler chosen as the first chairperson.

Highmark rainbow lanyardsBuilding the LGBTA BRG

Stutler says one of the first steps in getting the LGBTA BRG established — and a factor in its ongoing success — was to engage Highmark’s corporate leadership. As she points out, it wasn’t hard to make the business case for investing resources in the group: “The LGBT community has a lot of dollars to spend.”

Joe Baumiller, a Highmark Direct store manager, and the LGBTA BRG’s Community Liaison Officer from launch until 2012, says that the group truly kicked into gear as it transitioned from a meeting group to an official BRG, when executive sponsors, including Melissa Anderson (executive vice president, chief audit and compliance officer) and Jim Fawcett (senior vice president of Medicaid Markets), began participating in meetings.

“We were no longer just five or six employees trying to plan for things,” he says. “If there was something we needed, we had experts in the room for guidance. We actually had clout.”

In its first few years, the group’s efforts included participating in Highmark’s Walk for a Healthy Community, hosting events for National Coming Out Day, and collaborating with internal partners to get the spire of Highmark’s Pittsburgh Fifth Avenue Place headquarters building lit red in recognition of World AIDS Awareness Day every year.

In the workplace, in addition to launching an intranet site to keep everyone in the loop about LGBTA BRG activities, another early focus was surveying employees. Finding that some LGBT workers were still reluctant to share their perspectives, the group made a concentrated effort during its first two years to create opportunities for LGBT employees to share stories with Human Resource professionals and senior leaders.

“One thing we stressed was that we’re not about changing other people’s beliefs,” Stutler says. “We’re about how you treat the people you work with, based on corporate values.”

Fawcett, an LGBTA BRG executive sponsor from the start, notes that the group has also had tremendous value for the company during a period of rapid societal and industry changes. “Recently, I celebrated and participated in a sibling’s same-sex wedding, along with four generations of my large, extended family — not long ago, that wasn’t even possible,” he explains. “It’s not just the law, but also mainstream attitudes that have changed, and companies have to keep up.”

Combine that cultural transformation with the health care industry’s increasing focus on the individual consumer, and Fawcett says the bottom line is that “Highmark Health must have a strong market proposition for everyone. The LGBTA BRG has been a powerful force in helping to ensure that we are the best LGBT employer that we can be, and that we offer the right insurance products and health care services to serve LGBT individuals in our communities.”

Leading the Way on LGBT Issues

The LGBTA BRG has helped enact substantive policy changes as well as cultural changes. For example, although marriage between same-sex couples is now legal throughout the U.S., Pennsylvania’s Equal Opportunity Employment legislation still does not cover discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Stutler says that one of the LGBTA BRG’s proudest accomplishments was working with Highmark senior leadership to develop policies protecting LGBT employees from discrimination beyond the protections offered by the state. She adds that Highmark had already been ahead of the curve in recognizing same-sex spouses and domestic partners for employee benefits (including medical, dental, vision, dependent life, and being beneficiaries for life insurance, 401k and Retirement) in 2007 — regardless of what state or country the employee was married in. That leadership continued in 2015 with the addition of benefits for transgender employees, reinforcing Highmark Health’s status as a model health care company and employer.

“We’ve stepped out where others feared to go,” says Stutler. “That makes a difference — people recognize corporations that stand up and say, ‘You guys mean something.’ It feels good to have an employer that’s out there supporting us, and it’s attractive to others who are considering a job at Highmark. If an LGBT individual is thinking about relocating their family to work with Highmark, it’s reassuring for them to see that we’re an employer that takes an interest in the LGBT community and cares about them being who they are in the workplace.”

Megan Sullivan, a senior fraud analyst at Highmark who became Chair of the LGBTA BRG in 2014, says that the group is always looking for new ways to advance LGBT interests and help Highmark become an even more attractive brand for LGBT consumers and talent. For example, in 2014, the LGBTA BRG had a major role in getting Highmark ads created that, for the first time, featured images of LGBT families.

Sullivan says other highlights from her time as Chair include hosting screenings of the documentary “Bridegroom” for National Coming Out Day; partnering with Miss Pennsylvania, Valerie Gatto, on a sexual assault awareness campaign; and strengthening the Allegheny Health Network’s involvement at the 2015 Pittsburgh Pride event.

As impressive as the LGBTA BRG’s history and highlights are, Sullivan says the group stays focused on what else it can do to improve the future. “As much progress as there has been, both culturally and in the workplace, I have spoken to employees who are still afraid to come out to their co-workers. They make up a fake husband or wife just so that they don’t have to tell someone that they are in a same-sex relationship. That breaks my heart. Nobody should be in that position.”

Looking forward, Sullivan hopes to help get Highmark on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which rates companies based on their corporate policies and practices toward LGBT employees.

Megan Sullivan at Pride

Current LGBTA BRG chair Megan Sullivan celebrating at Pittsburgh Pridefest in 2013.

On the provider side, she says the BRG will continue to work to promote awareness of the Allegheny Health Network’s LGBT programs and activities. The BRG is also exploring the creation of a provider index to help those in Highmark Health communities find doctors with experience caring for LGBT patients. “It’s important for a patient to feel safe enough to tell their doctor that they identify as a lesbian, for instance, because that could impact their treatment,” says Sullivan. “It’s very helpful to know before you schedule an appointment that a doctor welcomes LGBT patients.”

Sullivan says that the capacity to make a difference, and the supportive nature of the group, are what inspired her to get involved with the LGBTA BRG and then accept her current leadership position. “What motivates me is the possibility for change that the BRG provides,” she says. 

Taking Pride in Progress

From the start, one of the LGBTA BRG’s most visible and successful activities has been participating in Pride events. In fact, Stutler, Baumiller and others were instrumental in making Highmark the first corporate sponsor of Pittsburgh Pride in 2008 and one of three initial “premier corporate sponsors” for the event in 2009. Highmark’s involvement also includes the presence of the Highmark Direct mobile marketing truck, along with representatives from HR, health and dental benefits enrollment, Highmark Caring Place and more. (See sidebar for the “video” element of Highmark’s participation in 2015.)

“Pittsburgh Pride has transformed from a small parade to a colossal celebration attracting national acts,” says Dave Ranallo, a long-time member of the LGBTA BRG. “It’s the perfect opportunity for Highmark to show its commitment to being the premier health insurance company and provider system for the LGBT community.”

Highmark Pride marchers in 2010

Highmark’s Pittsburgh Pridefest marchers … marching toward the Highmark building … during the 2010 event.

The LGBTA BRG leads Highmark employees in a march during the Pittsburgh PrideFest that culminates the city’s Pride Week festivities. In 2008, there were 18 Highmark employees who walked together and the event drew 12,000 people; in recent years, Pride event attendance has been close to 100,000, with well over 100 Highmark employees marching (plus an additional contingent from Allegheny Health Network in 2015).

Stutler, who stepped down from her post as Chair of the BRG in 2012 to avoid a conflict of interest (she is now the vice president of the Delta Foundation, which coordinates Pittsburgh’s Pride events), says she has been especially happy to see Highmark executives continuing to participate in Pride events every year.

“We got executives engaged right from the start, and they remain engaged today,” she says. “Senior leadership is there every year. Some of them plan family vacations around Pride. I’m proud to see that commitment and continued support — because it’s right.”