Capitalism Trumps Hate
CEOs have often been ahead of cops and politicians on gay rights.
The Queering of Corporate America: How Big Business Went From LGBTQ Adversary to Ally, by Carlos A. Ball, Beacon Press, 256 pages, $28.95
Big business wasn't exactly the first place activists looked for allies as the modern gay rights movement emerged. Large corporations have long been seen as a force for social conformity, antagonistic or at best indifferent toward liberation movements. But legal scholar Carlos A. Ball's new book, The Queering of Corporate America, makes a strong case that the business world has been one of the more favorable arenas for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans people seeking equality. (Ball uses LGBTQ throughout to describe this group.)
This wasn't always the case, of course. Ball shows how advocates and managers learned to walk the path toward greater equality together, a story that should lead many readers to reassess what they thought they knew about corporate America, civil rights, and social change. Over the course of several decades, activists persuaded companies to adopt nondiscriminatory hiring rules, to protect the jobs of people with HIV, and to extend health care and retirement benefits to same-sex domestic partners. Most of this was achieved at a time when few government agencies had such policies for their own employees and when most politicians—of both major parties—wanted nothing to do with gay rights legislation.
Through a multiyear process that started in 1968, for example, protesters persuaded Pacific Bell to renounce its policy against considering homosexual job applicants. In the mid-1970s, ABC and NBC agreed to make some TV shows less homophobic. In 1985, Bank of America issued a guidance to its managers calling on them to accommodate employees with HIV and to treat AIDS, at that point a subject of great public fear and misunderstanding, as they would any other serious illness. In 1996, Disney began offering domestic partner benefits to same-sex employees. In 2013, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz publicly rebuked one of his own shareholders who disagreed with the coffee chain's support for marriage equality, suggesting that the offended investor sell his stock and invest in another company.
Early advances in equal treatment were almost never reversed once integrated into corporate culture. While several early legal advances were rolled back when a more conservative group of voters became dominant, for-profit companies stuck with their policies regardless of who controlled the state house, the White House, or Congress. It turns out that changes negotiated via voluntary arrangements can be less divisive and longer-lasting than those decided at the ballot box.
Since Ball focuses mostly on big companies with big payrolls, his book doesn't have much to say about the smaller businesses that LGBTQ people have often turned to for community and entertainment rather than for a paycheck and benefits. But it's worth remembering the ways small businesses also made a place for those outside the mainstream.
Thousands of cafés, bars, and bookshops have served as queer refuges and gathering spots. After the 2016 shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, Curbed reporter Patrick Sisson wrote that it was "no surprise family and friends of the victims at Pulse compared the attack to the invasion of a church or sacred space, because that's what these institutions have always represented for the LGBTQ community, both in Southern Florida and around the world."
Gay-friendly businesses were also often the cradles of protest movements. Bars, then as now, served as unofficial meeting places for activists, newsletter writers, and envelope stuffers. Beer blasts and drag shows raised money for legal, medical, and educational projects. At the same time that early gay activists were spending their days lobbying their employers to renounce anti-gay hiring practices, many of them were spending their evenings organizing protests against discriminatory local laws and enforcement practices.
In cities with a critical mass, those businesses built relationships with each other. Gay bars in San Francisco, for example, banded together in 1962 by forming the Tavern Guild, which did its best to shield customers from police harassment. It even operated informal social insurance programs for bar employees who lost their jobs after police raids. Guild members tracked and shared information about both city and state crackdowns.
Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay elected official, built his clout in part by leveraging an alliance with the Teamsters, who were boycotting Coors beer because of its anti-union employment practices. Coors was also notorious at the time for its homophobic corporate policies, so it was natural for gay bar owners and managers to join the boycott. The tactic was successful, too—Ball writes that by the mid-1990s, "Coors had become a leader among large corporations in embracing LGBTQ rights positions."
Many of the bars and other businesses beloved by queer people were owned and managed by members of the community. But many were not. For the latter, the profit motive did a good job of incentivizing accommodations to minority customers under difficult circumstances. The Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker has explained this effect in the context of racial discrimination.
While there have been plenty of individual cases of homophobic harassment and assault by ordinary civilians over the years, the long-term, systematic oppression of queer people came from the police. Indeed, it's almost certain that many more proprietors would have openly served the gay community if not for their fear of being fined, shuttered, or arrested themselves.
In the days when a mere gathering of gay people could trigger police retaliation, many of the businesses serving that community—including New York's legendary Stonewall Inn—were run by organized crime. In her book An Army of Ex-Lovers, Amy Hoffman, former editor of the Boston-based Gay Community News, describes her friends' mixed feelings about the gay bars that existed at the time, "whose straight, possibly Mafia owners profited from our oppression." They would have preferred to patronize watering holes with fewer unpleasant ties, but in many cities, the only people who were willing to take on an investment that risky were people who already knew when and how to bribe the police. Members of the Sicilian mafia in the mid–20th century were hardly enlightened in their attitudes toward LGBTQ people, but they did know something about delivering black market products and services while keeping the cops off of their backs.
Such police shakedowns explain one of the more memorable anecdotes of the 1969 Stonewall uprising. According to trans activist Sylvia Rivera, when cops initially raided the tavern and forced the patrons outside, the first thing thrown in defiance was pocket change. Politicians regularly justified such raids as "crackdowns on vice," but the Stonewall regulars knew the real story.
The right to own property and operate a business is good for everyone, even those—especially those—who can't count on mainstream acceptance of their sexual orientations or gender identities. One doesn't have to be an aspiring billionaire to benefit from a society that protects economic freedoms.
It's become popular in some circles to decry the commercialization of gay pride events. But the market economy, in forms both big and small, has served the interests of LGBTQ Americans for decades. There weren't any CEOs at Stonewall—not openly, anyway—but the corporate executives of later years were still years ahead of most cops and politicians when it counted.