Chad Griffin and the Human Rights Campaign are doing an extraordinary job in pushing back on all the outrageous anti-LGBT laws springing up all over the South. In North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 into law in the dead of night on March 23, as if no one would be watching. Wrong. As of April 15, more than 160 leading CEOs and business leaders have signed onto an open letter circulated by HRC and Equality North Carolina calling for the repeal of HB2.
The New York Times called North Carolina a "pioneer in bigotry." Governors and mayors across the nation are banning travel to the state, film studios are threating to pull or stop production and lots of big stars and bands, including Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr and Pearl Jam have canceled concerts and appearances in the Tar Heel State. Conventions are being canceled right and left. On top of all that, yesterday the 4th Circuit Court, which covers North Carolina, upheld Title IX, the Department of Education regulation that transgender students can use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.
McCrory's response? "I'm not the private sector's HR director," he told Chuck Todd Sunday on Meet the Press.
North Carolina has become a Pariah
There's no firm estimate on the millions of dollars that North Carolina has already lost because of the need by its lawmakers to discriminate against LGBT people. But by overturning local non-discrimination ordinances and by ordering school districts to comply with a law that violates Title IX, forcing transgender students to use a public restroom that does not comport with their gender identity, North Carolina also risks an estimated $4.5 billion of federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education.
Everyone's watching North Carolina to see if this might be a financial Waterloo in the war over these anti-LGBT "religious discrimination" bills -- 10 other states are considering them now, with more in the pipeline.
Tennessee Succumbs to Pressure
On April 13, the HRC, Tennessee Equality Project, ACLU of Tennessee, Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition and local activists delivered a letter signed by 60 top business leaders to top lawmakers as Tennessee also took up a so-called "bathroom bill" targeting trans students.
Given the economic backlash against North Carolina, Governor Bill Haslam announced that he would consider the negative impact such a bill would have on his state's economy before signing it. And two days ago, the sponsor of HB 2414 announced plans to pull the discriminatory bill from consideration for this year.
Mississippi's Governor Phil Bryant, on the other hand, thinks people "may be overacting" to HB 1523, the contentious, discriminatory so-called "religious-liberty" bill he signed on April 5. The HRC along with other prominent LGBT organizations like GLAAD, Out Leadership and the Task Force are working collaboratively with state and local LGBT groups to repeal this bigoted law.
Yesterday singer Belinda Carlisle, the lead singer of the '80s pop band, The Go-Go's, wrote a letter to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant condemning the state's "Religious Liberty Accommodations Act," or House Bill 1523. Carlisle is using her upcoming performance in Mississippi to speak out against the state's anti-LGBT law.
If it Looks Like a Boycott...
Interestingly, while the HRC and its coalition partners are threatening and actually moving to fiscally hurt these states in reaction to the pain they are intentionally inflicting on LGBT people, no one has yet used the most logical word for these actions: BOYCOTT. But that's what it is. That's what is happening. And they are working. In fact, boycotts do work. I should know -- I've successfully launched quite a few boycotts against companies whose owners have given vast sums of money to take away LGBT rights.
Californians Against Hate
The first boycotts that I started were all linked to the biggest contributors to qualify and pass California's Proposition 8, which appeared on the November 4, 2008 ballot. Prop 8 was put on the ballot by the Mormon and Catholic Churches to strip away the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry in California.
Our goal was quite simple, cut off funding to these anti-gay marriage efforts by making it "socially unacceptable to contribute to campaigns and organizations that want to take away rights from LGBT Americans." Prominent Mormon and Catholic donors funded Prop 8 under the banner of their then brand new front group, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). Several other usual suspects joined the effort, like the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and the American Family Association, but they just had supporting roles in the Prop 8 campaign.
Boycott Manchester Hotels
We kicked off our first boycott on July 17, 2008, after it was reported that San Diego hotel magnet Doug Manchester contributed $125,000 to get the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 constitutional amendment on the California ballot. We organized a boycott of all three hotels he owned, most notably his flagship property, the Manchester Grand Hyatt in downtown San Diego. Thanks to the tremendous help of our boycott partners, led by Cleve Jones (founder of the AIDS Quilt) and UNITE HERE, Local 30, the hotel workers union, we were able to keep lots of pressure on Doug Manchester for over three years.
Manchester initially tried to equivocate, saying he wasn't against gays, just gay marriage. Next, he tried to buy his way out of the boycott by offering up a $25,000 cash donation to LGBT groups, and another $100,000 in free hotel credits to any LGBT organization willing to cross the picket line.
We refused to budge and Mr. Manchester lost well over 100,000 room-nights as a result of cancellations from dozens of groups and conventions who honored the boycott. His own company admitted that they were losing over $1 million each month as a result of our boycott.
We finally settled with Doug Manchester in 2011, after he apologized and promised never to give any more money to anti-LGBT campaigns or organizations. He eventually wound up selling all three hotels and buying the local newspaper.
AFA Boycotted any Business that Supported LGBT Organizations
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Tupelo, Mississippi-based hate group American Family Association (AFA) organized boycotts of at least 25 Fortune 500 companies for their LGBT support (including Disney, McDonald's, Pepsi, Kraft Foods and Hallmark Cards). None of these companies settled with the AFA, with the exception of McDonald's, which briefly caved in to the demands of AFA founder Don Wildmon. Under new management, McDonald's has now become a major sponsor of several LGBT organizations.
Don't Buy Bolthouse
The boycotts we led did work and had a major PR impact on the companies we targeted. On September 19, 2008, we launched a "Don't Buy Bolthouse" campaign in Los Angeles. We asked consumers not to buy any products produced by Bakersfield, CA-based Bolthouse Farms, because William Bolthouse, Jr. the company's founder, contributed $100,000 to the Yes on Prop 8 campaign.
That boycott was settled in just two weeks, because, unlike Doug Manchester, new Bolthouse CEO, Jeff Dunn, knew the boycott, which included Bolthouse's new line of expensive fruit and juice drinks, was a dangerous proposition.
After demonstrations we held in front of Whole Foods stores that carried Bolthouse products in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, DC, Bolthouse Farms settled. They agreed to financially support several LGBT organizations that year to the tune of $110,000 to more than offset Mr. Bolthouse's $100,000 contribution to Prop 8. They also agreed to a comprehensive diversity program designed to support inclusiveness in its dealings with all stakeholders including the LGBT community. Bolthouse Farms has been a loyal and generous supporter of LGBT organizations ever since.
Boycott A-1 Self Storage Company
Another Prop 8 related boycott we did ended with mixed results. In May 2008, right after the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, Terry Caster owner of A-1 Self Storage fame told the San Diego Union-Tribune that gay marriage threatens society. "Without solid marriage, you are going to have a sick society," he said.
Campaign reports showed that the Caster family gave a whopping $293,000 to help qualify Prop 8 for the ballot. On July 31, 2008 we launched a "Call Terry Caster" campaign to ask him to stop giving money to the Yes on 8 campaign. The Caster family did stop giving until the very last weekend before the November election, when Mr. Caster couldn't hold back any longer and he personally contributed an additional $400,000 to Yes on Prop 8.
We then called for a full boycott of his San Diego based A-1 Self Storage Company, which had 30 locations throughout California. No settlement was ever reached and Caster continues to contribute to anti-LGBT causes. But PR-wise, A-1 Self Storage is now forever linked with hate and all 30 of its locations have lost millions of dollars in business as a result of the boycott.
Garff Automotive Group Boycott
We were successful in our first post-Prop 8 boycott. In February 2009, at a press conference in Salt Lake City, we announced a boycott against the Utah-based Ken Garff Automotive Group, which owns 53 car dealerships in six states. This time the contribution to the Yes on Prop 8 campaign came from family matriarch Katharine Garff who gave $100,000 during the final weekend's $3 million pre-election push out of Utah directed by the Mormon Church.
The Garff boycott lasted only three weeks and was settled after a series of meetings that included openly gay philanthropist Bruce Bastian and Garff owners Robert and John Garff. They promised to adopt a company-wide non-discrimination policy and agreed to contribute $100,000 to LGBT organizations in Utah over the next four years. "I believe the Garff family now fully understands how sensitive and important this issue is to our community and to their friends and neighbors," Bastian said afterwards.
While Prop 8 was eventually squashed by the U.S. Supreme Court, many of the organizations behind it, including the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), kept pushing their hateful ways. We targeted NOM's biggest donors like the DeVos family, which owns the $11 billion per year direct sales company Amway.
In 2012 when we discovered that Amway president Doug DeVos had given NOM $500,000, its largest single individual contribution, we declared a global boycott of the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Amway and its parent Alticor. We also called for a boycott all other DeVos family owned companies, which is a very long list. We garnered a lot of support for the boycott and were thrilled when out actress and comedienne Jane Lynch came aboard the Amway Boycott, along with NFL stars and LGBT allies Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe. We mailed over 10,000 signed postcards to Mr. DeVos asking him to stop giving money to NOM.
The Amway response, "As private citizens, the DeVos family supports causes and organizations that advocate for policies aligned to their personal beliefs," an Amway spokeswoman said in a statement.
Three years after our boycott began, we learned from someone close to the DeVos family that they were no longer contributing any money to anti-LGBT organizations or campaigns. So while the boycott is still officially on, we hope to meet with Mr. DeVos and settle this action. Sales of Amway plummeted by $1 billion last year, the first drop in the company's 57-year history.
The Legal Front
Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina and Equality North Carolina filed a lawsuit challenging North Carolina's sweeping anti-LGBT law last month. It will be interesting to see the outcome of all this pressure on North Carolina and every state that tries to pass these discriminatory laws. But right now maintaining and growing the boycotts is definitely the right course of action.