When a student writes your life story,  you listen!

The following was written by Grace Shields, a second-year student at the University of Cincinnati. She was taking Dr. Anne Steinert's Queer History class in the first semester of 2022. Dr. Steiner assigned a final paper for her students to write. The topic was queer activism in Cincinnati. Dr. Steinert and the volunteers at the Ohio Lesbian Archives gave me your name as someone who might be interested in discussing their activism experience. The following is her finished assignment!

For the author’s midterm paper, she researched Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender activist living in New York during the mid-to-late 20th century. After learning about Johnson’s life and legacy, the author wondered about activists in Cincinnati. The name “Michael Chanak Jr.” came up multiple times, and the author wanted to learn more about his impact on Cincinnati. Chanak graciously agreed to be interviewed by the author of this paper on March 31, 2022, via Zoom.

Michael Chanak Jr. is a Cincinnati queer activist who fought for and achieved protections for queer employees at one of Cincinnati’s biggest and most notable companies: Procter & Gamble (P&G). Chanak worked at P&G for almost 20 years from 1985-2003.[1] Chanak started working at P&G in 1985 as an Administrative Technical person. By the time he had retired, he was a Senior Research Associate.[2] Chanak was a catalyst for much-needed change within P&G.

Outside of work, Chanak has volunteered with a multitude of queer organizations since the early 1980s.[3] He is on the board of the Ohio Lesbian Archives located in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has great ties to Cincinnati’s Pride Parade where “from 1985 to 1994 he handled publicity, pride marshal election, and emceeing for the then Pride Rally.”[4] Cincinnati’s Pride Parade did not happen from 1996-1999. In 2000, he continued those same duties until 2015. Chanak was Cincinnati’s “Gay Pride Marshal” in 1993.[5] In his life, he has volunteered for several queer organizations such as “New Spirit Oasis Metropolitan Community Church, PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), Stonewall Cincinnati (now defunct), Imperial Sovereign Queen City Court of the Buckeye Empire, and the Greater Cincinnati Gay Community Center.”[6]

At the Cincinnati Pride Parade in 1986, Chanak was photographed kissing his friend, Bob McNee, a professor at the University of Cincinnati. A local camera crew happened to be recording when they kissed, and the image appeared on local weekend television three nights in a row. Chanak was not out as gay at work before his kiss made the news. His coworkers saw his television appearance and he was outed. His colleagues at work cautioned him on how he conducted himself going forward.[7] “I had people walk into the office the following Monday saying, ‘This is great, but you’re gonna have to be careful,’” Chanak said. “In those days, it was kind of a dicey thing to go to Pride. You’re talking two, maybe three hundred people would turn out at those. When you think of that kind of risk, you are going to stand out if you kissed a man.”[8]

After he was outed, he received harassment at work from his colleagues. They called him homophobic slurs as he walked down the hallway, put notes in his mailbox for repentance for being gay, and made his workplace a hostile environment.[9] One of these notes read, “Mike: I was told about what some saw on T.V. I don’t judge you. I know you have torment. But my Lord still heals, and he cares for you. And, he will make a way from which from which there appears no way out. Have faith!”[10] In an interview for Kent State Magazine Chanak said after he came out,

Some people quietly expressed support, but others also caution in the same breath. Others were less supportive and for many year 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.[11]

Up until September of 1992, the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) policy at P&G did not include sexual orientation in its protections against discrimination. There were protections based on race, sex, color, religion, national origin, age, disabilities, or veterans status.[12] Chanak made it his mission to get the words “sexual orientation” included in P&G’s EEO policy, and it wasn’t an easily fought battle.

Chanak said the key to his success was the connection made between Peridex, a prescription mouth wash made by P&G, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).[13] Anne Harbison, a former Brand Assistant for Peridex, who was working with the product during the time of its popularity, said that the company started seeing market shares for Peridex grow in areas like San Franciso and Boston, but they could not figure out why.[14] “Through data analysis, [analysts] were able to figure out that is where there were high concentrations of gay people. The drug helped to alleviate yeast infections in the mouth [called oral candidiasis or thrush], a common side effect of HIV, before there were the modern anti-virals,” said Chanak.[15] Six months after he was outed at Pride, he got moved to the Peridex brand at work.[16]

The author asked Chanak if he thought Peridex was the reason for the company including sexual orientation protections in their Equal Employment Opportunity policy. Chanak replied,

I do think Peridex was the key... I think Peridex was the currency that allowed the discussion to go on. Because it is not a church, it is not a non-profit; it is business: it is money. It is consumers and perceptions and standing and I think that it had to be something objective. Procter is data driven, if something is going to change, there has to be a reason for change, and there has to be an analysis of: What if we do nothing? What does that cost us?[17]

P&G were publicly claiming that Peridex had a connection to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and the queer community, but they were not protecting their own employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.[18] The July 9, 1989 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer states, “Gordon Nary of the Physicians’ Association for AIDS care announced that Procter & Gamble Co. has committed itself to using community-based research. It plans to test Peridex, a gum disease medication that may help with AIDS-related mouth lesions, he said.”[19]

Two years earlier, the August 16, 1987 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer linked Peridex to AIDS by printing, “P&G developed this prescription treatment for gum disease on its own and is now conducting clinical tests to examine its effectiveness in treating cancer and AIDS patients and others with mouth infections. The drug is already being prescribed by some doctors and dentists for that use, Place said.”[20]

In 1990, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that P&G had “agreed to pay for dental schools across the country to receive programs about AIDS via satellite transmission.”[21] These programs taught dental students how to detect and treat the AIDS virus. The Enquirer noted that the producer of these programs was a group called Physicians Association for AIDS Care (PAAC) and that P&G was their second-largest financial corporate sponsor.[22]

In an email from May 20, 1991, a P&G employee by the name of “T.O. Glover” addressed public relation concerns about Peridex when it was no longer able to be sold or received through Medicaid because P&G did not sign a “Pryor Bill” that “requires all drug manufacturers to sign a formal agreement with Medicaid, guaranteeing their best price.”[23] Because Peridex required a prescription to obtain, it was no longer covered by Medicaid. In this internal email, Glover stated, “Our Peridex clinicals have been publicized in the gay press and Peridex is widely used within the AIDS community for the treatment of gingivitis and oral candidiasis [thrush].”[24] This email also stated that they had received “25 calls from persons with AIDS who can no longer afford to use Peridex” and that, “Approximately 18 calls have been from members of Act Up, a radical AIDS organization, several of whom have threatened a P&G boycott. Act Up is known for dramatic, theatrical, and attention-grabbing tactics. While the Medicaid issue is corporate-wide, Peridex may serve as the lightening rod. We need be prepared to respond quickly, if challenged.”[25]

This email also stated P&G’s “Action Plan” for in case the situation with Act Up escalated which included, “gain information regarding Act Up, attitude towards P&G, and any planned activities”, “seek counsel from Mr. M. Chanak”, and “continue to proactively disseminate information among the AIDS community of Peridex’s support.”[26] Chanak was mentioned and CCed in the email. At the time of this email in 1991, Chanak had been fighting for equal employment opportunity protections for almost four years. P&G continually denied his request for protection discrimination and harassment yet used his insight into the AIDS community and his queerness to their business advantage.

Harbison said, “If we are marketing this product, whether indirectly or directly, to people with AIDS and then affecting the larger LGBT community, then we need to hold ourselves to the same standard.”[27] She said in her time at P&G they conducted focus groups, held one-on-one interviews with people who were using Peridex to treat side effects of AIDS, and talked to doctors and dentists who were prescribing Peridex to learn more about how and why it worked.[28] P&G profited from the queer community while not claiming or celebrating the queer individuals who worked in their company. They made it clear that they did not care about their employees like Michael who faced harassment and discrimination, they only cared about using their queer employees for what would be best for business.

Peridex allowed Chanak and others fighting for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the equal employment opportunity policy at P&G to make a business case. Chanak went to board meetings, had conversations with higher-up executives in the company, and told anybody who would listen that he felt there needed to be protections put in place for members of the LGBT community at P&G.[29] He worked in conjunction with Harbison, Tom Jones, former Legal Counsel at P&G, and Lynwood Battle, former Manager of Worldwide Diversity at P&G. Together they wrote and submitted recommendations for their case using the business and legal benefits of including sexual orientation protections.[30]

After five years and multiple prior rejections, on September 15, 1992, the words “sexual orientation” were finally added to P&G’s equal employment opportunity policy.[31] The Cincinnati Enquirer reported on P&G changing their EEO policy on September 16, 1992 writing, “Procter & Gamble Co., one of Cincinnati's largest employers, has added sexual orientation to the company's anti-discrimination employment policy.”[32] Linda Ulrey, a spokeswoman for P&G said, “The company reviews its policy every few months and at this review it was decided to add more specific wording to the policy.” [33] Despite being the spearhead for the policy change, Chanak was not mentioned in the news article.

The change in the policy stated, “The Company’s equal employment opportunity policy applies to all persons without regard to race, sex, color, religion, national origin, age, disabilities, sexual orientation, or veterans status,”[34] and “A good working atmosphere includes freedom from unwelcomed sexual advances as well as any derogatory comment or innuendo based on race, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability.”[35]

In the newly updated EEO policy, P&G explicitly stated that this change would be best for business stating, “Building and creatively utilizing a work force which represents society as a whole –where no one is either advantaged or disadvantaged because of his or her background—will provide us with an important competitive edge.”[36] P&G took this step to be more inclusive, but they did not do it out of the goodness of their hearts; they were concerned with getting the “important competitive edge.”[37]

“I was overwhelmed,” Chanak stated when he found out about his victory. “I was shellshocked. Those are things that happen in your life, that you know are fundamentally important, but they are so much to take in. I felt good about it. I was happy, but it was just I didn’t ever think it was going to happen.”[38] Chanak was told the good news the day before it was announced publicly (September 14, 1992), because he was the “primary gay advocate.” Battle called Chanak into his office to tell him about the policy change before anybody else had heard it.[39] 

Chanak said that the policy change did not have an overnight impact on P&G’s workplace environment. He said there was no program of engagement put into place to initiate any change. “[For] other [minority] groups, if there was a policy change, [P&G would say,] ‘What are we going to do to implement that policy?’” Chanak said. “There really was nothing. It was almost like it was symbolic. You got to start somewhere. It took [creating sexual orientation protections] apparently to say to enough people over time that it’s okay to be queer there.”[40] Chanak said, “You know, everybody always thinks that change is measured like a mile, the truth is change is incremental: it’s a millimeter at a time and it’s a struggle.”[41]

Procter and Gamble has become more accepting of the queer community since Chanak left in 2003. The official inner-office network for queer employees at P&G (GABLE) now has over 6000 members.[42] They have also created two documentaries about their company’s initial reluctance to be inclusive of the queer community titled “The Words Matter: One Voice Can Make a Difference” [43] and “Out of the Shadows: Risking Their Careers in the Name of Equality.”[44] These documentaries feature current and former queer employees, including Chanak. He talked about how much more open-minded the company has become since his time there, “P&G was viewed as this conservative, middle western company that was on the side of Jesus. And for them to embrace this change, put them on a journey that took them to a different place in the world. So as much as it was a journey for me, I think it’s been a journey for them.”[45]

P&G has since extended their spousal benefits to domestic partner benefits and now there are EEO protections for transgender individuals.[46] Brent Miller, the current Associate Director of Beauty Communications at P&G, said these advancements would not have been possible without Chanak’s contributions to make P&G more inclusive for queer people years before.[47] Chanak’s work at P&G not only provided legal protections for queer individuals, it changed peoples’ understanding of gay people. He was the face for the gay community within P&G, and he showed his coworkers that being gay did not make him any less of a person than they were.

Chanak believes in the power of allies. He said P&G would not have changed its EEO policy when it did had it not been for the straight allies who aligned themselves with Chanak and his cause. He stated, “We should always be willing to accept help from those who claim they are there to help us. They may not get it all right, after all, many of these things that happened in queer history happened because of other people involved.”[48] Chanak warned of the separationism that is perpetuated by the younger queer generation, either by silencing allies or alienating them because they are not queer.[49]

Chanak encourages all queer people to get involved in the queer community in some in-person way. He said that is how his activism started: by attending queer political meetings at Church of our Saviour in the Mount Auburn neighborhood in Cincinnati. There he realized what problems plagued the community and found ways to overcome them. He said, “That is why it is important to be involved in things because you have contact with people and that’s how things change: through the grinding of the gears.”[50]

As someone who has spent his life being an activist and fighting for change, Chanak talked in detail about his qualms with social media. “These days everybody now thinks they are an activist because they post on Facebook,” he said. “I get the theory that social media democratized the ability for everyone to have a platform and express themselves. Well, you can spend your life expressing yourself. If you aren’t working with other people, how are you going to accomplish anything?” Chanak explained the difference between the time before the internet and the world now, “There is always that one piece that is missing: personal responsibility and personal action. And I think that is the key difference between today and then. We were willing to take the risk and pound on a door and show up at a place we were not supposed to be. We were willing to be a little less than polite and say, ‘If not now, then when?’”[51]

Chanak goes by the nickname “Mother Goose” for his maternal qualities. He said he got this nickname from a friend who told him, “Oh Michael, you’re like Mother Goose. You’re an old eccentric that looks after people.” These maternal qualities are expressed in his plethora of volunteer work and his activism in the queer community in Cincinnati.[52]

At the end of the interview, Chanak expressed the importance of being out in all aspects of one’s life, including the workplace, “I really do believe in being your authentic self, and sometimes being your authentic self won’t make everybody happy, but if you aren’t who you are, then who are you? I mean really, who are you?”[53] This choice to be his authentic self is what led to the change that happened within P&G and Cincinnati at large.

[1] Michael Chanak Jr., interview with author, March 31, 2022.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Lifetime Activist, Organizer, Volunteer for the LGBTQ+ Communities.” Michael Chanak Jr.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Lifetime Activist, Organizer, Volunteer for the LGBTQ+ Communities.” Michael Chanak Jr.

[7] Michael Chanak Jr., interview with author, March 31, 2022.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Great Big Story. “The Words Matter: One Voice Can Make a Difference.” YouTube video, 11:22. April 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xG7qPd27-ws.

[10] Great Big Story. “The Words Matter: One Voice Can Make a Difference.” YouTube video, 10:54. April 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xG7qPd27-ws.

[11] Susan Menassa, “Change Maker,” Kent State Magazine. Fall/Winter 2018-19, published December 20. 2018, pages 28-29.

[12] Great Big Story. “The Words Matter: One Voice Can Make a Difference.” YouTube video, 10:03. April 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xG7qPd27-ws.

[13] Michael Chanak Jr., interview with author, March 31, 2022.

[14] Great Big Story. “The Words Matter: One Voice Can Make a Difference.” YouTube video, 7:05. April 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xG7qPd27-ws.

[15] Michael Chanak Jr., interview with author, March 31, 2022.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Research adapting for AIDS: Local Doctors Groups to test Treatments,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 9, 1989.

[20] Patricia Gallagher, “Evolution results in better products,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 16, 1987. 

[21] Patricia Gallagher “P&G pays for training on AIDS," Cincinnati Enquirer, April 5, 1990.

[22] Ibid, Gallagher.

[23] T.O. Glover, ”Peridex - Medicaid Reimbursement Issue”, email, May 20, 1991.

[24] Ibid, Glover.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Great Big Story. “The Words Matter: One Voice Can Make a Difference.” YouTube video, 9:05. April 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xG7qPd27-ws.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Michael Chanak Jr., interview with author, March 31, 2022.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Great Big Story. “The Words Matter: One Voice Can Make a Difference.” YouTube video, 17:50. April 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xG7qPd27-ws.

[32] Sarah Sturmon and Dick Rawe, “Sexual Orientation Added to P&G Hiring Rules,” Cincinnati Post, September 16, 1992.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Edwin L. Artzt, Equal Employment Opportunity Policy, The Procter & Gamble Company, September 15, 1992, pp. 1, accessed April 8, 2022.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Michael Chanak Jr., interview with author, March 31, 2022.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Great Big Story. “Out of the Shadows: Risking Their Careers in the Name of Equality.” YouTube video, 11:54. June 18, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iDCO_47350.

[43] Great Big Story. “The Words Matter: One Voice Can Make a Difference.” YouTube video, April 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xG7qPd27-ws.

[44] Great Big Story. “Out of the Shadows: Risking Their Careers in the Name of Equality.” YouTube video, June 18, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iDCO_47350.

[45] Michael Chanak Jr., interview with author, March 31, 2022.

[46] Great Big Story. “Out of the Shadows: Risking Their Careers in the Name of Equality.” YouTube video, 8:45. June 18, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iDCO_47350.

[47] Great Big Story. “The Words Matter: One Voice Can Make a Difference.” YouTube video, 18:04. April 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xG7qPd27-ws.

[48] Michael Chanak Jr., interview with author, March 31, 2022.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.