Buyer’s Remorse: Boycotting for Civil Rights

[16 March 2011]

By Michael Abernethy

Chicken fried steak. A big slab of cubed steak, battered and deep-fried, then covered with just the right amount of thick peppered cream gravy. On the side, some home-made mashed potatoes, also slathered with that same gravy, and some green beans, cooked with an unhealthy dose of bacon fat. Add a couple of rolls with butter and you have a meal that will make my husband’s cardiologist slap the fork out of his hand.

There are numerous places in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, that serve this glorious, artery-clogging meal. My personal favorite is the Cottage Inn, which I like for three reasons. First, the food is so good that you can hear your arteries harden as you eat it. Second, it’s locally owned, and I like to support local businesses over national chains. Third, they treat everyone the same. My favorite waitress won’t hesitate to insult you or smack you upside the head with a menu if you give her a hard time—playfully, of course. Straight or gay, black or white, man or woman, she doesn’t discriminate in abusing her customers.

My lesbian neighbor and her BFF, a gay man in his early-30s, prefer the national chain Cracker Barrel. She frequently mentions how much she likes the food and points out that she has never had a bad experience there. For her, any accusations against the chain regarding discrimination against the LGBT community are irrelevant, because she doesn’t “care about that kind of stuff”.

If I were to tell her that, until recently, Cracker Barrel had a policy stating that restaurant employees must extol “normal heterosexual values” and was again this past year ranked as one of the most least gay-friendly companies according to the Human Rights Campaign’s rankings, she wouldn’t care. (In fairness, the restaurant’s website lists sexual orientation among its diversity efforts in employment and the site repeats the idea that “everyone” is welcome, although this reference most likely is to appease the African-American community, which had accused the chain of racism.)

Now, I love my neighbor as much as my cat, but on this, she’s just wrong. However, she isn’t alone. There are innumerable LGBT individuals who support businesses that are LGBT-unfriendly, sometimes through ignorance and sometimes through indifference. What many of these individuals fail to realize is that they could be spending money at businesses that are then using that money to promote an anti-LGBT agenda.  It’s like those farmers they found in the US who consistently vote for candidates who are anti-farming.

Each year, the Human Rights Campaign rates companies on their support, or lack thereof, for gay rights and equality. Cracker Barrel, which ranks near the bottom this year, has moved up from the last place position it formally held. Even so, the companies that rank towards the bottom of the list are still better companies than the ones that landed in the bottom in the past.  Previously, such considerations of how much the company openly discriminated against LGBT persons factored in to the rankings. Most large companies don’t engage in such practices now, so rankings are largely based on workplace conditions and the extent to which a company provides protections for its LGBT employees. Several companies scored perfectly, including J. C. Penney, Mattel, Sears, Google, Home Depot and Whirlpool. Others, such as Dollar General, got scores of zero. In an effort to emphasize the differences in scores, this past January HRC sent members a quick comparison of some companies:

Macy’s (100%) vs. Saks (30%*)

Staples (100%) vs. Office Depot (45%)

Nike (100%) vs. Adidas/Reebok (15%*)

UPS (100%) vs. FedEx (80%) vs. DHL (30%*)

Whole Foods (85%) vs. Trader Joes (15%*)

Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams (100%) vs. Pottery Barn/West Elm (30%*)

(Asterisks denote those companies that failed to answer HRC requests for data, so scores were based on available information.) 

Let’s say it’s time for a new cell phone. You could go with Virgin Mobile or Motorola. Both have good phones and affordable deals for plans. However, Virgin got a score of 15, while Motorola scored at 100. Given equivalent products for comparable value, you could use those discretionary dollars to get what you need and make a statement to corporations about how much intolerance can cost them. Literally. Still, it must be recognized that each market is different, and often, LGBT shoppers have to take what is available, politics aside.

Nonetheless, the LGBT community has a history of using its money to make a point. The most notable boycott by the gay community was against Coors. During the mid-‘70s, word spread through the gay and lesbian bars to not get a Coors, a boycott was on. It worked, too. Beginning in the late ‘70s, Coors begin to adopt positive changes in company policies to include its LGBT employees. Eventually, the company began to court the gay community by sponsoring gay events and advertising in gay magazines.

The most publicized boycott concerned Florida Orange Juice, after former Miss Oklahoma and pop star Anita Bryant was hired to be its spokesperson. Around the same time, the mid-‘70s, Bryant had launched a campaign to protect the children of Dade County, Florida, from the evil homosexuals.  Bryant was eventually fired, which just adding fuel to her anti-gay rhetoric, and she endured death threats and hate mail. Eventually, both her professional and personal lives collapsed, as she was shunned by potential sponsors. Today, she heads Anita Bryant Ministries. (Personally, I favor destroying the person’s argument instead of the person.)

Other boycotts have met with varying success. A recent call for a boycott of Target didn’t gain the wide support of the Coors and orange juice boycotts, but it still made an impact. After donating $150,000 to a PAC (political action committee) for Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, viewed as anti-gay, Target recently announced a revision of its donations policy, so that donations are based on business interests and won’t offend customers or employees. After the Proposition 8 debacle in California, there were numerous calls for boycotts of any person, place, or organization that helped defeat gay marriage, including a boycott of the entire state of Utah, where the Mormon Church is headquartered. Most likely, Utah isn’t hurting too much, as few LGBT people were travelling to Utah before. It’s not exactly our Mecca, after all.

The Double-Edged Credit Card

In Spain, a demand by a gay rights group that the country lead the European Union in a boycott of Jamaica didn’t achieve its goal. Still, LGBT individuals in Europe and elsewhere are free to boycott the tropical vacation spot in protest of its rampant homophobia. In New Zealand, gay activists called for a boycott of Moa Beer, after the parent company released t-shirts implying that lite beers were only for “B(Q)eers”. A recent call for a boycott of Heinz in the UK didn’t affect the company’s sales; gay rights groups were upset after the ketchup maker gave in to pressure and pulled an ad featuring a kiss between two gay dads.  With half a million views on YouTube, the ad has still reached a substantial audience.

In addition to not always being successful, boycotts invite another problem. For every boycott the LGBT community sponsors, anti-gay organizations are calling for boycotts of gay friendly companies. McDonalds, Ford, and Home Depot are just a few of the companies that have been targeted. This past February, in a rare act of eating itself, some conservatives in the United States boycotted their own convention, the Conservative Political Action Conference, which should have been their victory party after last year’s election. They were upset that a gay group was one of many co-sponsors of the event. Better to not get the message out at all than have to share the stage with “those people”. 

So, what’s a company to do? Support the gay community, and anti-gay organizations boycott. Withdraw your support, and the LGBT community and its sympathizers boycott. This begs the question, What good are these boycotts doing except confusing everyone regarding with whom they can and can’t shop and when? That isn’t to suggest that boycotts can’t be successful, particularly when a previously friendly organization, such as Target, which got a score of 85 from the HRC, seems to turn its back on the GLBT community.

Instead of chasing windmills, the more effective strategy is to make everyday buying about supporting LGBT friendly businesses and companies. Many countries have lists of LGBT friendly corporations, usually compiled by a gay rights group, such as the HRC in the States. For local merchants, consulting LGBT phone books and directories, which are available online, provides direction as to where to spend your money, as does word of mouth. Even if one does the majority of one’s shopping online, it’s easy to investigate a company’s or website’s policies and practices, often in the site’s “About Us” section. 

Redirecting all of our spending in the direction of those who have our backs will make an impact. Regardless of conflicting studies concerning the amount of discretionary spending of gay and lesbian households versus straight households, the bottom line is that we spend a lot of dough.  Big, fat wads of cash. According to a study conducted by Witeck-Combs Communications and Packaged Facts, spending by the LGBT community in the US during 2010 amounted to $743 billion. That was up from $732 billion the previous year, but not as high as originally projected, due in large part to concerns about the economy. Japan Times reports that Japanese marketer Pageanta Co. estimated spending by the LGBT community in that country at 6.6 trillion yen, the same amount the whole country spends on alcohol. According to London Gay Man, LGBT people spent 70 billion pounds in the UK. In India, the “pink rubee” is gaining in power, as reported for the BBC India by Howard Johnson:

Being aware of the businesses that respect their LGBT employees and customers is a large step toward spending wisely. Whether its chicken fried steak, towels, tennis shoes, or insurance, you can get pretty equivalent deals in more than one place. Don’t just support LGBT businesses; let them know that is why you have given them your patronage. Similarly, let companies that you drop know that it is their discriminatory practices that have led you to shop elsewhere. 

Like my neighbor, though, too many LGBT individuals will claim they don’t care about that political stuff, never realizing that they are helping to fund the efforts of those who will keep LGBT persons from getting what they do want, like equality in marital benefits, job security, and safety. My neighbor and her BFF both work at one of Louisville’s best restaurants, L & N Bistro, a place that welcomes everyone (try the pork chop—to die for!). Should they both find themselves unemployed, neither would have much of a chance of getting on at their favorite Cracker Barrel. Perhaps one day I’ll take her out to Cottage Inn to show her she can still get chicken-fried steak, fried chicken, and meatloaf that is damn good and inexpensive. Maybe, if she’s lucky, the waitress will whack her in the head with a menu. It’s a sign of love.

Cheers, Queers To Tommy Kirk, who will turn 70 this year. Kirk was a teen star in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with Disney Studios, until he admitted to Disney executives that he was gay. Kirk starred in such hits as The Shaggy Dog, The Absent Minded Professor, and Swiss Family Robinson. After his admission, he was dropped by Disney, and his career fizzled. Kirk has worked sporadically since then, with his last credit being The Education of a Vampire in 2001. At a time when it was no secret that being out in Hollywood would most likely be career suicide, Kirk remained honest about who he was.

Music Tip for the Month Check out Sara Hickman’s haunting rendition of Marvin Etzioni’s lesbian love song “Juliet and Juliet” on Sara’s excellent album Absence of Blame. And I don’t know her, so she didn’t ask for the plug.

Here’s Mud in Your Eye To Kings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill, who tweeted a response to gay Glee creator Ryan Murphy, telling him to “see a therapist, get a manicure, buy a new bra.” Followill quickly apologized, saying that he wasn’t homophobic or misogynistic. I’m sure that he was sincere in his apology, but a tip for the future, Nathan, If you don’t want to have to apologize for sounding like a homophobe, don’t sound like homophobe.

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