It's 2012, and in the state of New York gays and lesbians have full civil rights, including marriage equality. Moreover, gays are no longer banned in the U.S. military. But they are still banned from Fifth Avenue's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in an embarrassing throwback for everyone involved.
It's frankly appalling that NBC, and now its parent company Comcast, still sells the broadcast rights (on its local affiliate, WNBC) to the intolerant bunch that runs the parade (in 2007 that amount was $300,000) and then helps the organizers sell advertising to major companies. More than that, one of NBC's top executives, a man who aids the organizers in getting those ad dollars, was chosen as this year's Grand Marshal.
As David Mixner notes, most New York politicians who support equality won't march in the parade because of this bigotry. Last year, the Irish Foreign Minister condemned the parade, and the President of Ireland declined an invitation to be Grand Marshal. But Francis X. Comerford, Chief Revenue Officer and President of Commercial Operations for the NBC Owned Television Stations, has no problem leading the parade as Grand Marshal.
Groups like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) have criticized NBC for its relationship with the parade since the early '90s. Other groups have protested the parade annually, sometimes resulting in arrests, and this year the group Irish Queers will be demonstrating once again. For years it's all been to no avail.
But with Comcast now in charge after the controversial merger with NBC was finalized, 2012 could be the last year in which gays are excluded -- or the last year in which NBC is involved in the parade.
There are a few reasons for this. One of them has to do with the terms of the merger itself, in which Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast, testified before the House Judiciary Committee, where he vowed to adhere to diversity in every aspect of the company's business dealings. From the company's own blog:
Diversity: A few members of the Committee raised questions about diversity at Comcast (and NBCU). Brian reiterated the company's commitment to promoting diversity in everything the company does. To me, as Comcast's Chief Diversity Officer, this means, among other things, diversity in our workforce, in our programming lineup, in our supplier base, and in our community investments (philanthropy) -- and having results we can be proud of.
Furthermore, the actual approval letter from the FCC states that Comcast must adhere to diversity rules for seven years or the merger could be undone:
Protecting Diversity, Localism, Broadcast and Other Public Interest Concerns. The Commission is also imposing conditions and accepting voluntary commitments concerning a numbers of other public interest issues, including diversity, localism, and broadcasting, among others.
Sure, it's debatable whether selling the broadcast rights to a parade that admittedly excludes a minority group violates the FCC's diversity rules. But it's certainly something that LGBT activists would argue, bringing a lot of attention to the issue. Comcast may not want that fight now.
And that brings me to the other reasons. Comcast prides itself on its outreach to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Just take a look at this page, where the company touts its 95-percent score on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index and brags of programming that reaches out to LGBT people. Comcast also sponsors the annual GLAAD Media Awards and, as the company describes, "partners with various LGBT community centers across the country that provide a range of services for the LGBT community."
It's a different time than when the Ancient Order of the Hibernians began excluding gays from the St. Patrick's Day Parade in the early '90s. Netroots activism gets things done very quickly today. HRC, in part responding to pressure from other activists, lowered Target's and Best Buy's CEI score after the retail chains gave money to a political action committee that backed an anti-gay candidate. GLAAD withdrew its support of the failed AT&T/T-Mobile merger after grassroots activists mobilized on the Web and raised concerns.
Already, GLAAD is calling for the parade to be dropped moving forward if gays are not included. "The idea that a group of LGBT people aren't allowed to participate in a parade in the middle of New York City in the year 2012 is completely out of touch with a majority of Americans and it is frankly indefensible," GLAAD spokesperson Herndon Graddick said in a statement. "GLAAD will be requesting to meet with WNBC to ensure that, if such discriminatory practices remain in place, the event isn't one associated with such an important and inclusive media outlet that should represent the full diversity of New York City."
When LGBT activists have organized online and focused on companies that have supported homophobia -- companies that pride themselves on being pro-gay -- they've been enormously successful. Microsoft reversed course pronto in 2005 after it went neutral on a gay rights bill in the state of Washington, and that's just one example.
The truth is, most LGBT activists weren't focused on the St. Patrick's Day Parade all these years, with bigger fish to fry. But many are now looking at this as unfinished business -- as I said, an embarrassment in a state where we now have marriage rights -- and they are also seeing Comcast as a company that is vulnerable. If Comcast doesn't want a battle on its hands, a battle it will ultimately lose, after much PR erosion, it will make sure that March 18, 2012 is the beginning of the end of the ban on gays in the St. Patrick's Day Parade.