Does 'Gay Inc.' Believe in Free Speech?

In the battle over gay rights, dissent during wartime isn't always tolerated

Similarly, Ferraro says, "As news was breaking about Roland Martin's Super Bowl tweets, news was also breaking that a young man from Georgia, Brandon White, was brutally attacked and called anti-gay slurs. . . . And if it wasn't for the attention around the Roland Martin campaign, Brandon's White's story—and this is a huge issue of the media today—would not have been heard."

Ferraro was proud that the Stand Up campaign was the "first of its kind." He saw J.C. Penney's subsequent Father's Day ad campaign with two dads as a mark of progress.

Perhaps. But I also wondered about Gay Inc. getting involved with Starbucks. In March, the coffeehouse chain said it supported same-sex marriage. The National Organization for Marriage called for a boycott of the chain, and HRC told everyone to shop there.

Pui Yan Fong
GLAAD, a nonprofit, launched its “Stand Up for Ellen” campaign on behalf of millionaire DeGeneres.
© Glenn Francis,
GLAAD, a nonprofit, launched its “Stand Up for Ellen” campaign on behalf of millionaire DeGeneres.

It appeared to be a win for both gay rights and overpriced coffee. But that's only if you see gay people just as consumers and not as workers. As Daniel Gross, executive director of the food and retail group Brandworkers, says, "Advocacy organizations celebrating large companies like J.C. Penney and Starbucks, without challenging the impoverishment of tens of thousands of LGBT employees at those businesses, do a disservice to all working families. In our corporate-dominated society, it's certainly easier to get along when it comes to companies that interfere with economic rights, but working-class LGBTers and especially the many queer youth of color in retail deserve better."

Like GLAAD with J.C. Penney, HRC was less interested in LGBT workers at Starbucks.

"As a queer person, I find it upsetting that they tell queer people to shop at Starbucks," says Liberte Locke of the Starbucks Workers Union. "It's one thing to say congratulations to Starbucks, but when encouraging people to support a business, various things should be considered. Unfortunately, HRC felt the need to push queer people to spend money at Starbucks while neglecting other issues—the fact that most of their coffee isn't fair trade, the fact that they routinely fire people trying to organize."

Locke notes, "People actually came in saying, 'Hey, I've never come in here before, but I heard Starbucks supports same-sex marriage, and I want to support you guys!'" But the PR move, she finds, "has nothing to do with Starbucks supporting queer relationships. It has everything to do with [CEO] Howard Schultz finding another group of people to spend their money there. If Starbucks cared about queer relationships, they'd pay their workers a fair wage and give them set schedules, so that queer partners could develop their relationships. They'd pay us enough to pay our rent and to raise or adopt children."

Noting HRC's bling, like its branded credit cards, Locke says, "HRC only sees queer people as consumers." But she wanted to give the group a chance. When she heard of its Starbucks campaign, she "did reach out to them personally, to try to create a dialogue about how Starbucks has abused me as a queer worker and how they have a history of firing queer people trying to organize.

"No one returned any of my messages."

The first and only time I covered an HRC event in person was on the eve of the National Equality March in 2009 in Washington, D.C. President Obama addressed 3,000 donors at a black-tie gala in the Washington Convention Center, but he was only a warm-up act, he joked, for a rising talent named Lady Gaga.

The real stars of the evening for me (a neophyte at such functions) were the ads. There were endless videos promoting various corporations, mostly defense contractors. Like supporting a telecom merger, I wondered naively, "What does peddling the latest hardware in the military-industrial complex have to do with being gay?"

It was a strange thing to see lobbyists lobbying other lobbyists. And that's a way, some critics say, that Gay Inc.'s messages get limited: The president doesn't hear from pacifist gays in such an arena. The community organizer in chief won't hear from the queer organizer of retail workers. The fight for LGBT rights becomes calculated toward and calcified by those who can afford the high price of admission. And the message doesn't reflect the broad concerns of the LGBT community; rather, it's hijacked by military spending, just like everything else.

It's this kind of cycle that dismays Bill Dobbs, a perennial, delightfully cranky activist. A constant presence at nearly every protest in the city (often protesting other gay activists), he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the city's queer activism, which he has been a part of since the 1980s.

I sat down with Dobbs one evening in Zuccotti Park during the height of Occupy last fall. It was a warm, pleasant evening, and Bill was working at the press table. We talked about how Gay Inc. was nowhere to be found, even though there were gay people there (and a queer caucus did form).

But queer groups used to be leading the left, Dobbs noted. In the biggest movement of the left in decades, they were MIA.

Spurred by his query, I started making calls to the groups that make up Gay Inc. Each one told me they had no plans to participate in Occupy. Even though a great deal of the Occupy debate involved questions that were once central to the movement that was born at Stonewall and grew up during the AIDS crisis—including prejudice, police brutality, homelessness, and health-care access—it wasn't especially surprising that Gay Inc. wouldn't show. A quick look through its board directories shows many bankers and hedge funders.

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