CINCINNATI — Michael Chanak describes gay Cincinnati of the late 1980s as an "old secret society," its membership still operating in the shadows of society for fear of being outed.
Then, a friendly kiss caught by WCPO-TV cameras at a Pride event in 1986 pushed Chanak out from the secret society and into the open, setting the stage for a major change at a major company.
"The Monday after the weekend, I had about 25 people come into the lab and say, 'Michael, this is really great, but you need to be careful, really careful,'" he said. "Because there were no protections in those days and it was not considered a good move for your career to be considered a homosexual at [Procter & Gamble]."
Chanak retired from the company years ago, as a senior research associate.
Those conversations in 1986 -- and the lack of protections in P&G's equal employment opportunity (EEO) policy -- led to a years-long effort for change. Chanak and several other gay employees -- and straight allies -- started asking for change.
"I don't know how many people walked up to me and says, 'You know, Michael, just, it's not going to happen,'" Chanak said. "It went up a lot of times through management and kept getting turned down."
The efforts coincided with the AIDS epidemic -- and a shift in a little-known P&G mouthwash at the time, Peridex. It was commonly used to fight gingivitis but was found to be effective in combating thrush, a side effect of AIDS.
Chanak -- by coincidence or design; he's not sure -- was moved to that brand team, which had a lot of contact with the gay community. And it provided one part of a business case for making the EEO change.
"Not just dealing with the gay community in terms of selling off-label to a group of people that you don't claim on your diversity policy," Chanak said. "It's also the fact that at the same time, universities and stuff are starting to ask this questions of recruiters like, 'What is your policy?' So every time P&G went to that kind of campus, they had to file a special statement saying, 'Oh, no, no, we don't discriminate.'"
The hard work, hustle, and business perspective paid off. Procter & Gamble added "sexual orientation" to its EEO policy in 1992.
"It's not whether or not they were against gay people; it has to have a justification in a business context," he said. "And that's a whole different thing than saying, 'Well, it's nice to do.'"
Chanak admits the policy change didn't immediately open floodgates for anything else.
"Nothing immediately changed," he said. "I think the thing was, it sent a message to others that more can be done."
Gay employees slowly began feeling more comfortable being out in the workplace, leading to the 1996 establishment of GABLE, P&G's gay, ally, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender employee affinity group.
Now years into retirement, Chanak continues to advocate for gay rights and causes. The story of P&G's EEO policy change was one he figured wouldn't get told – until an expected call from Brent Miller, senior director of global LGBTQ+ equality for P&G. He wanted to mark the 25th anniversary of the change and understand how it happened.
A series of short films about P&G's inclusion efforts followed.
Chanak has advice for people who feel they need to fight for a change in their organization.
"Do it," he said. "You don't need permission."
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