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Tina Casey headshot

Corporate Support for LGBTQ Rights Hits a Wall in Tennessee

Corporate support for LGBTQ rights has its limits, as seen in anti-LGBTQ legislation that the governor of Tennessee recently signed into law.
By Tina Casey
LGBTQ Rights

Without support from strong federal policies ensuring LGBTQ rights, corporate leaders who are striving for diversity and inclusion have little leverage to push back against discriminatory state legislation. That problem is clearly evident in the latest development, which concerns new anti-LGBTQ legislation in Tennessee.

LGBTQ rights: letters are only a start

The Tennessee discrimination issue made national news last week, when almost 150 local businesses and major corporations signed onto a letter of protest against anti-LGBTQ legislation.

The open letter, organized by the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce and supported by the organizations Freedom for All AmericansGLAAD and HRC, was sent to state legislators after Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed House Bill 836 into law.

Assuming it survives challenges in court, the new law eliminates otherwise qualified LGBTQ persons from the pool of adoptive and foster parents. Many other people would be also be disqualified, including interfaith couples, single parents, married couples in which one prospective parent has previously been divorced, or other parents to whom the agency has any religious objection, according to a list compiled by Human Right Watch.

Along with 108 local businesses and several major Tennessee sports, travel and culture organizations, a fairly significant number of leading corporations signed the list. They  include Amazon, American Airlines, Bridgestone Americas, Dell Technologies, Dow, Hilton, Marriott International, Inc., Mars, Inc., Nike, Inc., Nissan North America, Salesforce, Warby Parker and Warner Music Group.

Letter writing campaigns only go so far

The new letter may have helped the signatories amplify their concern for LGBTQ rights, but so far, their impact on legislation appears to be minimal.

The problem is that Tennessee has made a solid bottom line case for businesses to invest there, and corporations are unlikely to give that up.

A statement from Mars, Inc. cited by Human Rights Watch, sums up the dilemma.

“We firmly believe that everyone is equal and that every person deserves to be treated with respect, dignity, and fairness,”  the statement reads in part, but then it continues with this observation: “We value our presence across the state of Tennessee and continue to invest here as it has been a great place to do business.”

The company Postmates went a step farther, but still put no teeth into its position.

“Postmates continues to be alarmed by the Lee Administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda, particularly as we consider expanding our presence in the Volunteer State,” the company warned, but it did not explicitly state how passage of HB 836 would impact its consideration.

For that matter, the new letter is an updated version of an earlier missive organized by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce under the Tennessee Business Leaders Against Discrimination banner, as part of a campaign intended to defeat HB 836 and other anti-LGBTQ legislation.

As of April 2019, the earlier letter included 29 corporate signers and 93 local businesses, but their pleas for tolerance fell on deaf ears in the state legislature.

LGBTQ rights: money talks

Ten months have elapsed between last April and the new letter, and yet the number of companies signing on to the campaign has barely grown. In that context, it’s little wonder that legislators felt comfortable moving forward with HB 836.

The failure to sway hearts and minds among state lawmakers is especially fraught for Nashville-based Bridgestone Americas, which celebrated its sixth year as sponsor of the city’s Pride Festival in 2019, with its own employees leading the Pride Parade to kick off the festivities.

Bridgestone also received a score of 90 on the 2020 Corporate Equality Index, a project of the Human Rights Campaign. Among the company’s recent initiatives is the launch of a BPROUD, an employee resource group focusing on support for LGBTQ+ employees and allies.

Money often talks when it comes to LGBTQ rights

It remains to be seen if Bridgestone is prepared to take any concrete action in the aftermath of HB 836.

In the meantime, the corporate response to HB 836 in Tennessee presents a sharp contrast with another LGBTQ rights issue that erupted recently in Florida, after the Orlando Sentinel exposed widespread LGBTQ discrimination among private schools participating in a corporate-funded scholarship voucher program.

Several leading corporations immediately announced that they would stop contributing to the fund on account of the schools’ discriminatory practices, throwing the financial viability of the popular program into doubt. As of this writing, state officials have asserted that steps are being taken to eliminate discrimination in the program.

Though that remains to be seen, the contrast is clear: money talks.

Image credit: Nashville Pride/Facebook

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey