Boycotts :: Anti- Or Pro-Gay, How Effective Are They Really?

by Matthew E. Pilecki

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 14, 2011

In the 1970s, the Castro District in San Francisco was one of the most important and active centers of the then-nascent gay rights movement. At the forefront of this movement was a human tornado named Harvey Milk, a fearless and flamboyant gay activist who became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.

Milk was an idealist but very much a pragmatist who understood that Americans deal with an issue when it affects their pocketbook. He also understood better than anyone else that in order to make any real social change he would have to hit the corporate wallet, and hit it hard.

He led efforts to boycott Coors Brewing Company over anti-gay hiring policies that included giving prospective employees a lie detector test to determine their sexuality. Coors, which was once synonymous with ultra-right-wing causes espoused by the Coors family, has morphed into one of the most progressive and gay-friendly breweries. Around the same time, gay men and bars made a very public display of dumping Florida orange juice because the growers' spokesperson was Anita Bryant, the singer who single-handedly launched the Christian-based anti-gay backlash that is still very, very much with us.

Today, it seems a day can't go by without another pro- or anti-gay rights group launching a boycott. Some of them are large companies (Apple, for not allowing the anti-gay "Manhattan Manifesto" app on the iPhone, on their side; Target, on ours) or small (Chick-fil-A, a local fast-food chain that supports anti-gay marriage groups; local California restaurants for supporting Prop. 8 or even hiring employees who gave to Prop. 8 source groups).

Some groups, such as the Rev. Donald Wildmon's tiny American Family Association, seem to exist for the sole purpose of announcing boycotts. And nearly every day, editors at this publication are told to warn their readers against this restaurant or that bar or hotel because of some alleged anti-gay infraction.

Lost in this cacophony is much of the effectiveness of the original boycott, which was initiated against a land agent of an absentee landlord in (where else?) Ireland. Angered by low payments, workers and tradesmen refused to deal with Boycott and he capitulated.

Today, Boycott would probably rate a standard back-and-forth yellathan on the cable news channels and then would quickly be forgotten in the rush to the next news story. With such a rapidly revolving news cycle, boycotts fizzle out scarcely after they began.

In a Big-Corporation World, Lots of Tentacles

There's a bigger problem these days. One company can have a brand or branch that does something obnoxious to your cause, while another branch is ultra-gay friendly.

Drag queen activist Lady Bunny, for example, was among those calling for a boycott on all things Fox because of Fox News' alleged anti-gay agenda. But that would mean depriving ratings from such profoundly gay-friendly shows as Glee and The Simpsons. Given the choice between giving up American Idol and taking a political stand, most gay people apparently voted with their feet: the boycott went nowhere.

If it's any consolation, the right has a way more miserable track record than our side. Social conservatives' earnest and well-publicized boycott against media giant Disney for its pro-gay policies (among the company's sins was its tolerance of Gay Days, when Disney went on record over and over again as saying it was not in any associated) was a laughable failure for pro-gay policies.

So can boycotts still be effective in America's increasingly complex and intertwined corporate culture?

Selisse Berry, founding executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, gave an answer that may stand as definitive, if less than empowering: probably not.

"Generally, while boycotts might energize members of the community who choose to participate, we have not seen those actions result in measurable change within the boycotted companies," she told EDGE. "That could change if the boycott attracted significant negative coverage over a prolonged period of time in major media, but that would be rare in today's fast paced culture."

Cleve Jones is the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and co-founder of San Francisco AIDS Foundation who worked closely with Milk on the Coors boycott and was highlighted in the film biography of Milk. Jones and Milk formed an alliance with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the giant labor union, which Jones said was critical to the boycott's success.

Contrary to Berry, Jones said there is a significant amount of evidence that shows boycotts still work. "I think those people ought to review their history," Jones said on those who question the impact of boycotts. "Boycotts have historically been and remain to be a very effective tool -- if they're done correctly."

How Social Network Dilutes Effective Boycotts

The proliferation of Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the rest of it may have made it easier to call for boycotts. But, in a "the boy that cried 'Wolf!'" scenario, that actually diminishes their effectiveness.

"With the new media, there's lots of sort of random calls to boycott this, boycott that," he noted. "It comes from the left and the right, but these aren't organized. But believe me, when you have a well organized boycott that's backed up by staff and some resources, then they can be extremely effective."

Jones (portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the Oscar-winning film Milk, is an outspoken advocate of the Sleep with the Right People Campaign, a coalition between the LGBT community and Unite Here, a union representing hospitality and manufacturing workers. The coalition has launched numerous protests and boycotts on hotels across the country, including the Manchester Hyatt in San Francisco.

Doug Manchester, owner of the Manchester Hyatt, contributed $125,000 to the Prop 8 initiative in California. Workers at the hotel, many of which are LGBT or immigrants, have "onerous workloads" and receive little in return in pay or benefits, Jones said. The battle against the Manchester Hyatt represents a united front against the discrimination of all Americans, he said, and is reminiscent of Milk's merger with the Teamsters to boycott Coors.

"I am part of a broad social movement," Jones told EDGE. "I view the fight for LGBT equality in the context of that larger movement. I have little interest that seeks to benefit only the narrow interests of its own members. I think that's a shallow movement."

Jones added that the Manchester Hyatt Boycott has moved over $7 million in profits out of the hotel proving that boycotts still work.

There are radical differences, however, between the gay rights movement of today and of the days of Milk, Jones said. Founders of gay activism understood that becoming a part of the gay liberation movement most likely meant severing ties with their families, careers, and communities. Their voices were loud and uninhibited because they had "nothing to lose."

But the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s would change the conversation forever. "AIDS changed everything," Jones said. "Just as that movement was beginning to gain a little bit of traction, we got hit with the epidemic. In addition to killing half of the gay men from my generation, it completely transformed the community."

"It brought the bureaucrats in," said Jones, who hastened to add, "I don't use the word bureaucrat in the pejorative way. It created a new style of leadership in the community that was inherently more cautious. If you're depending on grants from Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and American Airlines to feed your starving homebound AIDS patients you're much less likely to rock the boat."

The epidemic was largely responsible for the creation of the "Gay Inc." movement, Jones added, as the LGBT community intertwined itself with corporations to raise funds.

Though their roots in corporate America are deeper than ever before, gay activists need to be fearless in confronting corporations that refuse to support equality, Jones said. And as the gap between the rich and the poor continues to expand, coalitions have become even more vital.

"Clearly this is an uphill battle," Jones said. "When looking at the Hyatt we see astonishing profits combined with an attempt to lock workers into a permanent recession. I don't want to paint some false outlook on any of this -- it's a very real struggle. It's seen in the context now of 40 years of pretty relentless union bashing throughout the country. But if we are going to have power it comes from building coalitions."

The right-wing struggles to make an impact on the corporate wallet, too. After nine years of boycotting Disney for an "embrace the homosexual lifestyle," the American Family Association threw their hands up. But after the AFA found out McDonald's vice president of Communications, Richard Ellis, agreed to serve on the board of directors at the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, they quickly set their sights on the Golden Arches.

AFA president Donald Wildmon told press the situation was "strange" because "it's the family that McDonald's appeals to -- children's playland, you know, all the little toys, all of that."

But McDonald's refused to entertain Wildmon's claims, and in a letter to Wildmon the home of the hamburger said they support all of their employees "regardless of their ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or other factors." Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, said AFA's battle was over before it started.

"The product is spending millions on network television," Besen told EDGE. "And you're not spending anything really on the message of the product's ad except for free media. It's an unfair fight. When the AFA went up against McDonald's, how many Big Mac ads were on each day? And how many outlets did their message get out on?"

Besen himself knows the difficulty of launching a successful boycott all too well. Several years ago, he called for a boycott on Jamaica and its goods for an increasingly virulent homophobic climate and laws that persecuted LGBT individuals. While he captured the media's attention for a moment, Besen ultimately describes the effort as "the biggest failure of (his) entire career."

"This is a country that is run on money more than ever before," he told EDGE. "If somebody dropped millions on us tomorrow we'd look like geniuses overnight. Money is speech, which of course means some people have a lot more speech than others. Money doesn't guarantee you'll win but absence of money almost guarantees you'll lose."

How the Media Impacts Boycotts

Cathy Renna, managing partner at Renna Communications, doesn't necessarily believe that money determines the success of a campaign, but she does agree that if the momentum behind a boycott slows it will fail.

"Media attention is what at the end of the day is going to affect the bottom line of a company when somebody says they are going to boycott," she told EDGE. "I think that's why you increasingly see the AFA and other groups target companies-there may be a blip where the company panics because there is some media coverage, but the fact is they aren't able to sustain the attention. It's like a comet-it comes and it goes by really quickly, it burns bright and it's gone."

While at GLAAD in the 1990s, Renna was at the forefront of the campaign to convince advertisers to pull funding from an upcoming Paramount television show featuring radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Schlessinger notoriously called gays "biological errors" and relentlessly attacked single mothers among other groups. After Proctor & Gamble, AT&T, and United Airlines removed their financial support, Paramount was forced to cancel the show.

A decade later, Renna says pulling off the campaign would be much more difficult in the digital age. As more and more people turn to their smartphones for news, their attention spans are decreasing, she says.

"The internet has proven to be both a blessing and curse in terms of this kind of stuff," Renna said. "You've got the ability to access people in ways that were unimaginable even ten years ago. But at the same time as we've seen the internet evolve, and social networking evolve, and people's attention span diminish in the news cycle. It's really challenging to get and maintain people's attention."

But social networking and the internet spread the news of a boycott against Target like wildfire last year. The retail giant angered gays after it donated $150,000 to Minnesota Forward, which in turn took out ads supporting Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer, an opponent of LGBT rights. Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel assured protestors that the company's support of the LGBT community is "unwavering" and the donation was intended to support business objectives such as job creation and economic growth.

Earlier this year, Target folded to the threat of losing pink dollars and amended their giving policy by establishing a committee of senior executives to oversee donations to political candidates and action committees.

"Had (Target) considered the reaction of many LGBT employees and customers, they might have made a different decision, although not necessarily," Berry told EDGE. "Business decisions, including decisions to support political candidates and issues, have implications. Businesses must certainly be held accountable for those implications -- to their shareholders for financial implications and to society at large for implications in the community. And also to their employees for the implications business decisions have on their workforce."

But Target also shows how confusing and complex politics has become in 2011. Lady Gaga made a show of meeting with Target executives and announcing they had agreed to change whom they would support for office and to step up LGBT outreach. In return, the retail chain got an exclusive on her new album. The next day, she abrogated the agreement, complaining that Target would not meet the terms agreed to. The changing media coverage only served to confuse most people.

While companies have the right to support whomever they'd like, Renna said, they must consider the implications of those decisions.

"People have a right to be vocal and they have their right to free speech and have the right to support who they want to support," Renna said. "But they need to understand that it comes with the rights of others to speak out against those kinds of decisions -- on either side."

Renna added that "buycotting," or financially backing up companies that support LGBT causes, is often more effective than boycotts. She said the number of gay friendly businesses has grown exponentially since she began at GLAAD in the 1990s, and will continue to grow as more companies realize the value of the pink dollar.

After failing with the Jamaica boycott, Besen told EDGE that it is unlikely that he will ever undertake such a demanding initiative. And if he were to, he'd go in heavily armed.

"If you go into any boycott half-assed you will fail," he said. "If I ever did a boycott on anything I'd have my ducks lined up in a row a lot more than last time. I'd really make sure my cannons were loaded so we could have some power going into it. A more effective way of doing it is suggesting other places to go shop and shedding light on what the company is doing and applying pressure to meet with them. Set realistic expectations. Don't say you're going to bring some company down or some country down if you don't have resources to do it."

Since the days of Milk, Jones has noticed a growing level of cynicism in the LGBT community. At lectures across the country, Jones encourages youth to take the harder, yet more productive path of being hopeful and engaging in strategies that can move the community forward.

"Particularly within the LGBT community, there is a tendency to spend enormous amounts of time trashing every strategy," Jones noted. "These debates are silly. The reality is that all of these tactics work. Boycotts work, strikes work, and rallies work. But there's this tendency among progressives, particularly among LGBT folks, to tear all of these ideas apart, when the reality is all of these things work. When we do them all together and do them relentlessly they can be very effective."