Credit unions that don't consider their gay, lesbian and transgendered members are missing out on a huge opportunity. So said Thomas Bowen, operations project coordinator at the $100 million Money One Federal Credit Union.
Credit unions don't have to "put a feather boa on every employee and paint all the lines in the parking lot pink" to attract gay members, he said. However, cooperatives should at least provide sensitivity training for employees and make sure "partner" is included on membership and loan applications.
The Largo, Md.-based credit union doesn't specifically market to the gay community, but Bowen said because gay marriage is legal in nearby Washington, D.C., it presents a great opportunity for membership growth. Both The Washington Post and The Washington Times have been publishing gay wedding announcement for years, he said.
And even though Largo is more socially conservative than Washington, Bowen said he is openly gay at work and hasn't experienced discrimination from co-workers.
"Look, gays typically make good money, many of us don't have kids, we travel, we own homes, we use our credit cards. We are always among the first to buy new technology, and we like to buy nice things," he said. "I think we make great members, and if credit unions don't jump on this opportunity, a big bank will."
Bowen acknowledged the strategy isn't for every credit union. For example, those with a field of membership that is socially conservative or military credit unions, whose members may work under the government's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
However, he said all credit unions probably have more gay members than they realize, and the group is sensitive to the quality of service they receive.
"The gay network is very cooperative in nature," he said. "Most people don't realize there is a gay yellow pages that list gay-owned and operated and gay-friendly businesses. My partner and I share with our friends where we feel comfortable, and if we knew a couple that had been turned off by a credit union or another financial institution, we'd never do business there again."
Thirty-four-year-old Miriam Tell has been with her partner, Rebecca, for 15 years. Tell said the two are expecting their second child together "any day now."
The couple has been members of First New York Federal Credit Union for 10 years. They have a joint checking account and are co-borrowers on a home equity loan at the Albany, N.Y.-based $228 million cooperative.
Tell said she and Rebecca conduct transactions regularly at the credit union and haven't received "even one funny look." She joined because she has only used credit unions since college, believes in them politically and Rebecca's family had accounts there.
However, despite her reasons for joining, Tell said if the credit union had been unfriendly to her progressive family, she would have taken her business elsewhere.
The freelance writer and editor said she doesn't expect financial institutions to market specifically to lesbians. But, if she had to choose among institutions and didn't know anything else about them, if one made it clear it welcomed gay customers, "that would be a positive in my book."
San Francisco Fire Credit Union has included the term "partner" on its membership and loan applications so long, President/CEO Diana Dykstra doesn't remember for sure when she added it. Dykstra said it was probably the early to mid-1990s, around the time the credit union also began providing insurance coverage to the domestic partners of its employees.
Dykstra, who grew up in the Bay Area, said because San Francisco has been on the forefront of gay rights for so long, ensuring quality service for gay members is part of everyday business.
"They're productive human beings, and what they do in their private life is not relevant to serving their financial needs," she said.
Dykstra said she remembers when joint applications could only be with a spouse or a parent.
"That doesn't fly anymore, and it has little to do with San Francisco or gay members," she said. "It's not only applications that are different, there are policies and by-laws that state if the person is part of an economic unit, that's all you can require."