Just two years ago, Nissan scored a mere 30 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2012 corporate Equality Index, left in the dust by many auto companies. But Nissan took that mark seriously, and in a single year raised its score a whopping 70 points to a perfect 100. Turns out, it was Nissan employees themselves, as much as anything, who helped put Nissan on the map as a corporate friend to the LGBT community.

Nissan employees company-wide are organized into various “synergy groups” for people with various interests and concerns, from the original, focuses on the status of women, to the largest which emphasizes employee health and well-being. The Gay Straight Alliance at Nissan, or GSAN (which when said out loud cleverly rhymes with Nissan), is the youngest of these groups, but it’s fast-growing and active.

Not long after Nissan received its dismal score from the HRC, Cathy Lively, current president and co-founder of GSAN, was attending a diversity breakfast. “Someone shared a story,” Cathy recalled, “about conversations that were going on during the elections. She had heard a lot of edgy conversations, and a lot of uneducated talk about LGBT issues, and she shared with us some things that scared her.”

After this meeting, Cathy went to Nissan’s Director of Diversity and discussed starting a synergy team. “Domestic partner benefits and other protections came with Nissan when it transferred here, so there were some things in place. But there wasn’t a synergy team – a group to support our LGBT employees and offer them a safe environment to discuss issues important to them,” Lively explains.

There were some issues that needed to be hammered out before GSAN would be formed. Synergy groups are entirely employee driven, so Cathy needed a core group. And as a straight ally, Cathy felt like she needed a LGBT “partner in crime” to get the group going – which she found in one of her best friends, Dave Damron. Once Dave joined her, the group still needed an executive sponsor. “That’s when we were put in touch with Travis Parman, Director of Corporate Communications,” she explained. “Then we had our team in place.”

From a core group of about ten during the planning stages, GSAN expanded by leaps and bounds. By its launch a year-and-a-half ago, it had reached forty members, and has grown since to over a hundred, about 60% allies. “Clearly it was a long time coming,” Lively says. “We just want people to understand that we have a corporate culture where it’s not okay to be nasty to each other, and we want to work to spread that environment through the company, from offices to factories.”

As president of the group, Cathy has a lot to be proud of: from doubling its membership to winning awards from the LGBT chamber of commerce and bringing in HRC to do a panel on corporate issues, GSAN has been busy. The event with the HRC also illustrates how GSAN is reaching beyond its own walls: the panel was open to other businesses in the hope of supporting pro-LGBT cultures in other companies.

“Of course we’re proud of our education and engagement with Nissan employees. But growing our employee awareness – and our membership – allows us to take advantage of opportunities to reach out. And of course we couldn’t sponsor Pride at the level we do without employee volunteer support,” she explains.

“When I came to Nissan,” Travis Parman says, “I saw we were a sponsor but weren’t in the program. All we had was two Infinities outside the gate with some product specialists. Last year and this year, we really increased our engagement and put a human face on it with our employee volunteers. The cars draw people in, but it’s talking with our LGBT employees and their allies that shows people what we’re all about.”

And Nissan’s presence at Pride, like GSAN itself, is employee driven. This year they brought in some paid product specialists though. “Some people are really interested in the cars, of course,” Cathy says. “Having the specialists frees up our GSAN volunteers to get to know people. They connect with our employee volunteers and see that Nissan isn’t just putting money into pride, it’s putting its human presence there as well.”

GSAN looks forward to supporting Nissan’s LGBT employees and allies, as well as the broader community, in more and new ways in the future. “We’re local now,” Cathy said. “Each location has to have its own employee group to have a presence. We think we’re there at our Smyrna location.” She looks forward to the group expanding through the manufacturing side. “We also look forward to giving our employees more opportunity to engage in outreach. We’re proud of our community and we want to support it.”

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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