NEW YORK -- It happens a few times a year: A customer refuses to work with Dave Greenbaum because he's gay.
Greenbaum, who owns a computer repair business in Lawrence, Kan., often needs to go into customers' homes. Some people realized he is gay after he was quoted in a newspaper story about gay rights. They told Greenbaum, "I don't appreciate your lifestyle and I don't want you in my house." Others canceled appointments saying, "I found out you're gay."
Despite increasing acceptance of homosexuality in the U.S., gay small business owners say they still encounter discrimination from possible customers and investors. The discrimination is often subtle. An owner senses from a potential client's body language or from a sales conversation cut short that they're uncomfortable. Sometimes it's more overt, like the rejections Greenbaum has gotten.
The need to raise public awareness about AIDS, which has affected many gays, and the fight for legalization of same-sex marriage have encouraged more gays to be open about their sexual orientation and has increased acceptance of them by others. Still, gay rights advocates note that 29 states don't prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Business owners are also vulnerable, they say.
"They're at a business meeting, and no one's particularly identified as gay, and then there's a gay joke or gay slur," says Gene Falk, CEO of StartOut, an organization that supports gay entrepreneurship. "You don't have to go through that too often to develop a real sense of what you're up against."
Publicist Sam Firer specializes in working with chefs. He finds many American male chefs don't want to work with him; they meet with him but choose a woman-owned public relations firm. Firer, who co-owns New York-based Hall Co., says he doesn't believe those chefs act out of malice. He thinks they're uneasy around gay men.
"Stressful and busy people want to be as comfortable as they can from moment to moment," says Firer, who does have accounts with male chefs who are from other countries. Some who initially reject him later call him for help.
A challenge for some gay owners is they're not part of what they call the good old boy network. Straight men in business often connect by talking about a football game or golf trip, topics that some gay men don't care about.
"A lot of the way guys relate to each other is with sports, and frankly, that doesn't interest me," says Nayte Carrick, owner of ClikClok, an Orlando, Fla.-based software company.
His home life is different and that can also make it difficult to connect.
"I don't have a girlfriend and I don't have a wife. I'm 36 and don't have kids. That's bizarre to them," he says. "Even people I think of as open-minded have difficulty relating to my life."
Some believe that being gay costs them business. Cindy Weigel, owner of Roxy Insurance in Chicago, finds it hard to sell policies to suburban families, while her wife is more successful. Weigel says she believes it's because she looks gay — her hair is short and spiky and she says she doesn't look as feminine as other women. Her wife, Weigel says, is "pretty" and "does not look gay."
Weigel has a solid business selling to gay clients and straight ones who are single. But families are the most lucrative customers for an insurance agent.
"I feel that being gay is hurting my business," Weigel says. "It's just the way it is."
Some owners develop strategies to avoid losing business or head off an unpleasant situation.
Stephanie Davis uses an upfront approach. She owns an entertainment publicity business in Philadelphia and sometimes works with churches. She tells pastors she is gay because she understands they may not want to work with her. Two pastors have refused to work with her — but most want her services.
"Some say, I'm working with you because you do amazing work," Davis says.
Jeffrey Cesari asked a female colleague to work with a prospective client who seemed to be uneasy with him. Cesari's first phone conversation with the man a year ago started well, but Cesari began to feel tension as it went on.
Cesari, whose Philadelphia-based company Shimmer Events organizes conferences and other events, wasn't ready to give up.
"I called a couple more times to get more information, but I couldn't get anywhere," Cesari says. When his female colleague tried, the client was willing to schedule an event.
Ryan Hayward is anxious about potential investors for New York-based Hatch Co., which operates a website where crafts makers can sell jewelry, home furnishings and other items. Investors ask why he started the business. Hayward's inspiration was his boyfriend.
"Every time I've spoken with potential investors, I found myself nervously, quickly making a decision about whether I was going to say 'friend' or 'boyfriend' or leave it out. It's something I have to think about every time," Hayward says.
Owners who have been in business for many years say attitudes have changed for the better. Bob Hayes and Jim Burba have been a couple for 24 years, and partners in Burba Hotel Network for 13. The first decade they were in business, Burba attended meetings alone so they wouldn't be seen as a couple.
"It was partly a conscious decision on my part. I thought it could cause some problems," says Hayes, vice president of the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company that organizes investor conferences for the hotel and tourism industry.
About three to four years ago, Hayes and Burba sensed a more accepting atmosphere. They started attending meetings together.
"We're at the point where, if people don't like us because of the fact we're gay," Hayes says, "that's too bad."