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Gay Walmart group PRIDE comes out 

But company's embrace of equality uneasy.

Walmart's red-bricked headquarters in Bentonville is an inscrutable place for good reason. The world's largest and most successful retailer has trade secrets to keep.

One discreet bit of data — among the estimated 5,000 home office associates, 600 are gay. For the past seven years, some of these lesbian, gay, transsexual, transvestite, transgendered and bisexual professionals have quietly worked to affect political and social change within Walmart.

Their internal corporate resource group, Walmart PRIDE (Promoting, Respect, Inclusion, Diversity & Equity), organized eight years ago, finally came out publicly at the Northwest Arkansas Center for Equality's annual gala, Nov. 16 in Fayetteville.

A dozen members were on hand to receive the center's community partner award. In his keynote address, Greg Warren, who joined Walmart three years ago as vice president of marketing, said he was shocked to learn the company did not provide same-sex benefits.

"So I made it a mission," he said. "But making change at Walmart is like dripping water on stone."

To convince company leaders, PRIDE members produced a documentary in which gay associates told their coming out stories. "Lots of people don't realize you have to come out on daily basis," said one. "It's not easy."

"It made me queasy, nauseous," said another.

"We can't divide ourselves into comfortable portions," another gay male associate said. "We can't be gay at home, then straight at work."

Warren, who is also featured, told the crowd that the video is being shown to associates around the world. "We want to encourage them to bring their authentic selves to work," he said.

In his closing remarks, Warren quoted founder Sam Walton: " 'I've always been driven to buck the system, to innovate, to take things beyond where they've been.' "

"So I believe it is Sam's charge for us to dream bigger, to make tomorrow's actions much larger, more innovative more challenging — and much better."

***

Walmart claims diversity has been at the core of its culture since Sam Walton opened his first discount center in Arkansas in 1962. For minorities and especially elders, the claim may be true, although complaints about glass ceilings and low wages remain ubiquitous.

But in the early days of Walmart, being gay meant working in the closet. Rumors circulated that if you came out, you faced being fired. Ten years ago, when queried about bias at company headquarters, one lesbian said she kept a photo of a fake husband on her desk to dispel suspicions. A transsexual said she presented as male to hide her true identity. Another woman reported that after coming out, she was written up, then terminated for what she said was a minor infraction.

Fears eased in 2003, after Walmart set diversity goals and expanded its workplace nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation. Two years later, corporate associates were encouraged to organize cultural and ethnic resource groups — support groups to enhance professional development and to foster a sense of community. Hispanics, Asians, blacks, women, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders formed affinity groups. Meanwhile, a few dozen gay associates quietly organized Walmart PRIDE.

"Our company has an inclusive environment where they do feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work," said Sharon Orlopp, Walmart's chief diversity officer.

She said Walmart PRIDE has recently expanded beyond Northwest Arkansas, to include colleagues at the company's e-commerce headquarters in San Bruno, Calif., home to Walmart.com.

"Associates there, as well as in our Tulsa market, recently held a 'Coming Out' day," she said. "And when we opened a Walmart Express in a Chicago neighborhood which is predominately gay, our PRIDE group had involvement with selecting product assortment."

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