Yes Virginia, corporate America played an important role in the LGBT rights revolution
Let’s have a frank talk about the role corporate America has played in the LGBT rights movement. Because it’s likely more than you realized.
I started working on national LGBT rights in the early 1990s. I did the usual stuffing of envelopes for the big-name groups in 1992, but the real work began when I started spending 40 hours per week as a fellow with Senator Ted Kennedy. I assisted Kennedy’s staff on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in early 1993, fought a number of anti-LGBT bills and amendments (usually from Jesse Helms and the Family Research Council), worked on discrediting the ex-gay movement, and ended my tour in 1996 trying to get the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA — legislation to ban anti-gay job discrimination) passed in the Senate (we lost by only one vote).
Ted Kennedy and his staff were masters at the legislative process. I learned much of what I know today about activism from my time in his office. And what I think most impressed and surprised me about Kennedy and his staff was their ability to woo and work with allies, and use those allies to in turn woo the media and Congress. This went far beyond the usual suspects. I saw Kennedy’s office engage movie stars and pro athletes to appear at events, write op eds, and lobby on behalf of LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS. But most interesting, I watched them work with Republicans, even conservative Republicans, when GOP interests coincided with ours. For example, Barry Goldwater became an outspoken ally on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Conservative GOP Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) routinely partnered with Kennedy on HIV/AIDS legislation. And incredibly, Kennedy got anti-gay bigot Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) to help on the international AIDS fight.
Which raises a fascinating point I want to explore as it concerns corporate America and any potential LGBT ally (like the police). It’s not about picking allies who are pure, and agree with you on every issue. And it’s not about picking allies who are motivated by their love for you and your people. Being successful in politics, and getting what you want in both policy and legislation, is about knowing what levers to push. And usually you get politicians to help you because they see it in their own self-interest. It’s an added, but unnecessary, benefit if they actually like you too.
Which takes us to corporate America. No one is suggesting that American companies “like” us. I am, however, telling you that in the early 1990s, when we were fighting to get ENDA passed, our corporate allies were a huge help, and continued to be helpful through this day. From Nicole Raeburn’s book “Changing Corporate America from Inside Out: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Rights”:
Raeburn has more. Note that most companies weren’t great in the late 80s, then something changed:
More on Disney from a Florida reporter and then a former employee of the company:
Why did it matter that a growing number of corporate leaders, especially in the tech industry, were supporting LGBT rights? Because ENDA was about workplace discrimination, and its critics claimed ENDA would cripple American business. Instead, here were some of America’s top business leaders, including high-flying high-tech moguls, saying just the opposite: that what’s bad for business is discrimination. Corporate America had shot the anti-gay movement in the foot, and taken away their #1 argument against us. It was a huge deal.
But aside from legislation, what was also important was corporate America’s willingness to adopt non-discrimination policies, and eventually domestic partner benefits, for gay couples who couldn’t get such benefits from their legislative bodies. You have to remember that we still don’t have federal protections against firing someone for being gay or trans. Yet, a lot of companies do have those protections. And the same thing happened with domestic partner benefits. When American law refused to step in, many companies stepped forward and treated their gay-partnered employees the same as those who were straight-married.
One such company was Apple. In 1993, Apple threatened to pull its planned new office in Texas after local politicians punished Apple for offering health benefits to the partners of gay employees. The Texas politicians denied Apple tax breaks it would normally have gotten, but-for the company’s pro-gay policies. Apple stuck to its guns, threatened to pull out of the state, and the local officials finally caved. That’s corporate leadership, and it was a big deal at a time when it wasn’t terribly cool to be pro-gay, especially in Texas.
And a wee bit more on the early history of corporate support for LGBT rights, from Raeburn — how Coors and Disney rocked the boat against anti-gay bigotry:
What Coors and Disney did came as a great shock:
A number of large companies stuck their necks out for LGBT rights in other ways as well, including advertising. Subaru, Absolut and then Ikea were some of the earliest advertisers to embrace gays. And if you want to know what influence that had on the culture at large, ask the religious right — they were livid, and launched boycotts left and right to stop corporate America from being so gay-friendly.
For example, Absolut made history in 1989 by advertising in the gay press:
Ikea’s ad — called the first gay TV commercial — showed a gay couple shopping at Ikea, ran in 1994. You really have to appreciate how not-pro-gay America was in 1994. This was huge visibility for our community.
NPR has the story of how Subaru stuck its neck out in the mid 1990s by advertising to lesbians.
And I’m having a hard time finding the original Subaru ad, but here’s one they did in 2000 with tennis superstar Martina Navratilova:
Business Insider has more ads over the years.
And that corporate support has continued to this day. Companies like Dow Chemical, Marriott, and Procter & Gamble are all now supporting passage of ENDA. And I’d argue that the fact that many of us don’t like Dow (a chemical company) or Mormon-run Marriott is exactly why the support of those companies is so important. It’s easy and expected to have your friends support you. But when unlikely allies step up, it can make your opponents — or at least people in the middle — think twice.
For example, 379 companies recently urged the Supreme Court to support marriage equality. That’s not to suggest that some companies, like Microsoft, were always 100% okay. They weren’t. Even Microsoft, an early supporter of LGBT rights, had a hiccup in the mid 2000s, when a local religious right leader convinced them to stop supporting LGBT rights. Because of a lobbying campaign I ran, Microsoft came back in to the LGBT fold and never looked back. And while I was ticked at the Microsoft at the time, you’d better believe I’m glad Microsoft is now again on our side, and I am happy to embrace their support because it helps us get what we want, and that’s the only test that matters if you want to win.
(And, as an aside, some critics are arguing that these same corporations weren’t on our side in 1969, during the Stonewall riots. True. And most of our allies in the Democratic party, and even the larger civil rights movement, weren’t “on our side” in 1969. Most of America hated us. That’s not a standard for judging who we will accept help from today. Otherwise, the answer would be “no one.” Also, critics are saying “but the Mattachine Society and Stonewall happened before companies helped us in the 1990s.” And that is absolutely correct. But it doesn’t negate the significant support that those companies gave us, and that’s the point of this article, to simply recognize the contribution.)
Even if you think corporations are evil, that doesn’t mean you should shun corporate support for LGBT rights. Historically, corporate support has been extremely helpful, especially when our chief opponents were and are Republicans, a party beholden to whom? — corporations! And in the same way we shouldn’t turn away GOP support for LGBT rights, we shouldn’t shun business support either. It simply doesn’t matter what’s motivating them. Of course, companies are looking out for their own bottom line. So am I. So is every politician. In politics, as I said above, the goal isn’t to find people who love you. It’s to find people who will do what you want, regardless of their motivation. I wanted DADT repealed, and I wanted marriage equality to be the law of the law. It didn’t matter to me WHY Congress repealed one or why the Supreme Court legalized the other. All I cared about is winning, and we did.