An Oklahoma non-profit is pouring water on the 'right to refuse' prairie fire that is spreading across the United States. Dr. Meredith Worthen, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma, and Brian Eddins, Norman realtor, created The Welcoming Project as a way to let gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people know their business is appreciated and welcome.
Dr. Worthen came up with the idea after being involved with the University of Oklahoma's Sooner Ally program, but she wanted to create something that went beyond the campus. The idea is simple: Have local businesses put a sign up indicating that all are welcome. Customers see the welcoming sign, and know that it is a safe place for everyone.
One of the businesses that signed up was Native Roots Market. A small rainbow sign with the words "All are Welcome" at the bottom hangs in the window at the corner of NE 2nd Street, in downtown Oklahoma City. It subtly lets people know that Native Roots Market is a welcoming business.
It was an employee that brought up The Welcoming Project to owner, Matt Runkle's attention. "I'm in the natural foods industry so most people expect that we are open minded. We have a diverse staff and they suggested we sign up. So we did. We also have a very diverse customer base. Selling local foods and gourmet cuisine is our business, who you love and how you love them is not our business," Runkle stated.
Acceptance of other people fits with Native Roots Market's philosophy of being aware of the social impact of decisions businesses make. So it was an easy sell for them to sign up. "People who are going to be offended have bigger fish to fry. But then again isn't that the point for an LGBTQ person to know they can shop at that establishment and know there won't be an issue? And I don't mean tolerance, I mean out right acceptance," Runkle added.
Co-Creator Brian Eddins says that some of his real estate clients have purposely chosen him after seeing the "All Are Welcome" sign. "This is actually exactly how I hoped the project would work!" Dr. Worthen said. "It is truly remarkable how much a small gesture like displaying a welcome sign can positively impact LGBTQ individuals and allies," she stated.
Oklahoma is conservative politically and socially; highlighting Oklahoma's already established LGBTQ-friendly places is another goal of The Welcoming Project. Dr. Worthen wants visitors to Oklahoma City and new students to OU to easily identity safe-spaces for them to shop, dine, hang out and go on dates.
Earlier this year US District Court for Northern Oklahoma struck down Oklahoma's ban on same-sex marriage. Regardless of the eventual ruling Dr. Worthen remains optimistic about how it will affect The Welcoming Project. "I can only imagine that it will make more businesses want to show their support, perhaps even more businesses in the wedding industry... I really feel that this is the perfect time for Norman and other parts of the country to show support for LGBTQ individuals and allies," Worthen concluded.
Since its founding in March 2011, over 200 businesses, churches, and organizations, including my own, have signed up to be apart of The Welcoming Project from across the United States. In addition, The Welcoming Project offers a scholarship to University of Oklahoma students who are involved in promoting LGBTQ issues and creating awareness.