Corporate Backing Shifts Gay Rights From Market To Main Street

MicrosoftstFor more than a decade, advertisers and corporate marketers have seen gays and lesbians mostly as consumers, as people with disposable income who could be tapped to boost a company's bottom line.

That said, seeing corporations pay lip service to LGBT rights has become somewhat expected, particularly around pride, when suddenly every company under the sun seems to be embracing their gay pals. So news that over 200 major corporations, including Apple, Nike, Google, Abercrombie & Fitch, Armani and Office Depot, signed Supreme Court amicus briefs opposing DOMA and Proposition 8 may seem normal and predictable. It's neither.

As James B. Stewart at the New York Times notes, this surge is quite the anomaly.

Historians told me there is little, if any, precedent for such early and extensive corporate support of a civil rights issue that remains, in at least many quarters, highly controversial. "By and large, corporations were not leaders but laggards in this process," said Gavin Wright, professor of American economic history at Stanford and author of Sharing the Prize, an economic history of the civil rights movement. "They supported a public accommodations law only after sit-ins and boycotts inflicted heavy losses and it became clear that these pressures were not going to fade away as the latest student fad…." But that changed, he said, "when they found that desegregation actually worked."

Corporations largely steered clear of the Equal Rights Amendment, and played little role decades ago in the early stages of the women's movement. And while many companies have joined in Supreme Court briefs in recent years supporting affirmative action and diversity in the workplace, those moves came long after landmark Supreme Court cases like Bakke in 1978…

By contrast, corporations are weighing in on the gay marriage issue in the first cases to reach the Supreme Court.

"I think you’ll find that, historically, most companies have had a policy against taking a stand or filing amicus briefs, and then only if there is a direct business impact," Mr. Willett said. "They don’t want to get involved in social issues. To see this many businesses rallying behind this cause tells you that it’s a real business issue."

Most of the CEOs and executives and management types within these supportive companies frame the matter not as one of emotions, as when politicians cite a gay child — Dick Cheney, for example — but one of hard facts: LGBT people are employees whose happiness and stable home lives help the business grow.  It is, to use one lawyer's phrase, "a business imperative."

LGBT people are no longer just a consumer base to be approached with cold calculation, to be marketed to and manipulated. We're actual people with emotions and loves and passions; we're people with jobs, whose happiness impacts our employers's success; we live down the road or around the bend, just on Main Street. We are, put simply, fellow humans, not faceless shoppers. And in a society where consumption and marketing have an oversized role in shaping our culture, corporate support could very well be just the ticket for discounting homophobia from coast-to-coast.


  1. Charlie says

    The first gay rights organization was formed in 1951. This really isn’t early in the movement. In relation to the formation of the NAACP, the army was integrated less than 40 years after it was founded and the Loving case was less than 50 years.

    I am not sure where people get the idea this has been a quick struggle.

  2. oliver says

    Boy, 1 Million Moms is going to be really busy.

    “So news that over 200 major corporations, including Apple, Nike, Google, Abercrombie & Fitch, Armani and Office Depot, signed Supreme Court amicus briefs opposing DOMA and Proposition 8 may seem normal and predictable.”

  3. tim b says

    Charlie: Agreed that it’s not been all that quick in coming.

    I think one of the things driving the difference is the nature of the companies that have gotten big in the last generation: they’re talent-driven, rather than network-driven.

    Tech-boom-era companies had loads of gay people in them from the start, partly because smart gay people were more welcome there than they were in the old-boy corporations that demanded old-boy closets.

    As for the retailers… well, Armani and Abercrombie know better than to alienate the core of their customer and tastemaker base…

  4. Eric says

    Charlie is absolutely right about the long history of the gay rights movement. Unfortunately, most writers date the struggle from when straight people started paying attention not from the actual beginnings.

    By the way, the first major same-sex marriage case to reach the Supreme Court was Baker v. Nelson in 1972. That’s right – 41 years ago.

  5. Pierre says

    ..and those ‘historical’ bastions for human dignity — the religions of the world, especially Catholicism and the orthodox of any group — are falling behind the business and secular worlds in recognizing the rights of all humans. We live in a real world, not an ideal one. Nice shift!

  6. C. Foley says

    Indeed, this is not “early” support. Even if you only date the gay rights movement back to the Stonewall riots, that’s still 44 years ago. And even if these were the first marriage equality cases to reach the Supreme Court, that’s still 44 years of learning to see gay people as actual human beings before “weighing in” on the issue now.

    On a positive note, though, it does seem we have reached a tipping point of gay acceptance at a national level.

  7. Jerry6 says

    What is happening in the World is the realization by the thinking members of society is that Religion and Organized Gambling are two versions of the same general myth: “You can get something for nothing if you just place a small bet.” Both operate on the premise that: If you follow the sales pitch, you can gain something. The gamblers say that putting up some money, and rolling the dice can win you lots of money. The Church says that for putting money in the collection plate each week, and following some fundimental teachings, you can gain something large and pleasant after death in a place called “Heaven”. In one case,it is a super after life in “Heaven” with “God”, and the other is living well here an Earth. Unfotionatly, both premisses are nothing but a lot of Hot Air.

  8. ratbastard says

    Corporate backing for gay rights is only about the almighty dollar. Don’t kid yourself. They see a profitable demographic to market towards.

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