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.

Lesbian Subaru ad. Note the rainbow bumper sticker, and the license plates (“CAMP OUT” and “XENA LVR”).

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.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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27 Responses to “Yes Virginia, corporate America played an important role in the LGBT rights revolution”

  1. Mark Mason says:

    Hound. Statism is foul be it capitalist or not. Socialism answers an economic question not a govenmental one.

  2. Mark Mason says:

    Historical recounting with out accounting is manipulative. We must be leftsts. Not capitalists. Do I care if sometimes corps are useful idiots? Nit as much as I reject their having the excess of the people’s labour and the position they hold.

  3. Mark Mason says:

    The police are no allies to anyone. They have no place in society. If a pig happens to agree with us on one or more issues…they still have no place. They are dangerous and threaten to amplify the problem of white supremacy within queer spaces.

  4. Exactly. People on the left have to stop this zero-sum game they’re playing. Which is mixed with purity politics, if you’re not pure enough (and no one is), we don’t want ya! There is no reason that unions and companies can’t both support us, and they do, and that’s great and very helpful.

  5. Houndentenor says:

    Some of these people sound like Trump. Let’s have everyone go around the table and pledge their undying loyalty to us. smh

    We need allies and I’ll take any we can get. I live in Texas right now, FSM help me, and I’m really worried about what comes next out of the special legislative session. Our only hope is the intervention of corporations threatening to relocate out of the state if these anti-lbgt bills are passed. They are seriously the only ones with any voice that the GOP might listen to.

  6. Houndentenor says:

    The question is whether or not we should use corporate donations to pay for gay events. I say yes. As I said below, I was there when one of these companies passed the nondiscrimination policy. I was out there. I never had to worry about being treated badly for being gay. I can’t say that about the church I was raised in or even parts of my own family.

    As for unions, yes, unions were for gay rights way before the corporations ever were. Harvey Milk would never have gotten elected without union support. (I’m also in a union, btw.)

    The two are not at odds when it comes to lbgt issues. We are in a fight right now and we need all the allies we can get.

  7. This isn’t an article about unions, it’s an article about what role if any corporate America had in the LGBT rights battle, especially after 1989 when their involvement grew significantly and had a significant impact.

    If I’m missing some role the unions had in the anecdotes I wrote about, please share them. Did the unions get Absolut, Subaru and Ikea to run ads in the late 80s and early 90s? Did the unions get Eastman Kodak’s CEO to testify before Congress on ENDA in 1996? Did the unions get Apple to stand up to the local Texas government over LGBT rights and threaten to leave the state in 1993? I wasn’t aware of any of that, but if it’s the case, I’m happy to add it. Don’t get me wrong, unions have long been our allies, so I’m sure they played a role in working inside some company, or even many to help us. But the fact remains that a lot of companies did what we wanted them to do, and we should welcome that and laud it. Otherwise, why should they help us if we’re going to criticize them after they do?

    And what does any of this have to do with Uber?

    Also, if you’re suggesting we shouldn’t have reached out to corporate America and welcomed their aid in the 1990s and beyond, that’s patently wrong. They had and have huge impact with the Republicans, who are the very people blocking us the most, and we will absolutely use them if they’re willing to be helpful. And they have been. I’ll work with most anyone, within reason, if they’ve got influence and want to help. Corporations were and are arguably the most important voice we have to push ENDA — who better to counter the argument that ENDA is bad for business than the businesses themselves.

    This is an article about the historical role that many large corporations played in the LGBT rights battle over the years. I get that they suck on your issues, but a lot of them rocked on our issues. And this isn’t the Trump White House, we don’t lie about historical facts simply because they’re inconvenient to whatever narrative we prefer.

    And finally, I don’t care if the companies don’t care about me or us. Politicians generally don’t care about us either. In politics, people help you because it’s in their own self-interest. And that’s fine with me. I don’t care what’s in your heart, to paraphrase the famous suffragette quote, I just want you to get your boot off my throat. So if companies or anyone else can help us achieve our full civil rights, they’re welcome to try.

  8. my wag says:

    I agree.
    I worry about the increased Corporate Power that happens due to our tax policies. Corporate power that is beholden to:
    the corporation.

  9. WonderZimms says:

    1450+ words and not a single one is the word “union.”

    This corporate love letter is massively incomplete. By not examining the reasons why those corporations acted as they did (in many cases, it was a result of union demands and/or negotiations), a casual reader would be left with an incomplete picture. For someone who demands an open mind, you’re not really approaching this in that way.

    History is important, because you must recognize (at least, I really hope you recognize) that corporations do not do anything in a vacuum: everything is in service to shareholders. As we’re seeing today, more and more companies are demanding protection under the guise of “religious liberty.” The parallels of companies driving social change are there for anyone to see. Yesterday they were on “your side.” Today they aren’t. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

    Uber, Target, GE, WalMart. BMW. These are major businesses that have all been sued in the last few years over civil rights. These companies don’t care about you, and they never have: they care about your money.

  10. And one more point. History and facts are not about your feelings. (“Sorry, John, you’re not the community leader you think you are if you won’t listen to those within your community when they’re showing you a different point of view.”) You’re not permitted to have a “different point of view” that denies a fact that I personally witnessed working in Senator Kennedy’s office at the center of the battle over LGBT rights in the 1990s.

    And leave the ad hominem attacks out of this. It’s a sign of someone who can’t prove their case.

  11. Actually, you need to bone up on politics and LGBT history. Advertising gays in 1989 was HUGELY impactful. We were pariahs back then. It was the height of AIDS. The idea of a company publicly embracing us was unheard of. Again, I get that you don’t like what you’re hearing, but it’s fact. I’m actually curious how old you are. I suspect you were very young in the late 80s, so don’t fully appreciate how big a deal it was back then for anyone, companies or politicians, to publicly embrace us. One of the biggest ways LGBT people won our battle is by changing the culture. And a lot of companies had a huge hand.

    And your comments about blaming corporations for not getting ENDA passed, when a lot of companies embraced ENDA early on, and even more embrace it today, are odd. They don’t have a vote in Congress. You’re criticizing them for supporting us, for lobbying Congress for us, for standing up to local legislators like Apple did in Texas, and that’s just weird. You should be lauding them, unless you don’t want their help in the future.

    Ah, and now you’re on to DAPL. Which is irrelevant to a discussion of whether companies were hugely helpful on LGBT rights in the 1990s and beyond. You may be right that support for DAPL is bad, but it’s also a red herring as it has nothing to do with the premise of whether or not companies supported ENDA, non-discrim polices and partner benefits.

    And I block anyone who isn’t interested in a serious civil discussion. Your buddies weren’t.

    To sum up, corporations did lead the way on LGBT rights for the last three decades, and it had a huge helpful impact for all of us. It doesn’t mean people didn’t lead the way too. It doesn’t mean LGBT history started in 1989. But if we’re going to be honest, and not be like Trump and the GOP, we can’t go claiming that historical fact is “fake news” simply because it doesn’t reinforce our biases. You’re simply wrong on this one.

  12. Grahamburgers says:

    I thought I was pretty clear that companies who actually engage in action are a great thing. Blanket praise of corporations isn’t.

    But you also spent a good deal of this post talking about advertising. Which is less than useless. Like, okay, sure, it’s brave to show a rainbow in 1989. What else did Absolut do? Because that can also be a simple publicity stunt. Now, since then, Absolut has definitely put its money where it’s mouth is. But just because a boycott occurred doesn’t really mean much — boycotts actually tend to increase profits.

    There are many corporations who don’t have our back. Or who throw money at a Pride festival once a year and then tout themselves as allies without actually doing anything to actually *help* our community. We need to be discerning about these things.

    And I have to ask, again, how is that corporations haven’t been able to get ENDA passed? Where are the corporate lobbyists for it? I’m aware they’ve provided ENDA-like benefits, I don’t live under a rock. What I was asking, and what you’ve failed to answer now twice, is if they have so much support for ENDA why don’t they have corporate lobbyists pushing for it? The NRA lobbyists can kill practically every common sense gun control bill that ever gets presents, big pharma and health insurance company lobbyists have done untold damage to the regular people of this country (and are all set to do more), and lobbyists for some ginormous tech companies keep trying to push an end to net neutrality no matter how many times the people of this country fight back on that issue. If corporations have been pushing for ENDA for so long where are the lobbyists? Where are the millions upon millions of dollars for lobbyists? Why don’t we have ENDA? Why hasn’t it passed? It’s a pretty gaping hole in your story here. And it’s a question that needs and deserves an answer.

    But I’m guessing there isn’t one.

    As for those intersectional folks, are you implying our LGBT organizations shouldn’t be intersectional? We MUST be intersectional because we intersect with EVERYONE. There are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender Palestinians. And ALL of us drink water so, like, DAPL is kind of a big deal. Are these the only things we should be focused on? Absolutely not, but at the VERY least we need to make ourselves vocal allies to these causes because they are essential to members of our community. As a leader in the LGBT+ community, you *must* recognize the diversity of our community — which is one of its great strengths, but also means we HAVE to be able to multitask and still win.

    My comment isn’t weird at all, if you saw your Tweet where you literally stated that corporations have led the way on LGBT+ rights even though corporations wouldn’t go touch us with a ten foot pole until 1989. That’s not leading the way. We had already come a long way by then. And you blocked a number of people on Twitter for pointing that out, so it doesn’t seem that out-of-left-field to suggest you’re not aware of that history.

  13. It wouldn’t be better. Those issues aren’t more important than our lives. It would however be great, and I hope they do.

  14. Of course. But that doesn’t negate the fact that they played a huge role advancing our rights in the past 3 decades. It also doesn’t negate that they can be hugely helpful if wooed correctly, and on LGBT rights, we did and they were.

  15. You didn’t actually refute a single thing I wrote. You, like many others, simply expressed your hatred of corporations, and that’s fine. But it’s not the topic at hand. We were discussing whether companies played a powerful role in helping advance LGBT rights in the 1990s and beyond, and they did. And yep, ENDA hasn’t passed. And had you read my article above, you’d note that corporate America has stepped in and provided those benefits when Washington politicians wouldn’t. (You also might want to speak with the folks at United ENDA, who promised us ten years ago that passing ENDA would be easy. Also, you might want to chat with the intersectional folks who want LGBT orgs to focus on immigration and Palestine and DAPL, instead of getting ENDA done.)

    Again, I get that you hate corporations. And that’s fine. But your animus doesn’t change LGBT history.

    And finally, your comment about acknowledging LGBT history before 1990 is simply weird. Are you actually suggesting that I, or anyone else, isn’t aware that Stonewall was in 1969 rather than 1989? We’re not aware of the Mattachine Society? Your comment is bizarre, and off topic.

    Again, if you disagree with my well-documented story, above, feel free. But your feelings are not an argument that disproves history.

  16. Grahamburgers says:

    I’m ALL for using corporations for their gigantic wallets. But this version of events is a fantasy.

    All I’m saying, corporations spend millions upon millions of dollars every year lobbying Congress. Successfully manipulating what laws pass and what ones don’t every year. This is fact. ENDA still hasn’t passed. It’s been around, not passing through Congress, since the ’90s. If corporations are so big on LGBT+ rights, why hasn’t that passed?

    Because they’re not big on our rights. They’re big on using us for our money. Ads are great, representation is great, but ACTION is greater. And as a civil rights activist that is something John should be intimately familiar with.

    But instead, he’s blocking everyone on Twitter with a different point of view. Sorry, John, you’re not the community leader you think you are if you won’t listen to those within your community when they’re showing you a different point of view. (And, frankly, I fully expect to be blocked from this blog too. If that’s like a thing that people can do on blogs? I don’t know.)

    Do we need corporations? Yes. I am thoroughly on board with that.
    But do we need to tell this propaganda about them? Absolutely not.
    Use the corporations. Don’t let them use us. Thinking that LGBT-targeted ads that aren’t accompanied by actions supportive of the LGBT+ community is enough IS letting them use us. We are better and stronger than that.

    But I am glad to see you acknowledging the decades of struggle for LGBT+ equality that came before the 90s, John. On Twitter, you definitely weren’t doing that.

  17. my wag says:

    And the corporate sword cuts both ways.

    Q. Who moved jobs overseas?
    A. Many of America’s corporations.
    Yes, incentivized by Congress …. at the cash supplied request of many corporations.

    Q. Who is holding money overseas?
    Q. Who is using dubious accounting to hold money overseas?
    Q. Who can hold their religious beliefs over YOU?

    A. Corporations.

    Be careful, dealing with the power, secrecy and desires of:

  18. Houndentenor says:

    As if communist governments have ever been a friend to gay people.

    The far left is just as crazy as the far right. In fact the invective hurled at you (sorry about that, btw) reminded me of the same shit I read from RWNJs on facebook. (I usually avoid such people on twitter, but I can’t unfriend ALL my relatives. Or can I? hmmmm)

  19. Houndentenor says:

    They’d be better off with affordable college and Single payer HC. In fact they are about to be hurt bigtime, at least the ones who need to hire people in STEM fields (especially foreign ones). International applications are way down nationwide. Whether or not that will mean lower attendance or just lower admission standards we won’t know until September but universities are in a panic (many have hiring freezes to brace for the loss of revenue). Some countries (Saudi Arabia, in particular) have cut off funding for students they were sponsoring, some mid-degree (as in, halfway through a masters in engineering. Ouch.) This is going to hurt the universities but also hurt the companies that these students tend to wind up working for. As for single payer, health insurance is a huge headache for companies. Even if they don’t chip in a penny to the premiums, they still have to pay companies to keep up with ever-changing plans that will be offered to employees. It’s something they’d be better off with having off their plates.

  20. nikto says:

    So most corporations are good on LGBT Rights. Great!

    Now, let’s get ’em over to the right side on Single-Payer HC, affordable college, strengthening SS, big increases in infrastructure investment and renewables, and a
    foreign policy that seeks peace treaties instead of more military bases and air-attack$.

    That would be even better.

  21. Interestingly, I’m now getting a lot of self-avowed communists. It’s rather weird.

  22. Houndentenor says:

    As Sandra Bernhard once said about Diana Ross: “Miss One is always upset.”

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    الوعد الذهبي

    the source :

  24. Well, Glenn Greeenwald apparently got upset, so a lot of his followers are who weighed in. Many had “democratic socialist” in their profile, so I think there’s a knee-jerk desire to deny unconformable truths.

  25. Houndentenor says:

    I saw the twitter shit show the erupted based on this. Oy. The left would prefer that we still be beaten regularly in gay clubs than make alliances with corporations. What the fuck is wrong with these people?

    And a personal story. It didn’t take that much doing to get nondiscrimination policies from many of the big corporations. I was temping at American Express when they passed their policy. All it took was for a group of employees to ask for a meeting and make the request. The company wasn’t discriminating against gay people and had no intention to. They did get some heat for it. I know this because I opened the mail for the CEO for a few months. Some of it was pretty ugly. Nothing I hadn’t hear before though (I’m from East Texas originally), but enough that the head of HR made a point to apologize to me for the crap I was reading (and forwarding to someone else to deal with). I did appreciate the sentiment. They got a little recruiting mileage out of the nondiscrimination announcement but not that much. They did it because it was the right thing to do. There was no arm twisting. We didn’t have the clout to twist their arms, truth be told. The leftist view of all that is bizarre. They can’t give corporations credit for anything good. I don’t say that to excuse the bad. It’s okay to like some things a person or group does and not others. This idiotic binary thinking is destroying our country and will soon take our whole country down with them.

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