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How the Corporation Emerged as an Unlikely Ally of LGBTQ Equality

A Q&A with Carlos A. Ball

Walmart at Fresno Rainbow Pride Parade and Festival, June 2015.
Walmart at Fresno Rainbow Pride Parade and Festival, June 2015. Photo credit: David Prasad

Nowadays, it’s commonplace to see Apple, Facebook, Google, Walmart, and other big businesses marching in Pride parades. You wouldn’t see them there several decades ago. In fact, you wouldn’t see them cosigning domestic partnerships benefits, marriage equality, or LGBTQ rights either. Corporations were openly hostile or indifferent to sexual minorities and transgender people until years’ worth of LGBTQ activism changed their understanding and treatment of queer people. Legal scholar Carlos A. Ball wrote about this little-known history in The Queering of Corporate America: How Big Business Went from LGBTQ Adversary to Ally. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Ball to chat with him about it.

Christian Coleman: What was the inspiration behind writing The Queering of Corporate America?

Carlos A. Ball: I was struck, a few years ago, by the ways in which large corporations were coming out (no pun intended) against the passage of anti-LGBTQ laws, such as so-called religious freedom laws and transgender bathroom laws. Partly in response to strong criticism by corporate America, several states, including Arizona, Indiana, and North Carolina, rescinded the anti-LGBTQ laws. That made me start wondering why corporations were taking such public stances in favor of LGBTQ equality, while remaining generally neutral on other so-called hot button social issues. What I uncovered was a long history of LGBTQ activism aimed at corporations that began shortly after the Stonewall riots and that played an instrumental role in pushing large companies to embrace policy positions favoring equality for sexual minorities and transgender individuals. 

CC: You’re a law professor at Rutgers University and an expert in constitutional law. How did your background inform and determine the way you approached the subject matter and wrote the book?

 CAB: I’ve written several books on the history of the LGBTQ movement. Before this project, I had focused, like most commentators, on the movement’s demands of the government, either to stop discriminating itself or to prohibit the private sector from discriminating. But as I started doing my research for this book, I realized my focus up until then had been too narrow, and that I had not paid sufficient attention to the ways in which early activists in the 1970s and 1980s sought to apply pressure directly on large companies to stop discriminating and to support LGBTQ equality positions. So I would say that I was already attuned to the effective pressure tactics of LGBTQ activists; what I did with this project was to expand the lens to cover activism aimed at the corporate sector.

CC: Would you say the 1990s were a watershed moment of big business, by and large, changing its attitude toward the queer community? It seems from this point on and through the 2000s that corporations were pretty much publicly on board with supporting LGBTQ equality.

CAB: Yes, I would say the 1990s were a tipping point of sorts. By then, LGBTQ activists already had spent about two decades pressuring large companies and educating them about the importance of LGBTQ equality for their employees. It was in the 1990s, especially with the adoption by many Fortune 500 companies of domestic partnership benefits, that many big businesses accepted the basic proposition that the relationships and families of their LGBTQ employees were as worthy of recognition and respect as those of their married heterosexual employees. And once large companies embraced that basic point, it became natural for them to care about not only how their LGBTQ employees were treated inside corporate walls, but outside of them as well.

CC: Do you think the stories in The Queering of Corporate America will help those who feel skeptical about corporate representation at Pride parades?

CAB: My book is not aimed at trying to reduce progressives’ skepticism of large corporations. I think it is important, for example, that Pride parades do not become simply a vehicle for corporate marketing. So I think it is healthy for activists to question excessive participation by corporations in the parades. I also think that progressive activists of all stripes should criticize corporations when they pursue or defend policies that harm society. For example, it is commendable that many large energy companies have LGBTQ-friendly policies, but that should not immunize them from forceful criticism when they pursue profits in ways that endanger the future well-being of the planet. The bottom line is that it is difficult to generalize. Sometimes corporations act responsibly and correctly, and they should be praised for that. My book praises large corporations for their general embrace of LGBTQ equality policies. But corporations should also be questioned and criticized when they pursue harmful policies in the name of maximizing profits.

CC: I was so touched reading about your daughter in the acknowledgments. You wrote that she was in the process of socially transitioning genders when you were working on the book and that she deepened your understanding of some of the transgender issues you address. What were some of those issues?

CAB: It is one thing to understand an issue politically and intellectually; it is another to live it. Over the last few years, I have seen my teenage daughter make her way in a world that repeatedly tries to put people in boxes depending on their assigned gender. Resisting those efforts by living according to one’s own definition and understanding of gender, rather than society’s, takes time, energy, commitment, and courage. Viewing that process from the inside, so to speak, has given me a new appreciation for what transgender individuals go through on a daily basis and has confirmed for me just how morally wrong and harmful discrimination on the basis of gender identity can be. 

CC: The publication of your book couldn’t be more timely. Seeing the news of the Trump administration erasing civil rights protections for LGBTQ health programs, what would you like readers to take away from it?

CAB: I agree with Martin Luther King, Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The struggles for civil rights in this country have always entailed some steps forward and some steps backwards. While it is important to resist the Trump administration’s rollbacks in civil rights in every way that we can, we should take solace from the progress that we have made over the last few decades. My book provides part of that story of progress. I think that activists in the 1970s could have never imagined that, for example, hundreds of large American businesses would file a brief with the US Supreme Court in 2015 supporting marriage equality. That was a socially transformative change that resulted from decades of effective and committed LGBTQ activism. Change is possible, but it takes both time and hard work. In the end, I have little doubt that the Trump administration will be on the losing side of history when it comes to LGBTQ civil rights issues. 


About Carlos A. Ball 

Carlos A. Ball is Distinguished Professor of Law and the Judge Frederick Lacey Scholar at Rutgers University. An expert on LGBTQ rights, he is the author of several books, including The First Amendment and LGBT Equality and From the Closet to the Courtroom. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.