Required reading: Marriage in Alabama

My brother-in-law Chris Shirley, author of “Playing by the Book,” (footnote 1), has written an op-ed piece for al.com (footnote 2) website about the importance of marriage equality in his home state of Alabama. Please check it out here.

An excerpt:

Those of us who survive often struggle with an underlying belief that we are somehow “less” than others when in fact we’re equally capable of every basic value, including love, kindness, compassion, integrity, and goodness. In fact, I think we’re drawn to human rights and kindness more than most because we understand injustice. To deny us the freedom to marry is to continue to reinforce this inequality, this stigma of being second class. We deserve to have every freedom that every other group in this country enjoys because, as JFK said, “the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Footnotes
1. An incredible story about a young Christian man coming to grips with his sexuality. I’m not Christian, but this is the kind of coming-out story I wish I had read when I was younger. I highly recommend it.
2. The website of the Alabama Media Group, which publishes several newspapers in Alabama.

Publix: A sign of things to come? (Probably not)

Publix Super Markets (which I have written about in the past) got a lot of applause from the LGBT community here in the South last month when it announced that it would begin offering spousal benefits to married same-sex couples.

Me in Publix, once again

Me in Publix, once again

It’s good news, to be sure, and my husband and I have even started shopping at Publix again (footnote 1). However, I wish this were a progressive move on on Publix’s part, not a defensive one. My contention is that Publix didn’t change its policy to be more fair to its LGBT employees, but because it didn’t want to find itself in court.

Imagine this: two Publix associates (one straight, one gay) get married. If Publix decides to offer spousal benefits to one employee and not to the other, isn’t that discrimination? Remember, these are spousal benefits, which nearly every major company offers, not domestic partner benefits, which are increasingly commonplace yet optional.

I asked my lawyer friends on Facebook whether Publix would be setting itself up for legal action by offering spousal benefits to some employees and not others, and there was not a lot of consensus. Some lawyers said that employers cannot discriminate against some marriages, while other says that companies can determine who does and doesn’t receive benefits. Since there’s some confusion, it’s likely that this issue will find its way to the courts — and Publix, a company very concerned with its public image, doesn’t want to be the target of a discrimination lawsuit.

Publix isn't touting the news on its corporate website

Publix isn’t touting the news on its corporate website

Whatever Publix’s reason for offering spousal benefits to all associates, I don’t think this move predicts a shift toward a more tolerant company. For one thing, Publix is clearly ashamed of its new policy, as it didn’t even announce it. Look at the company’s website and you’ll see that this news wasn’t even worthy of a press release.

For another, Publix hasn’t made any other overtures toward its LGBT employees and customers. It remains to be seen if the company will participate in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (footnote 2). I still don’t think Publix has a LGBT employee resource group, nor do I think the company is in any rush to begin one. And I certainly don’t think that Publix is going to reach out to LGBT customers by sponsoring LGBT-friendly events, such as Pride or the Tampa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Publix has taken an important first step, and I don’t want to minimize the importance of the company treating all its employees equally. What disappoints me is that Publix hasn’t indicated that it’s going to take any more steps in this direction. Prove me wrong, Publix!

Footnotes
1. Reluctantly
2. Publix regularly scores a zero because it doesn’t participate.

LGBT-friendly businesses are now too big to boycott

Oh, there’s nothing I love more than a right-wing boycott. Every time the American Taliban says people shouldn’t shop somewhere, I put my money on the boycotted company.

Remember the Southern Baptist Convention’s boycott of the Walt Disney Company over claims that the media and theme park giant was too friendly to gays and lesbians? Domestic partner benefits and Gay Days (footnote 1) — the horror! The SBC withdrew the boycott in 2005, claiming that Disney had heard and heeded its message. But that’s not what happened. Disney is consistently lauded as one of the best places in America for LGBT people to work, and the company continues to include LGBT characters in its programming (footnote 2).

I think the days of the right-wing boycott might be over, because there are simply too many companies to boycott. If the right wing decided to boycott companies that provide equal benefits to LGBT employees, they couldn’t even send out a press release, unless they could figure out a way to do it without using Microsoft, Google, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Adobe products. All three companies scored a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2015 Corporate Equality Index. And forget about typing up a press release and photocopying it, as Xerox also scores 100.

And I hope the potential boycotters like to use nothing but cash, because American financial institutions are some of the most LGBT-friendly companies out there. Nearly 50 financial institutions scored 100 on the Corporate Equality Index, including nearly every major bank (Citi, Bank of America, and so on), nearly every major player on Wall Street (Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, for example), and all four of the major credit card companies: American Express, MasterCard, Visa, and Discover.

Actually, that take-the-cash-out-of-the-bank-and-stuff-it-in-the-mattress plan might not work. NCR, manufacturer of ATMs, scores 100.

Potential boycotters can’t even sell their stock in companies they disapprove of, or buy more stock in companies that share their bigoted views. That’s because all stock trades in the US are processed through the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. — which, as you may have guessed by now, also scores a perfect 100.

In fact, potential boycotters should be wetting their pants, because many companies aren’t just committed to making their workplaces open and equitable — they’re actually taking a political stance in favor of marriage equality. Just yesterday, consumer products giant Proctor & Gamble said it’s in favor of marriage equality. Boycott them and you can’t buy hundreds of products — including many brands of diapers, detergent, toothpaste, and shampoo. P&G joins Apple, Starbucks, Pfizer, Google, Intel, and a growing number of companies that have publicly announced their support for marriage equality — some even going as far as to file amicus briefs in marriage equality lawsuits.

Today’s boycotts are toothless and nearly invisible. Ever heard of Dump Starbucks, founded by the National Organization for Marriage (footnote 3)? Of course you haven’t. No one has. And Starbucks certainly isn’t seeing any affect from this boycott — since the company announced its support of marriage equality in early 2012, its stock price has doubled.

All this makes me smile. Maybe a little too much. But you have to admit there’s a lot of justice in the fact that even the most vile hate groups like the American Family Association (footnote 4) are forced to rely on products and services made by companies that promote the values of fairness and equality for LGBT people.

Oh, and remember that boycott against Disney? Guess which company scored a perfect 100 on the Corporate Equality Index — again? That’s right: Disney.

Footnotes
1. Gay Days is not a Disney-sponsored event — but you can’t ignore how much rainbow-themed Disney merchandise is suddenly available around the first weekend in June.
2. And especially steamy, explicit gay programming in its new show, “How to Get Away with Murder.” As a straight man in the 1940s might say, va-va-va-voom.
3. Or, as it should be called, the National Organization for Opposite-Sex Marriage Only, or the National Organization Against Marriage Equality.
4. Certified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It’s time for UT to boot Chick-fil-A

Let’s make two things perfectly clear.

First, Chick-fil-A has every right to sell their chicken sandwiches.

Second, Chick-fil-A also has every right to support organizations that demean, devalue, and discriminate against human beings – to be, in effect, the Rick Santorum of the restaurant industry.

Few people would argue with that first statement, as there are few fast food concoctions as tasty as the Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich. A fried chicken breast and some pickle chips, served on a hot buttery bun, with a side of waffle fries and Polynesian sauce – I’m salivating just thinking about it (footnote 1).

Many people are unhappy with the second statement, and I’m one of them. However, it’s a fact of American life. People, and organizations, are allowed to donate money wherever they like. Chick-fil-A is a privately owned company, unaccountable to shareholders or the public in the way that McDonald’s or Burger King is. The company can give its money to whatever organization it deems fit. So can its owners.

The question we must wrestle with today doesn’t have to do with Chick-fil-A’s food or its charitable practices, but whether the company deserves a spot on the University of Tampa campus. I say no, it does not, because Chick-fil-A’s actions and values are opposed to those of the university.

At Chick-fil-A, your dollars pay for discrimination. Chick-fil-A’s WinShape Foundation supports many evangelical organizations that discriminate against gay, lesbian, and transgender people. According to multiple sources, WinShape has given more than $3 million to anti-gay groups since 2003. The groups include the so-called Family Research Council, which states on its website that being gay “… is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large, and can never be affirmed,” and “It is by definition unnatural.”

Chick-fil-A doesn’t just discriminate against gay, lesbian, and transgender people. The New York Times reported in 2011 that Chick-fil-A routinely donates money for scholarships and foster homes – but only ones that espouse Christian values. That means that if you’re Jewish, Chick-fil-A doesn’t think you’re worthy of a college scholarship.

Shocked? You should be. Other companies don’t make discrimination a part of their philanthropic efforts. Imagine if McDonald’s decided that only Christians could stay at the Ronald McDonald house!

With such values, what message is Chick-fil-A sending to me, a Jewish, gay, married man? I envision a targeted advertising campaign for Jews in which cows hold placards that say “Eat mor chiken but yoo must konvert be4 we reespekt yoo.” Or one for the LGBT community: “Yoo don’t deeerve eekual rites. Eat mor chiken.”

I’ve already stated that Chick-fil-A, as a private company, has the right to do whatever it wants with its money.

But UT is also a private organization. And UT is better than Chick-fil-A.

UT doesn’t “discriminate on the basis of sex, race, color, handicap, religion, sexual orientation, or national or ethnic origin.” That’s in quotes because it’s lifted directly from UT’s student handbook. UT extends this non-discrimination policy to all areas of campus life. It applies “to the design and operation of any of our programs, policies, or activities.”

As a private institution, UT can choose what businesses it does business with – and, more importantly, what businesses it wants to be associated with. By allowing Chick-fil-A on campus, UT is telling its students, staff, faculty, and guests that it doesn’t mind hosting a company that thumbs its nose at the school’s values, ethics, and morals. Every Chick-fil-A sandwich sold on campus is another knock on UT’s reputation.

Let’s make a third thing perfectly clear: UT is not required to give space to Chick-fil-A. There’s no Fairness in Fast Food act that requires UT, as a landlord, to roll over whenever a restaurant wants to do business on campus. If there were, Chick-fil-A’s presence might not be so egregious.

So, what does the university need to do?

First, it needs to say farewell to Chick-fil-A. Yes, there are probably contracts that need to be unravelled. But it’s a mistake for Chick-fil-A to do business at UT, and that mistake needs to be remedied as quickly as possible. Chick-fil-A can buy or lease its own real estate elsewhere.

Second, the school needs to adopt a stronger anti-discrimination policy. It’s not enough that the school tells students, staff, and faculty that they can’t discriminate. It needs to tell vendors – the firms that do business with UT – that if they discriminate, they can’t have UT’s business. The school can earn its money any way it wants – why should it take money from businesses that think some UT students, faculty, and staff aren’t as worthy of human rights as other ones?

If a company wants to give all of its profits to organizations that work against women, or minorities, or the LGBT community, then so be it. But that company has no business being in business at UT.

Footnote
1. For the record, McDonald’s makes a really good Southern-style chicken sandwich.

Publix’s dirty little secret: It doesn’t care about LGBT people

There are companies that embrace gay customers (footnote 1). There are companies that actively work against or overtly discriminate against gay customers (footnote 2). And, in the middle, there is Publix Super Markets, which simply ignores gay customers. That’s just offensive.

The 84-year-old grocery chain, which operates in the Southeast, has a cult-like following. Ask any customer about Publix, and you’re sure to hear about cleanliness, convenience, and the chicken tender sub sandwiches. Publix has won numerous awards, including Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

But, as my husband and I discovered last year, Publix scores a big fat zero in the Human Rights Campaign’s Buying for Workplace Equality guide. Zero. Not a low score — no score at all. That means only one of two things: Publix has draconian, archaic laws about LGBT employees, or it doesn’t think enough of LGBT employees and customers to participate.

I tweeted Publix a few months ago to ask which it was. They said they simply decline to participate in the survey because they’re asked to participate in too many surveys.

Of course a company like Publix is asked to participate in a lot of surveys. And it clearly does participate in a lot of surveys — otherwise it wouldn’t have won all those awards. But what does it say to LGBT customers when the company declines to participate in a survey about LGBT workplace equality? It means that the company doesn’t care about them.

I followed up my original tweet with one asking if Publix includes sexual orientation in its workplace discrimination policy. It said that yes, it did. Then I asked if they had domestic partner benefits for LGBT employees.

The answer is perplexing: Publix says it doesn’t have domestic partner benefits because it doesn’t operate in any states with marriage equality —

This only proves that Publix doesn’t understand the entire point behind domestic partner benefits. Forward-thinking companies began embracing these benefits for the explicit reason that their LGBT employees could not get married. These employees work just as hard, so why should they get fewer benefits? It’s like paying LGBT employees less for the same work. Apparently, no one in Publix’s HR department understands this. (If someone at Publix is indeed reading this, they should check out the HRC’s domestic partner benefits primer.)

If Publix refuses to participate in a LGBT survey, and it doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits, what else does the company do to ignore LGBT employees and customers? Does it offer an LGBT employee resource group? (Probably not.) Does it contribute to LGBT causes? (Again, I would guess not.) Does it participate in LGBT events? (I haven’t seen the Publix logo at St. Pete Pride or the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.)

Publix is sending a clear message to its LGBT customers: “We simply don’t care about you.” And that’s a shortsighted approach for a company that’s trying to grow. LGBT adults represent $830 billion in spending power, and study after study shows that given a choice they will spend that money with companies that embrace their values.

My husband and I stopped shopping at Publix a while ago. And, you know what, we’ve found other grocery stores that are clean, convenient, and make delicious subs (footnote 3). Not all of these places score highly on the HRC survey, but at least they care enough about their LGBT customers and employees to participate (footnote 4).

Footnotes

1. Like American Airlines
2. Like Chick-fil-A, or this company.
3. And we have saved a lot of money. Publix isn’t known for its low prices.
4. Soon, Publix will be forced to offer equal benefits to its LGBT employees. Marriage equality is sweeping the nation. It will come last to the South, but it is definitely coming here. When it happens, Publix can no longer claim it won’t offer equal benefits because it operates in states without marriage equality!

Tears of a Klein

I don’t feel sorry at all for Aaron and Melissa Klein. The owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Oregon were brought to tears recently at a right-wing summit, after explaining that they were fined $150,000 for refusing to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.

You see, Sweet Cakes promises on its website that “Cake is what makes the day special whatever you are celebrating, birthday, baby shower, wedding, bridal shower, anniversary, holidays, or just having a special dinner with special people.” They might as well add “Unless you’re gay or lesbian, in which case you don’t deserve cake at all because we believe you’re twisted and perverted.”

Of course Sweet Cakes deserved its fine. When companies open to the public, they’re open to the entire public. They can’t pick and choose which customers they serve. We, as a country, have tried that before. It wasn’t long ago that restaurants relegated African-Americans to lunch counters, only serving white people at tables (footnote 1).

What if Sweet Cakes had refused to make a wedding cake because the customers were an interracial couple? Or because they were Jewish or Muslim? To me, it’s all the same thing — discrimination. The Kleins might cite their religious beliefs, but that’s no excuse for treating customers unfairly.

The only problem with this fine is that it’s not big enough. There should be no leniency for those who would refuse service to others because of their prejudices (footnote 2).

Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

Footnotes
1. When my husband was growing up in rural Alabama, he lived near a Dairy Queen that wouldn’t even let African-Americans in the door. They could only get service at a walk-up window.
2. When my husband and I got married, it never even dawned upon us that someone would refuse service to us. Idea never crossed our minds. Every single vendor we approached was genuinely excited to work with us, as they had never done a same-sex reception before.