During the month of June, many brands turn their logos into LGBTQ-friendly rainbows, triggering the annual debate: has Pride Month become too corporate?
For a month dedicated to multi-colored acceptance, there’s quite a bit of gray area.
It’s been 50 years since a police raid at The Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village spurred what became the gay liberation movement. Today, the red bricks of the landmark building are adorned with bundles of rainbow flags and stretched above the window is a JetBlue sponsored banner that reads: “Love wings.”
On June 30, the world’s biggest pride celebration featured 72 corporate sponsors in New York City—including long-time supporters like TD Bank and newer sponsors like Airbnb—as well as 38 community and nonprofit partners, according to organizers of World Pride NYC.
As more companies join in on the celebration of LGBTQ identity, some argue that the now ubiquitous rainbows are signs of progress, while others worry that they are just marketing ploy.
But experts say that authentic advocacy, particularly in places where it’s dangerous to be LGBTQ, is part of what can make corporations such valuable allies. And now that Pride Month is over, the real work begins.
Using Data for Equality
Todd Sears, founder and CEO of Out Leadership, an advocacy group that connects businesses with the LGBTQ community, advises senior leaders at corporations like Citigroup and Coca-Cola to support their LGBTQ customers by using data. He connects inclusion to their bottom line—a phrase Out Leadership trademarked as “Return on Equality.”
Furthermore, Sears pointed to a recent report by Out Leadership called the LGBTQ+ Business Climate Index, which analyzed all 50 states and how they measure up on varying topics such as legal protection, political attitudes, healthcare access and family support.
When you zoom in from this big picture view of cultural attitudes, supporting the LGBTQ community can mean different things within companies—they are cultures in themselves.
In the day-to-day operations of a company, understanding why inclusion matters is vital, says Claudia Brind-Woody, vice president and managing director for global intellectual property licensing at IBM.
“Inclusivity means not ‘just we’re allowed to be there,’ but we are valued,” Brind-Woody said. “I’ve always said: smart teams will do amazing things, but truly diverse teams will do impossible things.”
As an LGBTQ-identifying person who has worked at IBM for more than 22 years, she proudly points to IBM’s LGBTQ-friendly resources, like a comprehensive guide to help transgender people transition in the workplace.
Both Sears and Brind-Woody agreed that forward-thinking companies also check in to see how they’re doing beyond Pride Month. IBM regularly surveys employees as part of an internal inclusivity index, asking them questions like: “Do I feel comfortable bringing my whole self to work?”
This index builds upon an already existing Corporate Equality Index by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a non-profit group that created an index to rate the equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people in the workplace at Fortune 500 companies and top law firms.
The 2019 Corporate Equality Index marked a record-breaking number of 609 businesses that scored 100%. And yet, that same HRC report also revealed that 46% of LGBTQ surveyed employees in the U.S. are closeted.
While it is tempting for businesses to quantify change in surveys and employee data alone—it is not enough.
On Tuesday, 206 major corporations—from Google and Amazon to Bank of America and Nike—signed a landmark Amicus brief that will go to the U.S. Supreme Court to guarantee protections for their LGBTQ workers against discrimination.
It is expected for companies nowadays to speak up on issues, says Sears.
As someone who spent years working on Wall Street and advocating for LGBTQ people, Sears believes “strongly that corporations should have a place in pride.”
Sears says that while there may be some corporations who “pinkwash” their logos without advocating for LGBTQ people, he spotlighted the employees within companies who catalyze change and volunteer—which is not their day job but their “gay job.”
There is no denying CEO’s have a powerful voice and it is up to them to “flex their corporate muscles and enact policies,” says Wall Street alum Lanaya Irvin.
As Chair of the Human Rights Campaign’s Business Advisory Council, Irvin echoed this point by saying that when it comes to enacting change, “corporations often get there before governments do.”
Around the globe, there are at least 68 countries where same-sex relations are outlawed and at least nine countries where gender expression is criminalized, according to Human Rights Watch.
Even if a company doesn’t outwardly effect political change, Irvin spoke to the powerful presence a corporate culture can have on its international employees.
“There are instances where global companies are restricted to comply with local law,” Irvin explained. “At the same time, you will see those companies upholding LGBTQ inclusive workplace policies across the globe, and they become somewhat of an embassy.”
On the ground level, an executive’s choice to speak up or stay silent, support initiatives or strategically donate money to certain groups ultimately trickles down to the experience of their employees.
These leaders all spoke to the power of feeling free and welcome at work and how that impacts your everyday life, which is something Kimiko Murota has experienced both sides of during her first job with Gap Inc.
“Retail is often a first job for young people, and I think leaders have a responsibility to lead by example and foster an inclusive culture,” Murota told Fortune in an email. “I started at Old Navy as a sales associate in 2002, which was around the same time I started dating my first girlfriend. A few months into my first job, a coworker called me a “dyke” while we were in the break room.”
The leadership team didn’t just respond to the incident—they made Murota feel like she belonged. This support, Murota said, made her want to have a future at the company and it inspired her to develop herself as a leader.
“It was shocking and I felt confused,” Murota said. “I was young and new at my job, so I didn’t know how to react or if I should stick up for myself. To this day, I don’t know why this coworker made that slur but I do remember how the store leadership team responded.”
Seventeen years later, she is still with Gap Inc.—which was the first apparel company to sign onto the UN Standards of Conduct for Business in 2017—and supports other employees as a leader on the Change Management team. Murota spoke to the positive impact of an inclusive workplace and even shared that she met her fiancée Brooke while working at Old Navy.
Beyond the Rainbow
As for the rainbow logos, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to corporations supporting their LGBTQ employees.
According to Brind-Woody, who lives in England with her wife Tracie, the fact that big corporations like IBM turn their logo rainbow in June doesn’t mean their inclusive policies go away at the end of the month.
“The month of pride just amplifies the visibility—and for this community, visibility is a thing,” Brind-Woody emphasized. “Because we can hide—we’ve even been taught to hide. And when we are visible, we enable younger people to look and see that they can succeed if they’re good at what they do.”
Sears said that for forward-thinking companies, the work is just beginning.
“Pride is a moment in time to check progress,” he said. “If companies take that approach, then Pride is a kickoff to what they are going to continue to do between now and next year. It’s almost like a new year’s eve of LGBTQ equality. What are your resolutions for the next 12 months until Pride?”
While the confetti from the parades gets swept, not all corporate support for the LGBTQ community will disappear.
In fact, that JetBlue sponsored banner on the Stonewall Inn has been there all year, says co-owner of the Inn Stacy Lentz.
Lentz, who is also the CEO of the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, said the Fortune 500 airline has long supported the landmark’s non-profit by donating tickets to fly in LGBTQ activists and propping up grassroots advocacy groups around the country.
Through this selective, corporate partnership Lentz said they have been able to strategically fight for equality.
In a reverse use of marketing during Pride, she said they are using the “Stonewall” name to spread equality to communities where it is still illegal to be LGBTQ.
“We’re working on the ground where equality has been slow to arrive,” she said. “There are places where the social stigma still exists and it is hard to be LGBTQ on a daily basis.”
Since Stonewall is globally recognized, Lentz said she intends to use it to power change—not just during Pride Month.
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