Saturday, July 02, 2005 | When Bill Beck moved with his partner to San Diego in 1981 to set up their print shop on Sixth Avenue and Ash Street, he was comfortable with his identity as a gay man, but admits he was questioning his printing skills.
“I’m not sure I even knew how to turn on a copy machine,” said Beck, who was an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona before switching careers and starting up Will Copy and Print, a service that provides commercial and electronic printing in downtown San Diego.
Though committed to his boyfriend and sharing in the hopes of the emerging gay community, Beck was also a struggling small business owner trying to build contacts in a new city, more concerned about promoting a good business than a gay business.
“We decided early that we would be what we are and run a business just like everybody else,” Beck said.
His early vow to “just do business” foreshadowed a dominant theme in the adult phase of the Greater San Diego Business Association, a big name for the then-infant nonprofit whose board Beck joined two years after its inception in 1979.
Comprised of a small group of business individuals, mostly gay men, it started as a sort of business alternative to the bar scene, providing a space for individuals within the gay community to network and socialize in a closed, safe environment away from discriminating gazes.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that it assumed a real location, along with a matured approach to business focusing on diversity, communication and exchange both within and outside of the gay community.
The second largest and second oldest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community supportive business chamber in the nation, with more than 750 members strong, today’s GSDBA espouses a twofold goal of promoting good business alongside enhancing equality and diversity. Executive director Joyce Marieb sees opportunities for the gay community in San Diego to gain power and visibility in the social realm as a leader of quality business.
“If people stand to gain money, and if you are able to deal on that level, then you are accepted in this society in a way that you might not be otherwise,” Marieb said. “Business is an important player in the equality game.”
During her six years of leadership, Marieb has seen the uphill battles fought by struggling small businesses and gay equality advocates gain altitude.
She views the establishment of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in late 2002 as a key victory, recognizing the gay population as a legitimate minority group alongside other historically acknowledged minorities. The national chamber has since become a mother ship for local organizations like the GSDBA, presenting them with avenues to network with major national corporations, such as IBM and Wells Fargo, as well as providing a lobby for important business legislation in Washington.
Another of the organization’s relatively recent achievements has been establishing networks with straight business leaders who stand to gain from tapping gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender markets. Some 150 straight supporters to date have found in the association a fit for either their social sympathies or their pocketbooks, or both.
New alliances forged on the business turf have had their impact on the social landscape, by opening the channels of communication and challenging stereotypes on both sides of the minority/majority divide.
“People see us out running our business and being successful, and that begins to change attitudes,” Beck said. “When a lesbian business woman is making a nice living working with five or six straight people doing the same thing, it’s a subtle message that she is just a person like everyone else.”
Ask Marci Bair, who became a member in 1994 after shopping around for a business association to help boost her self-started financial consulting and investment company. Over a decade later, the clients of her successful firm are still derived primarily from chamber referrals and the omnipresent directory gracing San Diego countertops.
With challenges still looming for the GSDBA on both business and political fronts, the organization continues to pursue an agenda to facilitate change.
Marieb voices her hope for a future alliance with Latino and black minority groups in San Diego to gain power in numbers and enhance diversity in the business community. Beck also shares this vision, while acknowledging that cultural barriers may still exist that will prevent an alliance between conservative-thinking members of other minority groups and the gay and lesbian community.
“GSDBA is part of the whole package, a whole vision of moving an oppressed people, some of whom don’t even understand how oppressed they are,” Beck said.
Members of gay community at large appear to have surpassed the point of self-awareness, focusing new energy on challenging society to get past small-minded prejudice. The growth and maturation of the chamber has accompanied what Beck refers to as the “mainstreaming” of the gay community, a process by which individual members have stepped into the light in political, economic and social spheres simultaneously, forging alliances with the straight community and confronting stereotypes that cling like stains to the social fabric.
Beck cites the diversity of opinions within the gay community regarding the upcoming mayoral runoff as an example of its newfound “sophistication.” He credits the chamber’s success in facilitating positive gay-straight relationships in San Diego with producing a new, civic-minded approach among the gay population, which is allowing individuals to focus beyond gay-centered issues in the current political arena to look at what’s good for the city as a whole.
“Some of us are saying, for example, ‘you know, I love everything [Donna Frye’s] talking about, on the gay issues she’s always right, but I’m supporting Jerry Sanders because I think he can do something she’s not able to do,’” said Beck.
Beck’s attitude is remarkably similar to the one he had 23 years earlier, watching the GSDBA grow up alongside his small print business with the confident air of someone who is reconciled with who he is and has bigger problems to solve.
“That’s not talking as a gay man anymore, that’s talking as a businessman.”
Please contact Jessica L. Horton directly at