It’s somewhat popular knowledge that Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender American, threw the first brick outside of the kitschy doors of the Stonewall Inn, igniting what would become known as the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Pride, in its very first iteration, before the parades and feel-good messages of liberation and equality demanded the spotlight. Marsha, and countless transgender and black activists after her, paved the way for the gay rights movement that has afforded protections for millions of queer people and carved out a space for the equality narratives championed by racial and feminist movements to include queer Americans.
Following Stonewall, groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Task Force focused their attention on the queerification of corporate policies rather than federal law, because convincing a handful of corporate executives to build protections for sexual minorities into their workplace was faster and easier at first than taking on federal or state laws.
The AIDS crisis at the time, having claimed over 500,000 American lives by 1999, brought new focus back to the queer movement, and companies began to extend health benefits of gay employees to their partners. Benefitting from retention of queer talent, companies began to see the advantage of taking internal stances on queer issues, while at the same time remaining silent externally.
Activism v. Slacktivism
With the queer movement’s impact on mainstream culture, the needle of acceptance is moving from tolerance to acceptance; and from acceptance to celebration. Companies from Apple to IBM have proudly produced rainbow versions of their logos, and supporting queer causes has become a low-risk corporate endeavor during Pride month.
However, it is in this acceptance where we find “corporate schizophrenia,” with companies supporting queer causes on paper, but falling short when the choice is put to them. The 2013 Winter Olympics set in Sochi, Russia, is a good example. When Vladimir Putin announced pointed legal restrictions on public queer expression, each of the top corporate American sponsors, despite all having pride-flag versions of their logos and a stated commitment to queer causes, refused to withdraw sponsorship from the games. A few years later, gay purges in the country claimed an uncountable number of LGBT+ lives.
The lesson learned here is the key difference between activism and slacktivism, where the latter is virtue-signalling to a cause, without stepping up for it when it matters. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that 74 percent of Americans want CEOs to take the lead on changing social issues. If companies are already taking a stance with promoting the pride flag to begin with, anxiety over offending a certain audience base is already out the window when considering taking it a step further.
Moreover, there is considerable gain from activism over slacktivism, beyond the obvious benefit to human rights. Following the recent George Floyd protests, Ben & Jerry’s released a powerful statement condemning racial injustice and white supremacy and its support for H.R. 40 a bill before Congress that would create a commission to study the effects of slavery and discrimination from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies. Ben & Jerry’s directs its consumers to sign Phone2Action-powered petitions, and donates proceeds from various flavors to Black Lives Matter initiatives.
The company has been widely praised for its activism and substantive work toward racial equality, and its social media posts around the topic have received higher engagement than almost any previous post. While not all brands may be as comfortable speaking out as Ben & Jerry’s, proving to consumers that your company means what it says is a key conduit to earning consumer loyalty fast.
Don’t Isolate Equality Initiatives to Pride Month
Studies show that gay couples earn 10 percent more income than straight couples, and spend more on consumer goods, technology and luxury items due to having fewer childcare outgoing expenses. The queer community, while incredibly diverse and intersectional, continues to grow as younger consumers, less bridled by fear and intolerance, more freely identify with the community. Gay consumers are hyper-aware of the brands they buy, and as the ranks grow, it is important for companies to be conscious of optics.
The gay community despondently accepts that companies abandon all talk of equal rights and queer liberation immediately on July 1, proving it difficult for them to “get behind” a single brand for its work during pride-month out of suspicion that that work is self-serving in nature. A company that truly wishes to market to, and win over, a community with considerable purchasing power must go the extra mile to stand-out from the virtue-signallers.
One way to do this is to launch an advocacy campaign around an LGBT+ issue, such as one addressing rollbacks to transgender protections in healthcare announced this past weekend, during a time that isn’t pride month. Showing continued, year-round commitment to diversity and inclusion proves to the community that a company means business.
A community with a long history of looking back at the lessons learned from the AIDS crisis seldom forgets those who spoke up when it mattered — at the times that mattered.
Double-down on Protections for Queer Employees, Especially for the Transgender Community
Violence against transgender Americans is alarmingly high, especially against those who are Black. In 2019, more transgender Americans were murdered at home here in America than combat troops at war in Afghanistan. Federal protections for LGBT+ employees were passed by the Supreme Court a few days ago and while this is certainly cause for celebration, there is still much work to do.
One in five LGBT+ people experience sexual or gender discrimination while applying for a job, and the number is higher if the applicant is a queer person of color. Well over half of the LGBT+ population has reported harassment in the workplace, and transgender workers are subject to even more types of harassment than LGB workers. This includes restroom accessibility, being purposefully referred to by incorrect pronouns and having to endure inappropriate questions, which can lead to employee disengagement.
Therefore, it is pivotal that companies not only double-down on their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies specifically for LGBT+ employees, but to externalize that information to let queer applicants know which workplaces have embedded structures that safeguard their right to exist without harassment and mockery.
It is important to be vocal about the strides your company makes. Be proud to offer trans-inclusive health benefits; promote your Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index Score; and speak directly to your prospective queer and trans talent. Reinforce their validity and that they have a home with you. Extending special care to the most vulnerable members of the queer community is to be an ally to a powerful movement that would not exist today were it not for those same members.
Studies continue to show that the public is eager to buy from brands that take stands; and taking a stand is more than signalling to a rainbow or flying a flag. It is making substantive and strategic decisions both internally and externally that actually benefit the queer community. It is listening to the voices of queer people in-house and online who articulate the changes they would like to see in the corporate world. It’s stepping up during Pride — and not stepping back after Pride.
As the month of June continues and brands celebrate diversity, inclusion and liberation, it is best to not forget the words of Marsha P. Johnson herself, “As long as my people don’t have their rights across America, there’s no reason for celebration.” And while Marsha is correct, it would be remiss to not add that we are your people. Our struggle is the collective reality of all those side-lined and oftentimes invisible. Our movement was born in Manhattan but is extant in communities many miles from the Stonewall Inn, breathlessly in need of allies and more powerful voices to see us and reinforce us.
Because we are not invisible. We’re very much here.
And we are not going anywhere.
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