Change Maker

KSU alumnus and gay rights activist Michael Chanak Jr. was determined to make a difference at his workplace—and his dedication to change prompted a global company to redefine diversity.

By Susan Menassa
Photo by Bob Christy, BS '95

Most Kent State students on campus during the late 1960s and early 70s felt the influence of the student protest era. Michael Chanak Jr., BS ’71, was no exception; in fact, he credits that time at Kent State with giving him the fighting spirit he needed some 15 years later—when he became the unlikely lone gay voice to take on a corporate titan and call for gay rights in the 1980s.

He was the first in his family to attend college and graduate. His Greek grandmother, who had immigrated to the United States because of religious persecution and never learned to write English, always told him, “Michael, be educated.” So when he enrolled at what was then KSU’s academic center at Stark in 1967, it was a big deal for his blue-collar family.

“If that academic branch hadn’t existed, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college,” the Massillon native says. During his college years he was surrounded by people who were speaking up about the issues of the day. He spent his first two years at Stark, where he was involved in a discussion society that talked about “everything and anything.”

For his junior year, he transferred to the Kent Campus, as students were protesting the war in Vietnam and activism was a normal part of campus life. “There was a sense of being in the struggle,” he says. “But after May 4, 1970, the campus went from being an open environment to having everything locked down.”

Through that intense experience he says he realized how quickly things can change and how tenuous is the notion of individual freedom—including his.

“Over time, I became aware of my own otherness and of the ways that who I inherently was disqualified me from the same rights and privileges as my peers,” Mr. Chanak writes of growing up gay in a 2017 Huffington Post essay about his workplace activism. “I began to understand why it was important to speak up against discrimination and to refuse to be silenced.”

When he moved to Cincinnati in 1978 and began working for Procter & Gamble in 1985, being gay was not openly discussed, especially in the workplace. Still, he got involved in the burgeoning gay pride movement of the time and took part in various community events like pride parades, in spite of the risks involved.

Then weekend TV coverage of a pride parade in 1986 showed him in attendance. “By that Monday, I was out to my coworkers,” he recalls. “Some people quietly expressed support but also caution in the same breath. Others were less supportive and for many years, people posted cartoons deriding gays and boldly sent me hateful screeds. It made me even more painfully aware that I wasn’t seen as an equal.”

In 1987, he told the manager of worldwide diversity that P&G needed to make sure gay employees were afforded the same equal protections already in place for people of a different race, color, religion, sex or national origin in their equal employment opportunity (EEO) policy. With the manager’s support, it took some time to develop and submit a proposal, which was rejected without comment. Still he persisted, joined by straight peers at the company who had heard about his efforts.

"I began to understand why it was important to speak up against discrimination and to refuse to be silenced.”

His fight for inclusion coincided with the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s, a market niche that Procter and Gamble profited from with a prescription mouthwash called Peridex, which was used to treat thrush—a known side
effect of AIDS.

The connection between Procter and Gamble’s product and those benefitting from it was not lost on P&G’s corporate executives and heralded a gradual shift in attitude that paved the way for the eventual adoption of the Chanak-inspired policy language.

“Peridex . . . allowed us to build a business case,” says Anne Harbison, former Peridex brand assistant at P&G, who appears in a video the company released earlier this year, “The Words Matter: One Voice Can Make a Difference,” which documents Mr. Chanak’s influence on the policy change. “This is what we need to do as a brand, as a business and absolutely for our own employees.”

Even so, because sexual orientation was not yet part of the federal EEO mandate, the company was reluctant to go further. Year after year, in every attempt to change the policy, Mr. Chanak and his associates had to make more of a case.

“You have to work up that command chain and you have to have people who believe it’s the right thing to do, and there have to be reasons it’s the right thing to do,” he recounts in the video.

Various versions of the proposal were sent through different channels, but it wasn’t until a gay man in the legal division made the case from a legal standpoint that a revised EEO policy statement finally was approved on September 15, 1992.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the policy’s adoption, P&G commissioned the 19-minute video, something Mr. Chanak admits he never would have predicted.

“Imagine my surprise when I got that call 25 years later,” he says. “When I left in 2003, I took an early retirement package and never set foot back at P&G until they invited me in to talk about the effort and make the video.”

The short film, produced in partnership with Great Big Story production company, won a prestigious Silver Lion award for corporate and social responsibility earlier this year at France’s Cannes Lion Festival and boasts more than 10 million views. Although several P&G executives appear in the video, the focus is on Mr. Chanak’s workplace struggle for inclusion, as well as that of the Cincinnati gay and lesbian community in the 1980s and 90s.

Now, looking back on those turbulent times, Mr. Chanak is proud to have not only survived but also to have made a difference—though he concedes the work is far from over.

“If there is a legacy to be taken from that video, my private hope is for young people to see that change is possible,”  he says. “Who would have thought all those years ago that [this video] would have been viewed by more than 10 million people? Nowadays, all people do is post on Facebook.“Keyboard activism is not going to change the world. Push your chair away from the computer and go join a group. Make the world better. Cause change. Make it about other people.” 

See “The Words Matter” at www.greatbigstory.com/stories/words-matter; read “Pride and Prejudice: How I Helped P&G Come Out,” at the Huffington Post.

Listen to an interview with Michael Chanak Jr. by Dr. Amy Reynolds, dean of Kent State’s College of Communication & Information, for WKSU’s Elevations program:

Click to listen

The city of Cincinnati passed a resolution in June 2018 that recognizes and honors Michael Chanak Jr. for his work on behalf of the LGBT community. In October 2018, P&G's worldwide LGBT employee network created the Michael Chanak Award for Courageous Leadership to recognize any LGBT employee who leads the charge for making P&G a better place to work. In March 2019, he will receive the David C. Crowley leadership award given by the Cincinnati Human Rights Campaign.

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POSTED: Thursday, December 20, 2018 - 10:25am
UPDATED: Friday, January 11, 2019 - 11:31am
WRITTEN BY:
Susan Menassa