“A good act does not wash out the bad,” wrote American author George R. R. Martin more than 20 years ago. That’s the message LGBTQ groups are sending to many well-known brands, including those that insist they deserve to be listed among the ranks of pro-LGBTQ companies.
Earlier this year, the queer news site LGBTQ Nation made the point that many pro-LGBTQ companies celebrating Pride Month were at the same time donating to politicians hostile to the community. The list included some of the most recognizable initials in the business world, including AT&T, UPS, GE and UBS.
Many of these companies score perfectly on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index; but, as writer Matt Keeley wrote earlier this summer, it’s a tough sell to say you’re one of the leading pro-LGBTQ companies if checks are also sent to political leaders like U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, who at one time claimed the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard – now widely considered a hate crime -- was a “hoax.”
This backlash against companies is not only about to whom these businesses donates funds – it’s also about their ties to investors as well.
The latest brand to be accused of “pink-washing” (some call it “queer-washing”) is Equinox, the high-end health club chain that includes more than a few gay men and women as members. The company became the target of many critics earlier this month when it turned out that Stephen Ross, an investor in the company, had scheduled a fundraiser for U.S. President Donald Trump in the Hamptons.
“The Equinox situation represents a corollary,” wrote TriplePundit’s Tina Casey, “Behind-the-scenes brand owners and investors are also expected to act in ways that reflect and support the brand image.”
To its credit, the company has responded to the ongoing backlash with last week’s announcement it would donate $1 million to five charities – and members of Equinox will vote on how those funds will be distributed.
According to Newsweek, a longtime employer explained in a company-wide conference call why the political fundraiser was problematic for both gym members and employees:
“Even though [Ross] is an investor, the money that people pay to Equinox still goes in his pocket. And they know that, and that is the problem. Equinox can say, 'We don't view this, we don't view this,' as much as they want, but the problem is that the money people are spending is enriching him, and he is giving it to this person that is really polarizing.”
In the wake of the Equinox controversy, LGBTQ activists are increasingly urging both consumers, as well as employees, to speak out and pressure companies to stop donating to anti-LGBTQ political leaders.
Zero for Zeros is an example of a campaign that is working overtime to highlight what its organizers say is the hypocrisy of companies that swoon over the LGBTQ community while offering financial support to anti-LGBTQ politicians. Brands in Zero for Zeros’ crosshairs read like an A-to-Z of multinationals, from Amazon to Wells Fargo. And the list of politicians is just as long, with the campaign citing numerous examples of past quotes and previously sponsored legislation that would have drastically undermined legal protection for LGBTQ citizens.
The group’s clarion call? Companies that are allies to LGBTQ employees and customers should not give money to elected officials that lead the fight against equality.
Tension between LGBTQ groups and companies is one part of the growing expectation that companies must go beyond saying they are pro-environment, pro-employee and pro-social impact. Stakeholders are increasingly demanding that companies become more transparent about lobbying expenditures, corporate political contributions, and memberships in trade associations.
Just as a company can’t tout its investments in renewables while financially supporting the fossil fuels industry, a company will now find itself in an awkward if it is brags about being pro-LGBTQ, yet continues to donate to anti-gay politicians.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.