My Life with the Gayglers by Bennet Marks
July 18, 2019; last edit June 21, 2020
My name is Bennet Marks (b. 1954). I grew up in Levittown, New York, was an undergraduate at Brown University in Rhode Island, and came to California to attend graduate school at Stanford University. I live with my husband in Sunnyvale, CA.
Everything related here I have taken from memory. I hope in the future to do some research to fact-check it. But in the meantime, some of the details may only be approximate.
From 1982 to 1997 I worked at Apple Computer in Cupertino, primarily as a software engineer. In 1986 I founded Apple Lambda, the Apple Gay & Lesbian Employees Organization. Which is a story all its own.
In 2004 I joined Google in Mountain View, CA, as a technical writer in the Site Reliability group. Google (like most major tech companies of the time) already had the policies we worked so hard for at Apple in the 1980s and 1990s: a non-discrimination policy (which applied to Google locations even in states that didn’t have such a policy in law), and domestic partner benefits.
What Google didn’t have was any visibility on these issues. For example, when I was being interviewed, I asked the recruiter if Google had domestic partner benefits. (This was important to me personally because my husband was retired.) She told me that she didn’t know, but she would check and get back to me.
This seemed like a red flag to me, because I knew that there were people who would be reluctant to ask. The policy should have been made clear without asking. Certainly, the recruiter should have known without checking. One of the first things I did after getting my own desk was to call HR and discuss the issue, and suggest that recruiters be better educated on subjects of importance to LGBT applicants. I offered to help.
I firmly believed that Google could have all the best-practice LGBT employee policies, but if this were not publicly known, many employees and applicants would be reluctant to ask. It could also affect if applicants considered Google their top choice.
An LGBT Employees Group
Unlike many local companies, Google did not have an LGBT employees group. This seemed like a natural place to start. At that time, Google employees (at least in the engineering world) were encouraged to pursue a “20% project,” spending 20% of their time on a project that they found personally interesting and that might be of value to the company, even if it wasn’t directly connected to their job. Usually, this was an engineering project. After I had been at Google for three months, I went to my manager and asked him if I could spend my 20% time creating a Google LGBT Employees Group. His response: “Well, somebody’s got to do it!”
The group needed a name. I wanted it to be pithy and inclusive, understandable by straight people (including the executives we would be working with on policy change) and not offensive to anyone in the LGBT community. This is not as easy as it sounds. I decided I needed to talk to some lesbians and trans people in the company - but since we didn’t have a group, and I was new, I didn’t know many. I also wasn’t sure who I needed to talk to in HR and Corporate Communications to create such a group.
First Meeting of the Gayglers
During the three days, I was working on this, another employee posted a notice to the company’s group email list. Basically, it said: Hey, LGBT employees, the first meeting of the Gayglers is this Friday. Come meet us for lunch in the cafeteria!
And several of my co-workers said: yup, that’s how we do it at Google.
Visibility, Policies, Funding
The Gayglers started as a lunch group, for socializing and networking, but we quickly started working with the company to discuss visibility, policies, funding, and other issues of importance to us. We created a committee, and I was elected the first “Gayglers Coordinator,” a great-sounding title with no real power at all. (I should mention that the employee who named the Gayglers and arranged the first meeting was primarily interested in the social and networking aspects, and didn’t want to be on any committees. He also left the company not long after.) I stayed in that position until I left Google in 2011. I don’t remember a lot of people competing for it.
Publicizing Our Existence
We publicized our existence throughout the company, not just in Mountain View. Soon we had chapters in many locations. One of our first projects was a corporate exhibit of Love Makes A Family, photographs of LGBT family and friends with personal stories in text, which was (generally speaking) well-received. We also marched in the SF Pride Parade - many straight employees (including a VP and his daughter) joined us, and Google paid for the t-shirts.
We did experience some pushback. Some of it seemed clearly homophobic to me, but more of it was (I believe) simply some engineers asking “Why should we even talk about such things in an engineering company? It’s a distraction.” Overall, though, we had a lot of support, including many members of the exec staff.
First Google Diversity Organization
The Gayglers were the first grass-roots employee diversity organization at Google. (There was a Women in Engineering group, but it had been created by the company.) We were consulted by other groups of employees, and Google soon had a Black Googlers Network, a Hispanic Googlers Network, and more. These groups did amazing work. Later groups included one for employees “of a certain age” - the Greyglers, who felt that being considerably older than the average Google employee gave them specific concerns and perspectives (I was a member) - and the Google Veterans Network, who the Gayglers established a close relationship with while LGBT activists were struggling with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.(1)
There were many active members of Gayglers, who worked on a wide variety of projects. I don’t have a list. Some were dedicated to making Google a comfortable and supportive work environment for all employees, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Some focused on our products, making sure they were inclusive of the LGBT community. The annual Pride Parade was one of the high points of the year, a reason for all the Bay Area folks to get together and celebrate. Very quickly Gayglers were marching in other cities too: in 2007, we had marches in San Francisco, New York, Madrid (Europride), and Dublin.
All Welcome to March
I took on the job of encouraging straight coworkers to join us in the SF Parade, which I enjoyed tremendously. Each year, in the weeks before the Parade, I would go to the big TGIF meetings and make my pitch: LGBT Pride (I would tell them) is not just for LGBTers! It is for anyone who is willing to stand up and be counted in the fight against homophobia and transphobia.
My estimate is that, in our enormous contingent of marchers, about half were straight supporters. That made me very proud of my company and my coworkers.
Are the Androids Gay?
I remember one year when I was giving my spiel and our t-shirt design for the year was being displayed on the huge screen behind the executives. Larry Page asked me if the androids were now gay. “I don’t know,” I said, “they could be a gay couple, a lesbian couple, two straight supporters; it’s hard to tell with androids!” (This was before discussion of non-binary individuals was common in public discourse, or I would have included them as well.)
Fair Domestic Partner Benefits
One of our accomplishments that got the most public recognition was when the Gayglers worked with Google to eliminate the unfair tax penalty that applied to employees using domestic partner benefits. Before the federal government recognized same-sex marriage, the “equivalent value” of domestic partner benefits for unmarried (typically, same-sex) couples were treated as taxable income - but not for federally-recognized married couples. So same-sex couples were paying what was largely a “gay-only” tax. Google agreed to include that cost of that tax in the salaries of the employees forced to pay it. The New York Times covered this development, and soon a number of other companies instituted the same change.(2) My memory says that, when FOX News covered it, their headline was “Google To Pay Gay Employees More Than Straights.” I suppose that’s one way to look at it.
The Work Goes On
When I left the company in 2011, I know there was a lot of work going on with transgender employees, to make sure that all their medical needs (including transition-related health care) were covered. I believe there were also some projects reaching out to LGBT-run businesses.
I am retired now. I miss Google, and I miss the Gayglers. But I’m glad to know that the work they’re doing is continuing and expanding.
(1) See: https://diversity.google/commitments/ accessed July 22, 2019.
(2) See: https://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/30/the-tax-treatment-of-domestic-partner-benefits/ accessed July 22, 2019.