A proud business owner explains how discrimination is bad for his bottom line

Thom Christian • Easton

ThomChristianLGBTThom Christian has lived in Easton his whole life. As a proud Pennsylvanian, Thom decided to take a risk in his late 30’s to open a small business in Emmaus, PA called Now and Then Books. That was 14 years ago, and today, Thom is proud to boast that all are welcome at his place of business.

“Since I’ve owned my own business, I’ve met some incredible people. I’ve met all kinds of people. Democrats, Republicans, pro-war, anti-war, black, white, straight, gay; and I feel that every customer that comes into my store feeds me. They give me a story, and share their experiences with me and I feel like I’m a richer person for experiencing that.”

Thom, who identifies as gay, just can’t get his head around why anyone would want to discriminate against anyone, particularly a place of business. As a business owner, he knows discrimination is bad for his bottom line—and it’s bad for the state’s economy too.

“Trying to exclude people boggles my mind because as a business owner, I can’t imagine what a customer would have to do to me to turn them away. Especially with the economy the way it is, I can’t imagine what your character is like for me to have to exclude someone from my business.”

Thom wonders how it could be that in the state of Pennsylvania, two gay people can now legally marry, but when they return to work, they could risk losing their job because of it. But the sad truth is, that in the Commonwealth it is still perfectly legal to fire, deny housing or refuse service to someone, simply because they are gay or transgender. That’s why Thom is hopeful that this year our state legislature will do the right thing and pass the Pennsylvania Fairness Act, a bill that seeks to update Pennsylvania’s non-discrimination law to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Today in Pennsylvania, you have that right to marry if you are gay, but when you come back to your job, you can be fired because of it. In 2015, this has to change. “

As a business owner, Thom worries that as the only Northeastern state that still does not protect gay and transgender people from discrimination, our state economy will suffer. This is particularly true amongst millennials, who may choose to live elsewhere where they know that they or their friends will not be discriminated. As a state that churns out thousands of new grads every year from our world-renowned universities, this is especially concerning for any business owner in Pennsylvania.

“Updating our laws, I think will not only attract millennials, but it will keep them once they graduated. You may go to school here but are you going to stay here? Are you going to work here and build your career in Pennsylvania?”

Thom points to the patchwork of laws in Pennsylvania, where some municipalities have already adopted non-discrimination protections, and are thriving because of it, while other parts of the state are lagging behind.

“Pennsylvania is a microcosm of the whole United States. We have the east coast and the west coast that have mostly already adopted protections. And then you have the middle that has not. And what you see in those areas in the middle is that they don’t seem to be growing economically like Lehigh Valley or Philadelphia.”

ThomChristianLGBT3“I think there needs to be a consistency. Economically it would benefit the middle of the state because businesses would be able to draw from a larger talent pool,” he adds.

Thom has been in business for a long time and not once has he met another fellow business owner who felt they needed the ability to discriminate against others. He argues, it goes against what being a small business is all about, which for most, is to make money and give back to the community.

“One of the biggest worries as a business owner is the loss of revenue, most people are in business to make money. As a business owner, you want to attract customers, keep your customers, a lot of times I don’t even like to refer to my customers as customers, but rather as friends of the store. We’ve been in business for 14 years now, we’ve had a lot of the same customers from the beginning. I’ve gotten to know them, they know me. Their kids would work in the store in the summer and their kids are all in their late 20s now. So as a business owner, you’re part of the community, your customers become more than just people who come in.”

That’s why, in addition to the 23 Fortune 500 companies based in Pennsylvania, all of which have already adopted non-discrimination policies, Thom is rather confident that a majority of small business owners are on board as well.

“I think most small businesses want to attract customers, they don’t want to offend, they don’t want to exclude anybody. It’s not good for the bottom line,” Thom explains.

But this issue isn’t just about cupcakes and weddings. Real Pennsylvanian’s must live in fear knowing that at any moment they could lose their job or home, simply because they are gay or transgender—something Thom argues should have no bearing whatsoever on how an employee should be judged.

“Employees should be judged on their performance, on their qualifications. Whether you’re talking about a technical job, you’ll want someone who is well trained. If you’re hiring someone to be a journalist, you’d want someone coming from a good school. Those are the things that should matter. Not your sexual orientation or gender identity.”

While Thom counts himself as one of the lucky ones, he notes the untold burden placed on LGBT headed households who must live in fear—and how passing the Pennsylvania Fairness Act will improve the lives of so many hardworking families across the state.

“I think it will impact our community tremendously, and in a positive way. I mean, imagine not living in fear of getting kicked out of your apartment or losing your job. Living your authentic life without having to hide things from your employer or your landlord. I think it would make a huge difference.”

Updating Pennsylvania’s laws is not only the right thing to do, it’s also in line with what our country is all about—that all people, no matter who they are or where they come from, are deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“I think non-discrimination protections are positively in line with American values. It’s what our country has always been about, inclusion not exclusion. Welcoming. It makes a stronger country when everybody has a place at the table.”

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