Through oppression or recession, LGBT entrepreneurs have triumphed over adversity
April 3, 2012 | 4:30 pm
(Updated: February 25, 2013 | 7:00 pm)
The “Great Recession” didn’t spare Colorado’s LGBT community. Since the 2008 financial crisis sparked a cascade of layoffs and woes in an economy already stagnant in middle-class income growth, Denver has lost popular LGBT venues and stomping grounds that were tightly-woven with community life.
For a mixture of reasons, Jr.’s, BJ’s Carousel, Mo’s and HER Bar – to name a few – are all gone.
“Our community was hit hard by the recession,” said Alex Degelman, owner of There Urban Whiskey Bar and The Interior Design Company. “The LGBT construction workers lost their jobs, Qwest employees lost their jobs …”
The list could go on.
Arthur Williams, a certified professional florist and certified floral designer who in 2004 opened his own shop, Babylon Floral, said business hummed along for a while after the recession began because weddings and events were booked a year in advance – but tough times came when those ran out.
“We were a year into the recession, and then it hit us all at once,” Williams said. The loss of corporate clients in the throes of the downturn forced the shop to move to a more visible location on 17th Street in hopes of drawing more walk-in customers.
John Donohoe, who has owned urban Denver video rental store Videotique with his partner Jim Doescher since 1985, was nervous about being able to stay open.
“I think it affected everybody, and I could just tell talking to people on how their incomes were affected,” Donohoe said.
National Bureau of Economic Research reports that recovery began in June 2009. Yet, like the calendar’s shortest day on the December 21 Winter Solstice – promising each day coming after will be brighter than the last – the recession’s official end harkened what only felt like another two-and-a-half-year slog of winter.
Only just now, as if in tandem with this year’s gradual thaw of spring, do signs of recovery feel real. Government reports announced 243,000 gained jobs nationwide in January and 227,000 in February, and polls are showing gradually-increasing optimism about the U.S. economy.
Donohoe has noticed the improvement. Though many customers are still careful in their spending, he said the last two months of business have been good.
Williams was also optimistic. “Once bigger corporations started spending money on events again, that’s a really good sign. That’s been picking up,” he said.
Through her marketing agency Keo’s Marketing Group, Keo Frazier is on the pulse of a wide range of businesses, and said she’s noticed a sharp increase in enthusiasm in 2012.
“We’re just going into the second quarter, but the economy feels better,” Frazier said. “There’s a lot more energy and people are looking on the up-and-up.”
Instead of asking whether or not they can afford to update their branding, companies are now asking how they can fit it into their budgets, Frazier said.
It’s a welcome change since Frazier started her business in 2008, just before signs of economic strife became painfully clear.
“It launched really well, but when it hit, people started hoarding money and the first thing they take out is marketing and research,” Frazier said of her first year in business. “I had to build better and stronger language about why that’s important, and explain we don’t do anything that doesn’t perform.”
Many LGBT entrepreneurs were just setting up shop during the tough times. Degelman opened both his businesses during the recent recession – spurred on by the very hardships that make entrepreneurship daunting.
In 2006, Degelman had just graduated from design school.
“I went on 151 interviews, and they all said ‘you’ll be amazing, but it’s not going to happen here,’” Degelman said. “So I started my own business.” He co-founded his interior design company in 2008. Two years later he was doing well enough to strike out on a second venture – he bought tHERe bar, re-naming it There Urban Whiskey Bar.
Frazier, too, pushed through the downturn, and said that while it forced her to make steeper sacrifices than she would have, it made her business stronger in the long run. She said LGBT-owned businesses she works with were particularly resilient in adapting to the changing circumstances.
“I found they were struggling more or less, but they were responding well,” Frazier said.
Entrepreneurship is strong in the LGBT community – in 2011 there were an estimated 1.4 million LGBT-owned businesses in the U.S., according to a study by the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and Community Marketing Inc.
The data is rough since it’s notoriously difficult to track how many Americans identify as LGBT in the first place, but the point is clear: there are a lot of LGBT people out there running their own shop.
“The questions have never really been asked before,” said Laura Berry, director of communications at the Chamber. To help understand and support LGBT entrepreneurs, the group is in the early stages of building a directory of certified LGBT-owned businesses defined as companies that are more than 51 percent LGBT-owned.
Some suggest the entrepreneurship is spurred by adversity; that some LGBT people have a harder time advancing in a mainstream corporate workplace and consider it more appealing to go it alone.
While LGBT-friendliness in private-sector workplaces varies, reports find evidence of ongoing struggles. In a 2008 General Social Survey by the UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute, 37 percent of lesbian, gay or bisexual respondents reported facing employment discrimination in the previous five years, and more than nine percent had been fired over sexual orientation in the same period.
Transgender individuals face even more difficulty – reporting almost universal experiences of workplace discrimination or harassment leading to an unemployment rate that’s nearly twice the national average, found the 2009 National Transgender Discrimination Survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Degelman said he’s seen friends fired for being gay, or find it harder to advance or be successful at work.
“People go through it and get sick of it and think, ‘I’m gonna do it myself,’” Degelman said.
But even LGBT people who aren’t directly discriminated at work end up learning an approach to life – and a community engagement – that favors entrepreneurship, some business owners said.
“Being gay is unique,” Donohoe said. “You can cater to a specific audience because you know more about it – plus, it’s more fun.”
Degelman said, “It’s the stronger sense of individuality and the fact that we have to deal with greater adversity. Pride is the idea that through the force of adversity, you come out on top.”
Describing his husband as a “corporate guy” working at a large company, Degelman “couldn’t imagine being in a cubicle for 15 years,” he said. “His mindset is forced to be about the structure.”
Frazier, who called herself an “entrepreneur at the core” – it’s something she says comes second nature to her – would have been doing what she does no matter what, she said. Still, she admires the special expressiveness LGBT people bring to their work.
“They bring themselves into everything they do,” she said.
That’s something Williams might relate to; the 37-year-old florist is covered in tattoos and piercings.
“I’m pretty modified,” Williams said. “In a lot of businesses that’s an issue, but for me that’s part of my marketing. When you have your own business you don’t have to deal with dress codes; I don’t even think anymore, ‘hey, my face is full of metal.’”
Williams had worked in the florist industry since he was 21 and had a multi-faceted background in gardening, sculpture and photography when he suddenly lost the job he’d been working at for six years – “laid off totally out of the blue,” he said.
So Williams took time to re-think his path, pick up the pieces and sculpt something more his own – a company that creates custom flower arrangements that aren’t just bouquets as much as works of art.
“I worked at a shop that was more traditional, making the same thing hundreds of times,” he said. “Now, I try not to do the same thing twice.”
Williams said he doesn’t know how many LGBT people are among his clientele, and thinks it’s more important for people to spend at local businesses than necessarily LGBT-owned businesses. But LGBT entrepreneurs like Williams provide at least one concrete thing the community desperately needs: jobs.
Babylon Floral’s one employee is a lesbian – and while that’s not the reason Williams hired her, it’s clear LGBT-owned companies are less likely to discriminate and loyalty to LGBT-friendly business is important for many community members and entrepreneurs.
“It’s mostly my gay customers who come in saying ‘I think this would be a fun place to work,’” said Donohoe, who noted that Videotique, at 9th and Downing, is “on probably the gayest corner in the whole city.”
Data from the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce states 89 percent of gay men and 92 percent of lesbians report a company’s treatment of lesbian and gay employees impacts their consumer decisions, and a similar number report their spending is influenced by a company’s support of LGBT events and organizations.
“I do buy from primarily gay people, and both my companies are primarily gay-run companies,” Degelman said. He said he purposefully looks to support the community in his business and shopping decisions.
Frazier said the community has, at the very least, opened doors for her – “I never felt as if I had no one to turn to on the client side,” she said. “It’s a really supportive community; whether that turns into business or not, that’s on me.”
She said she hopes LGBT people continue to support each other.
“I want LGBT businesses to look out for other LGBT businesses first,” Frazier said. “I wouldn’t say it’s ‘us against them’ but I love to see that support. There are some really talented individuals in this community, and why not support each other?”
As for Donohoe, it was partly his niche market – video selections catered to the LGBT community and gay men and the loyalty of many of his die-hard customers – that helped his business survive through the downturn, he said. Videotique, which had six employees at its peak, is still able to maintain four employees now.
“I wish there were more LGBT business around,” Donahoe said. “It increases the strength of being gay, the strength of our power and visibility, and maintaining our identity.”
He said, “I don’t think we should all be the same, anyway.”
(Pictured: Cadee Harris, founder, owner of Emerald City Eyebrows.)
OFC’s 36th Anniversary feature on LGBT entrepreneurship is in three parts:
Main story: LGBT entrepreneurs overcome adversity (you are on this page).