Better Gay at Work Than Gay in Church

Long before the current recession sparked populist anger against Wall Street and the many businesses that have sacked employees, progressive theologians and religious believers—particularly advocates of unchecked and unregulated capitalism—were suspicious of the motivations of big business. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, often celebrate wealth as evidence of a righteous lifestyle. They even build megachurches that attract members using business models and corporate marketing strategies.

The irony in all of this is that corporate America is arguably the biggest supporter of LGBT rights. In general, gay people are more welcome at work than they are at church.

The Fabulous 500

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) recently released its annual report on “The State of the Workplace for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Americans,” which features some fascinating statistics:

• 85% of Fortune 500 companies recognize protections based on sexual orientation for their employees.

• 57% of these companies offer domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples.

• 18 companies within the Fortune 100 now offer transgender-inclusive health insurance benefits.

HRC scores the Fortune 500 on a 0-100 scale based on multiple LGBT-friendly factors. It is notable that many of the companies in the headlines today received the most gay-friendly 100 score, including Bank of America, Bear Stearns, Citigroup, Fannie Mae, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, JP Morgan Chase, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Wachovia, Washington Mutual, and Wells Fargo. It’s also interesting that the financial services industry as a whole performs exceptionally well within the HRC survey.

Another remarkable development captured by the survey is the fact that companies that have been considered enemies of the LGBT community in the past have begun supporting LGBT causes and providing protections for LGBT employees. For example, Coors Brewing Company, famously boycotted by gays in the 1970s because of its contributions to right-wing causes, now scores 100 on HRC’s list. Cracker Barrel, which was the focus of an LGBT boycott in the early 1990s, implemented a non-discrimination policy for lesbians and gays in 2002. (The ailing insurance giant AIG, a business partner of Cracker Barrel, was one of the companies that put pressure on Cracker Barrel to reform their employment policies.)

While boycotts by the LGBT community have been successful strategies for change, similar boycotts by right-wing Christian groups have typically failed. From the 1990s through the current decade, the Assemblies of God, and Southern Baptists called for boycotts against Disney to protest “Gay Days” at the company’s theme parks. The conservative boycotts have had no impact on Disney’s policies or business performance. Ford was also the focus of a campaign by Donald Wildmon (leader of the American Family Association), who wanted to stop Ford’s practice of publishing ads in gay-specific publications. Allegedly, Ford initially agreed to Wildmon’s demands, but when the situation became public, the company said it would continue its policy of gay-specific advertising.

The Pink Dollar

It is estimated that LGBT spending power in the United States represents over $600 billion a year—a figure often referred to as the “Pink Dollar.” Many companies are understandably eager to tap into this purchasing largess through targeted advertising and promotions. For instance, American Airlines started an LGBT-focused campaign at the turn of the millennium and increased its Pink Dollar revenue from $20 million to over $190 million in just five years.

Businesses also realize that LGBT consumers are loyal to companies that have pro-gay policies for their employees. At the same time, LGBT consumers are unwilling to use services from companies which oppose LGBT-affirmative policies. Thus many LGBT folks drive past ExxonMobil (which doesn’t provide domestic partnership benefits) stations to visit a Chevron (which does), or ship packages via UPS (which scored 100 on the HRC study) instead of FedEx (which scored 55). And the online division of Barnes and Noble is sure to benefit from the recent incidence of homophobia in Amazon’s sales-ranking controversy.

Beyond focusing on LGBT customers, companies also increasingly appreciate the multiple benefits of creating a corporate culture that embraces LGBT employees. Before the recession, businesses were experiencing a “talent war” as a consequence of historically low unemployment and increased shortages of available talent. This created many different human resource practices to promote the retention of productive employees. This meant that LGBT employees received increased benefits, greater access to decision-making processes, and special perks such as affinity groups that provided community support. These affinity groups often receive funding from the company to hold events and educational programs on LGBT work issues.

LGBT Community and Christian Churches

As trendsetters in the corporate world move forward in their integration of LGBT people into business strategies and culture, many Christian churches are still debating the proper place of gays and lesbians in their pulpits and assemblies. Liberal denominations like the United Church of Christ are outliers in their unequivocal embrace of LGBT rights. And while gay-oriented organizations like the Metropolitan Community Church are obviously creating a positive and welcoming experience for LGBT folks, most mainline Protestant denominations are far from resolving their debates over issues like LGBT ordination and same-sex marriage.

Despite its nuanced arguments about sexual orientation and the right of all people to be free from violence, the Roman Catholic Church remains a committed foe of LGBT rights and has adopted an aggressive strategy to oppose the political enfranchisement of the LGBT community. And right-wing evangelical organizations are among the most zealous in their oppression of the LGBT community. Same-sex orientation is seen as a fundamental evil within American society, leading these groups to demonize those who campaign fro LGBT rights, distort modern understandings of sexual orientation, and promote the “conversation” of gay people to a straight orientation.

These are the very congregations that have seen their membership rosters explode as they embrace a “business” approach to church growth. Evangelical megachurches are vast communities that employ large staffs, develop sophisticated marketing campaigns, and employ high-tech strategies to retain their “consumers.” While they admire business models and celebrate wealth as a reward from God, when it comes to LGBT rights, right-wing churches are in direct opposition to the corporate culture they strive to emulate.

Business as a Driver for Social Change

A generation ago, as they marched and organized on behalf of civil rights for African Americans, many Christian churches embraced the central tenets of the social gospel, stood at the epicenter of a movement to combat racism and poverty, and joined hands with secular organizations, including progressive business leaders. But when it comes to LGBT rights, many of these same churches have stood in opposition to political progress for another minority group while corporate America has become the leader for social change. Business is ahead of the churches and even ahead of the government when it comes to advocating for LGBT rights. For instance, fewer than ten states provide recognition for same-sex relationships (including domestic partnerships, civil unions, and gay marriage), while over half of the Fortune 500 provide benefits equal to marriage for its partnered LGBT employees.

Progressives, who are traditionally wary of corporate alliances, should be open to partnership with businesses as they continue to push to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. While they have well-placed concern about irresponsibility and predatory forms of American capitalism—especially after the scandals we have witnessed over the past six months—progressives must also acknowledge that some of the same companies at the center of the current crisis are powerful potential allies with longstanding interests in promoting laws and policies that protect LGBT citizens.

It’s hard to deny that, in most places in our country, being a gay person at the workplace is easier than being a gay person sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning.