There has been much commentary on the internet and social media about a recent Gillette ad showing a father helping his transgender son shave for the first time. The ad gives a whole new meaning to Gillette’s long-time slogan “The Best a Man Can Get.” The ad also reflects the extent to which corporate America has fully embraced LGBTQ visibility and equality. In many ways, large corporations have become crucial allies of the LGBTQ rights movement.
It has not always been like this. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, large corporations repeatedly discriminated against LGBTQ people. For example, in 1971 the Pacific Bell Telephone Company, one of the largest private employers in the country at the time, announced that it would not hire open “homosexuals” because doing so would “disregard commonly accepted standards of conduct, morality, or life-styles.” For its part, the Coors Brewing Company until 1978 routinely asked job applicants, while attached to lie detector machines, whether they had engaged in same-sex sexual conduct and denied them jobs if they had. (The company also asked applicants whether they were communists or had committed crimes.)
At around the same time, Eastern Airlines fired Karen Ulane, who had flown its airplanes for more than a decade, when she returned to work after having gender confirmation surgery. In 1985, Boeing fired a transgender engineer—who was contemplating but had not yet undergone gender surgery—after she insisted in using the company’s female bathrooms and wearing feminine clothes to work. Although Boeing claimed it was willing to accommodate the employee after the surgery, it warned her that the company would fire her if she persisted in flaunting her femininity at work before the surgery. Shortly after that, Boeing fired the engineer when she reported to work wearing a strand of pink pearls that her supervisor believed was “excessively feminine.” Although both Ulane and the Boeing engineer sued their employers for discrimination, they both lost their cases.
Most historical accounts of the LGBTQ movement have focused on activism directed at the government to show how the movement tried to either end discrimination by the state itself or to persuade government officials to prohibit private-sector discrimination. Commentators have paid relatively little attention to LGBTQ activism aimed at the policies and practices of corporate America. This is an unfortunate omission because, as I seek to show in my forthcoming book The Queering of Corporate of America, some of the earliest, most important, and most successful LGBTQ rights activism focused on the actions of corporations.
LGBTQ activism aimed at corporations through the decades has been extensive and varied, and included the street protests and “zap actions” of the early 1970s targeting high-profile companies, such as television networks and regional telephone monopolies; the boycott of the Coors Brewing Company starting in the late 1970s; the AIDS activism targeting pharmaceutical companies in the 1980s; the concerted push for corporate LGBTQ nondiscrimination policies and domestic partnership benefits in the 1990s; and the criticizing of corporations like Chik-fil-A, after the turn of the century, that opposed marriage equality.
LGBTQ rights activism in the United States aimed at corporations played a vital role in persuading many large businesses to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in their workplaces and to recognize (primarily through the provision of domestic partnership benefits) the relationships and families of their LGBTQ employees before a significant number of government entities did the same. The fact that these gains in the corporate sphere frequently preceded gains in the government sphere has also received insufficient attention. In the decades following Stonewall, it was easier for the LGBTQ rights movement to persuade corporate board members and executives to adopt LGBTQ equality measures than to convince government officials to do the same.
The progress made by the LGBTQ movement in the corporate sphere contributed in crucial ways to the progress that came later in the public sphere. That activism, by the early twenty-first century, helped turn many companies from targets of activism to sources of activism by persuading their board members and executives that the same types of LGBTQ equality measures that were working so well within company walls, and that reflected important corporate commitments to values of diversity, inclusion, and equality, would also benefit the country as a whole. Indeed, the political and policy debates involving LGBTQ rights in the public sphere implicated precisely the same issues—fairness, competiveness, discrimination, and relationship recognition—that LGBTQ activists had been raising with corporations for several decades. It was therefore not particularly surprising that companies which had already decided that issues of LGBTQ equality were important to their objectives as private firms became increasingly willing to advocate on behalf of that equality in the public sphere.
By the turn of the new century, most large companies in the United States had instituted policies prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination and many offered domestic partnership benefits. Years of experience proved to corporate board members and executives that these LGBTQ-friendly policies helped companies attain diversity objectives, bolster morale, hire and retain qualified employees, and attract business from members of LGBTQ communities. Many corporate leaders were also persuaded that considerations of fairness and equality required that their firms adopt LGBTQ-friendly policies. All of this meant that by the time LGBTQ rights issues in the 2000s reached a level of national prominence they had never enjoyed before, corporations began to more frequently and vigorously promote LGBTQ equality, not only within their institutions but in the public sphere as well. They did so primarily by urging governments at the federal, state, and local levels to adopt laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; by pushing for marriage equality throughout the country; and by strongly opposing laws, such as so-called religious freedom measures proposed in response to marriage equality and so-called transgender bathroom regulations, which harm LGBTQ individuals.
Large corporations across the country joined forces with civil rights groups and other liberal advocacy organizations to criticize a 2016 North Carolina law, which required people to use bathrooms in government buildings and public schools according to the gender markers on their birth certificates, on the ground that it targeted transgender individuals for discrimination. Some corporations went so far as to announce that they would rescind pre-existing plans to invest in North Carolina or refuse to make new plans for such investments. Corporate activism on behalf of LGBTQ equality in North Carolina proved instrumental in framing the public debate over a law that sought to render LGBTQ people second-class citizens. In the end, corporate activism persuaded the Republican-controlled legislature in North Carolina to partially repeal the transgender bathroom law. Similarly, corporate opposition convinced the GOP-dominated Texas legislature to reject a transgender bathroom bill in 2017.
All of this history tells us that the recent Gillette ad showing a loving father helping his transgender son shave for the first time is both welcomed and moving, but not particularly surprising. It is a natural continuation of the growing corporate embrace of LGBTQ visibility and equality over the last few decades, an embrace that has helped transform not only corporate America, but the nation as well.
Carlos A. Ball is Distinguished Professor of Law at Rutgers University. His book The Queering of Corporate America will be published by Beacon in November. He is also the author of, among other books, The First Amendment and LGBT Equality and From the Closet to the Courtroom.