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Corporate allies increasingly challenged over LGBTQ support

State Farm, Disney punished for speaking out

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Ben Shapiro launched attacks against Disney for speaking out against the Florida "Don't Say Gay" law.

After years of leveraging their familiar brand names to denounce anti-LGBTQ measures in state legislatures, large corporations are facing increasing challenges to their free speech amid newfound pressure from conservative forces, raising questions about whether they will continue to remain as vocal as they have in the recent past.

From retaliation against State Farm for pledging to donate LGBTQ-themed books to children’s schools, to Florida revoking Disney’s special districting status after speaking out against the “Don’t Say Gay” law recently signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, businesses are encountering significant resistance after pledging support for the LGBTQ community — and the blowback is having an impact that may silence the relatively newfound ally for LGBTQ causes.

Nadine Smith, at the forefront of the fight as executive director of Equality Florida, said businesses “are receiving clear messages from the DeSantis bully pulpit not to interfere with the agenda of censorship and discrimination.”

“Speaking out on behalf of your employees’ children and the respect of your employees’ families is in keeping with the values of diversity and inclusion companies have touted for years to attract and retain top talent,” Smith added. “Failing to walk the walk because the governor and his fellow extremists have threatened you is the political choice.”

One recent case of a business reversing course was State Farm backing down after pledging to donate LGBTQ-themed books in coordination with GenderCool, a youth organization highlighting LGBTQ-themed voices, to schools and libraries. Among the titles of the books to be donated were “A Kids Book About Being Transgender,” “A Kids Book About Being Inclusive,” and “A Kids Book About Being Non-Binary,” which portrayed the experience of different gender identities. The anti-LGBTQ group Consumers’ Research launched a campaign consisting of online blasts, which were boosted by The Daily Wire and Breitbart, with the slogan “Like a Creepy Neighbor…State Farm is There.”

The campaign appeared to have the desired impact. On May 23, State Farm announced it would pull back, declaring “conversations about gender should happen at home with parents” as opposed from GenderCool it “will no longer support that program.” Although State Farm in a later statement insisted it would continue to support the LGBTQ community and inclusivity, the victory for conservative forces was evident.

Another high-profile example of a business speaking out on policy against LGBTQ people and facing blowback was Disney when it spoke out against the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits discussion in schools on LGBTQ matters in grades K-3 . Although Disney initially was reluctant to speak out, it reversed course in response to public pressure and CEO Bob Chapek contacted DeSantis to denounce the measure days before he would sign it.

DeSantis, who’s widely considered a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, publicly denounced the company for embracing “woke” ideology. The Florida Legislature followed up by revoking Disney’s tax status, which had enabled it to operate its own security forces in Disney World in Orlando.

The conservative media also played a role. Skewering Disney for taking a stance against the “Don’t Say Gay” measure, The Daily Wire decried the media conglomerate for its all around approach to LGBTQ visibility, declaring a $100 million investment in the launch of a “DW Kids,” which aims to be a competitor to Disney in youth media. Conservatives also crowed when polling found Disney has suffered a loss in public approval; one poll from the conservative Trafalgar Group found 68 percent of respondents were less likely to do business with Disney as a result of the company “focusing on creating content to expose young children to sexual ideas.”

Disney ended up making neither side happy. The Human Rights Campaign announced it wouldn’t accept a donation of up to $500,000 pledged by Disney at the time it came out against the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Media reports also highlighted stories about LGBTQ employees and allies at Disney storming out in protest over the media company’s delayed action on the Florida measure.

Fabrice Houdart, managing director of the LGBTQ group Out Leadership, acknowledged the “Disney debacle hurt our community,” but said he thinks the overall impact of the incident was no indication of a decrease in strength among LGBTQ people.

“If Bob Chapek was testing the resolve and clout of our community and its allies to ensure corporations take a stance when our human rights are under attack, he got a very clear response,” Houdart said. “The community’s reaction, protests, and media coverage highlighted that the time for companies to play both sides on human rights is over. Corporate power is immense and we will continue to engage corporations to ensure they put their money and lobbying efforts where their mouth is.”

But the growing tension among business leaders is palpable. The Wall Street Journal, in an article titled “Disney’s clash with Florida has CEOs on alert” dated May 2, details the impact retaliation is having on businesses and whether or not they will take a stance on LGBTQ issues or other matters deemed socially divisive, revealing a new trepidation not seen in recent years.

“The fallout from the recent political spat between Disney and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has alarmed leaders across the corporate sphere, according to executives and their advisers, and heightened the challenges for chief executive officers navigating charged topics,” the Journal reported.

The current situation stands in stark contrast to years past when businesses were falling over themselves to denounce measures and policies against LGBTQ people. The most recent case was House Bill 2 in North Carolina, which barred citywide LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinances and transgender people from using restrooms on public property consistent with their gender identity. The business outcry and cancellations cost the state an estimated $39.7 million in revenue and is credited for being the reason Gov. Pat McCrory lost re-election in 2016.

The outcry over House Bill 2 echoed a similar situation. In Arizona, the business outcry in 2013 over religious freedom legislation seen to enable discrimination against LGBTQ people led conservative Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the measure. In 2015, Then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence defied opposition to similar religious freedom legislation and signed the measure into law, but after outcry continued to escalate, he signed into a law a “fix” to the legislation that dramatically limited its discriminatory scope.

In each of these cases, businesses were seen as the key ally in pushing back against measures against LGBTQ people because their brands were well known, seen as neutral in outlook and influential with lawmakers counting on political donations to win re-election. As a result, corporate involvement may well have turned the tide in conservative states like Arizona, Indiana, and North Carolina.

Regional differences may account for the different outcomes as LGBTQ advocates in certain states continue to boast strong business support that continues to thwart legislation seen to enable discrimination.

Angela Hale, managing director of the LGBTQ group Texas Competes, made a distinction between Florida, where she said the environment is “toxic” after retaliation against Disney and may lead businesses to “think twice” on LGBTQ issues, and Texas, where she said the business community continues to support LGBTQ people, pointing out more than 1,500 businesses back her organization.

“What I’ve been watching is Ron DeSantis punish Disney, try to punish the Special Olympics, punish the baseball team in his state, for speaking out on issues that are important to those corporate values,” Hale said. “And that’s unfortunate that he is taking such tactics because businesses employ millions of people across the country and have employees in every state, and these employees care about the positions that the company they work at take.”

Asked whether she thinks the retaliation against companies like Disney would have an impact, Hale said it’s “too soon to tell,” but in the meantime businesses are continuing to speak out on a range of issues, including gun control after the recent shooting at a grade school in Uvalde, Texas.

“When we have these horrible anti-LGBT bills, and we’re particularly targeting trans children, and we’re targeting teachers, businesses are going to speak out,” Hale said. “I have found at least what’s going on, even in this climate and in Texas, that because of the seriousness of the situation right now that we are having people brave enough to speak out, and it does take bravery to speak out because there can be consequences to those actions if you’re a regulated industry.”

The new influence of conservative media, which in years past didn’t have the impact or organization to take on LGBTQ rights, also cannot be understated. The Daily Wire, for example, proudly brags about its influence on Facebook and has produced some of the most widely circulated pieces on LGBTQ issues. Ben Shapiro, founder and contributor to The Daily Wire, did not immediately respond to the Blade’s request Wednesday to comment for this article.

Houdart, at the end of the day, said he’s is “not concerned” about businesses withdrawing because they know supporting LGBTQ people is good business, and the LGBTQ movement would continue to harness that power to “engage corporations to ensure they put their money and lobbying efforts where their mouth is.”

“Companies were never supportive out of the goodness of their heart but because it is good business,” Houdart said. “And it remains good business. Employees, consumers, and investors are very clearly demanding that the private sector acquires a social license to operate and LGBTQ+ issues are one of the most straightforward avenues for companies to do so.”

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Politics

Kamala Harris hosts Pride month reception

Upwards of 200 people attended Naval Observatory event

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Vice President Kamala Harris hosted about 200 guests for Pride Month celebration at her official residence on June 28, 2022. She spoke at the Capital Pride festival in D.C. earlier in the month. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Vice President Kamala Harris helped bring Pride Month to a close Tuesday at her residence with a celebration for high-profile members of the LGBTQ community, recognizing successes achieved but also urging continued movement.

“When we celebrate Pride, it’s because we understand not only the strength of what we have accomplished, and the fight for equality, but we [also] understand the fragility of these gains, and so we know what we must do to be vigilant and maintain [those rights],” Harris said.

The Advocate reported in coverage of the event the Pride celebration was the first ever to take place at the vice president’s residence, but that’s incorrect.

President Biden as vice president hosted a Pride event with LGBTQ leaders in 2014. Harris also said during the event her understanding was it was a first for a sitting vice president.

An estimated 200 attendees were present for the event at the Naval Observatory in D.C., which serves as the vice president’s official residence. Guests at the party mingled by the pool and partook of drinks served on a spinning wheel placed just outside.

High-profile officials from the Biden administration who were present included Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Neither delivered remarks. Also at the event was “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star Shangela, who addressed the crowd.

Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, who were among in plaintiffs in the litigation against California’s Proposition 8, were also present at the event. Harris married the couple in 2013 as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling restoring marriage equality to the state.

Perry and Stier spoke before the crowd and urged them to continue to stand strong in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

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White House: ‘We have made clear’ Brittney Griner is being ‘unjustly detained’

Biden officials spoke to athlete’s wife ‘in the last few days’

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White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. (Screen capture via C-SPAN)

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday he has spoken in the last few days with the wife of Brittney Griner as part of a larger effort within the Biden administration to secure the release of the lesbian basketball player in Russia whom supporters say is being unlawfully detained.

Sullivan made the comments speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One during President Biden’s trip to Europe in response to a question about efforts within the Biden administration to bring Griner home ahead of her expected trial in Russia.

“So first, Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained, unjustly detained, and we have made that clear as an official determination of the U.S. government,” Sullivan said. “Second, the Russian government should release her and allow her to be returned and reunited with her family and come home safe and sound.”

Sullivan added he — as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken — have spoken with Griner’s wife Cherelle, to “convey our very deep sympathy, to convey that, you know, we just can’t even begin to imagine what the family must be going through, what Brittney — what Brittney must be going through.”

Griner, a professional basketball player for the Phoenix Mercury within the Women’s National Basketball Association, was detained in February by Russian Customs on allegations that cartridges of hashish oil were found in her luggage. Griner had gone to Russia to play with the Russian Premier League during the WNBA off-season.

Sullivan said the U.S. government “is actively engaged in trying to resolve this case and get Brittney home,” but added he’s constrained in what he could say because of confidentiality about the sensitive issue.

“But I will tell you it has the fullest attention of the president and every senior member of his national security and diplomatic team,” Sullivan said. “And we are actively working to find a resolution to this case, and will continue to do so without rest until we get Brittney safely home.”

The Biden administration, Sullivan added, is additionally working to return all unjustly detained Americans and hostages being held overseas,” including detainees in Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Venezuela, and China.

The Washington Blade has placed a request with the State Department for a readout on Blinken’s role in the Biden administration’s talks with Griner.

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Pelosi hints at legislation to codify same-sex marriage rights

House Dems lay out plans following end to Roe

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impeachment, gay news, Washington Blade
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hinted a legislation to codify same-sex marriage after the end to Roe v. Wade.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hinted at the possibility of legislation to codify the right of same-sex couples to marry, which many fear is in danger after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, as part of an effort to secure “freedoms which Americans currently enjoy.”

Pelosi suggested such legislation could be in the works in a “Dear Colleague” letter on Monday to fellow members of the House Democratic caucus addressing plans for congressional action after the ruling last week in Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization, which eliminated the right for women to access an abortion.

The concurrence of U.S. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas is a core component of the letter from Pelosi, who expressed consternation about his rejection of finding unenumerated rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“It is still appalling to me that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court would agree that a Constitutional right does not exist if it was not spelled out explicitly and in public when the 14th Amendment was ratified over 150 years ago,” Pelosi said. “While this extremist Supreme Court works to punish and control the American people, Democrats must continue our fight to expand freedom in America. Doing so is foundational to our oath of office and our fidelity to the Constitution.”

Thomas said in his concurring opinion he welcomes vehicles that would allow the court to revisit other major decisions, such as the Griswold decision guaranteeing the right to contraceptives; the Lawrence decision decriminalizing sodomy for same-sex couples and others; and the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Although Pelosi doesn’t explicitly say she’ll introduce legislation on same-sex marriage, she brought up “access to contraception and in-vitro fertilization to marriage equality,” then added, “Legislation is being introduced to further codify freedoms which Americans currently enjoy. More information to follow.”

“It is clear from how Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell stacked the Supreme Court that elections have ramifications,” Pelosi said. “It is essential that we protect and expand our pro-choice Majorities in the House and Senate in November so that we can eliminate the filibuster so that we can restore women’s fundamental rights – and freedom for every American.”

Any legislation seeking to codify marriage equality would have to get around marriage being an issue administered by the states under the guidelines of the U.S. Constitution. In the past, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has introduced the Respect for Marriage Act, which would have required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage and states to recognize same-sex marriage performed elsewhere.

Pelosi’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on the possibility of marriage legislation or the timeline for U.S. House approval of such a measure. Nadler’s office also didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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