From Bonsai to BEPA: How an employee gardening club changed Boeing

The Boeing Bonsai Club tells the story of Boeing’s history in support of LGBTQ+ rights at the 2019 Out & Equal Workplace Summit

October 16, 2019 in Community

In 1989, a small group of Boeing employees formed the Boeing Bonsai Club, though it had nothing to do with trees or gardening. The club was made up of LGBTQ+ employees in search of camaraderie, compassion and support, but who were unable to form as an official organization due to company policies at that time.

“Boeing LGBTQ+ employees first tried to gain official recognition from Boeing in the late eighties, but their application was denied, said John Blazey, vice president of Boeing Global Engagement and executive sponsor of BEPA. “Founding members had to organize as the ‘Bonsai’ tree club at one point, in essence, hiding who they were as botanists. However, company policies changed quickly to make Boeing a welcoming and inclusive place by the end of the next decade.”

Over the last thirty years, with support from employees and company leaders alike, the Bonsai Club grew into Boeing’s longest-running and one of its largest business resource groups (BRG)—Boeing Employees Pride Alliance (BEPA) – which now boasts 14 chapters across the company.

“BEPA allows employees to feel safe enough to bring their whole selves to work. Once I felt comfortable being myself at work, I wasted less energy hiding parts of my life and coworkers could get to know me better,” said Brett Youngstrom, an IT specialist. “I felt more proud to be an employee.”

This year, attendees of the Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Washington, D.C., for which Boeing is the host-city sponsor for the second year, learned the story of the BEPA’s beginnings as the Bonsai Club. Summit participants tied ribbons on a giant bonsai tree in the Boeing activation space to symbolize Boeing’s journey to becoming a company committed to ending discrimination and ensuring equal opportunities for all employees, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“BEPA has helped Boeing become a visible and engaged supporter of the LGBTQ+ community,” said Mark Dunaway, a senior quality manager.

Out & Equal Workplace Advocates is a nonprofit organization dedicated to achieving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer workplace equality. The annual Summit features three days of educational opportunities, workshops, speaker panels featuring prominent LGBTQ+ and ally leaders, networking events and more. Boeing employees and executives attend — along with colleagues from more than 500 other companies and organizations—to learn best practices and ways to become better advocates.

“I knew I had to be not just an ally but an active advocate for LBGTQ+ rights,” said Joy Fitzpatrick, an engineering technical specialist who joined BEPA as an ally after her daughter came out. “In the community, we are a visible reminder that Boeing supports diversity and inclusion.”

“I feel that BEPA inspires inclusion and acceptance at Boeing and in our surrounding communities,” said Micah Jones, a systems engineer. “To see a major company give this much support to a cause inspires other companies and individuals to do the same.”

Tim Keating, executive vice president of Government Operations, and BEPA executive champion, attended the summit and challenged participants to take their learnings and apply it for good.

“My hope moving forward is that we can make our companies and our communities more inclusive places, places that attract people from all backgrounds and places that treat everyone with respect,” Keating said. “It’s your job now to take what you learn here this week and move forward as change agents both within your companies and out in your communities.”

“I’m so very pleased to see our leadership involved,” said Karen Fowler, “In order to be inclusive, leadership at every level must be involved. Having executives associated with BEPA sends a powerful message.”

The 2019 Out & Equal Workplace Summit drew nearly 6,000 employees and executives from more than 30 countries — turnout that certainly would have made the original members of the Bonsai Club proud.

From Bonsai to BEPA

Today, BEPA transforms Boeing as a place of belonging. With 14 chapters consisting of thousands of LGBTQ+ employees and allies, BEPA’s impact can be felt throughout the enterprise from professional development and HR policy to community outreach.

Learn more about the journey from Bonsai to BEPA:

1989 – Formation of the first official Boeing LGBTQ+ group – Boeing Bonsai Tree Club.
1991 – Boeing recognizes Boeing Employees Association of Gays, Lesbians, and Friends.
1994 – Sexual orientation added to anti-harassment policy to cover LGBTQ+ employees.
2000 – Boeing provides domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples.
2000 – Boeing employees attend the first company sanctioned Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Seattle, Washington.
2005 – Boeing achieves first 100% score on the HRC's Corporate Equality Index.
2009 – Boeing wins the Human Rights Campaign's (HRC) Workplace Equality Innovation Award for the administration of transgender transition guidelines.
2010 – FMLA-leave policy added for domestic partners.
2014 – Boeing offers transgender-inclusive health care coverage plan.
2016 – Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) and Boeing partner to develop a team at BCBS dedicated to transgender benefits.
2017 – Boeing hosts first enterprise LGBTQ+ & Allies Leadership Forum.
2019 – BEPA expands to 14 chapters across the enterprise.

By Jason Capeheart and Rachel Ayres