The rainbow business, proud investments

It was the summer of 1975 when Milwaukee resident Paul Toonen attended his first gay Pride parade, a loosely organized protest meant to mimic similar happenings on the West Coast. About 20 to 30 people showed up in front of the courthouse, he recalls. So did the evening news cameras.

“As soon as their lights went on, everyone ran,” he says. “People were afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of being evicted.”

Today, that fear of losing a job has subsided a bit as corporate America embraces Pride.

Just look for the rainbow flag alongside such logos as Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Miller Brewing Company, United Airlines and Smirnoff. Case in point: It is entirely possible to attend PrideFest this year wearing an NFL Player’s Union gay Pride T-shirt, a Hillary Clinton gay Pride baseball cap, Converse rainbow sneakers and Burt’s Bees Rainbow Lip Balm from Target, while carrying an Apple iPhone 6 inside a gay PFLAG case. A gay Pride T-shirt also is available from Apple.

For provisions, there’s Burger King’s Gay Pride Whopper, launched in 2014, and Absolut’s rainbow vodka.

Corporate America, LGBT America

Corporate evolution on LGBT issues is on full display at Pride celebrations, says Wes Shaver, who’s served on the board of directors for Milwaukee Pride for the past three years and is currently its president-elect. “Gay Pride festivals and celebrations have become more and more attractive to national and larger organizations,” Shaver says, noting this year’s sponsors for Milwaukee PrideFest include Miller Brewing, Sky Vodka, Erie Insurance, Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, BMO Harris Bank, Walgreens, US Cellular, and Doubletree Hotels. Over the past several years, the money from such sponsorships has dramatically changed the shape of PrideFest.

“Besides the fact that the presence of these sponsors drives more attention to the festival, the money itself has meant we’ve been able to grow the festival and offer more programming,” Shaver says. “What Walgreens alone has contributed as a sponsor this year has allowed us to build and grow our Health and Wellness area, where people can learn about everything from STD testing to healthy living.”

Corporate America was very different when Noonen was diagnosed with AIDS in 1995 and given five years to live. At the time, Noonen was delivering beer for Miller Brewing Co. He was lucky. Miller was a supporter of the war on AIDS and the LGBT community. According to Toonen, this was partly because Miller’s lead chemist was one of the first people to die of AIDS in Milwaukee, and his contribution to the company was remembered fondly.

Miller was at the vanguard. As recently as 2002, a mere 13 companies received a top score of 100 points on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which rates American businesses on their treatment of LGBT employees, consumers and investors. This year, more than 400 major businesses met the criteria to score 100, along with the distinction of “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality.”

These included Milwaukee companies Northwestern Mutual, Manpower Group, Foley & Lardner, Quarles & Brady, and Rockwell Automation. Other major businesses recognized as “Best Places” included General Electric, General Motors, AT&T, CVS, Fannie Mae, Ford Motor Company, Chevron, Apple, JP Morgan and Hewlett-Packard.

While there’s no doubt big business has changed and advanced the movement, in many significant ways, the movement has changed big business. In 2004, virtually no U.S. companies offered transgender-inclusive health care coverage. Today, two-fifths of the Fortune 500 and 60 percent of the “Best Places” offer it, according to data provided by HRC. Also this year, three-fourths of the Fortune 500 offered explicit gender identity non-discrimination protections in the workplace, and 93 percent of the Fortune 500 offered explicit sexual orientation protections, up 43 percent and 89 percent, respectively, from 2011.

Sincere commitment

Of course, supporting the community is good business. HRC projects that the buying power of the nation’s adult LGBT population will reach hundreds of billions of dollars in 2016. That’s a huge financial incentive for companies to position themselves as equality supporters. And repeated surveys have shown that LGBT people, along with their families and friends, go out of their way to be loyal to supportive companies.

Still, corporate America is aware that LGBT people today expect more than a donation. They want to see a commitment to equality.

Five years ago, corporate gay-friendliness might have been a marketing strategy, says Shaver, but a lot has changed since then. “Working with these large organizations and companies and establishing relationships with them, I think they’re really coming from a place of honest interest,” he says.

Working with PrideFest, Shaver has witnessed that corporate course correction in action.

“A lot of our sponsors now aren’t just on the ground to push products, sell services, or collect email addresses. They are here to help with the festival and participate. It goes far beyond just writing a check, and that’s been a huge cultural shift.”

According to Rena Peng, manager of the HRC Foundation’s Workplace Equality Program, aligning corporate values with a company’s reputation as a champion of fairness and equality is just one aspect of that shift. The other aspect is a response to internal pressures.

“Companies engage in positive efforts with the LGBT community not only to appear gay-friendly, but also to attract and retain talent, create a welcoming and inclusive workplace so that their LGBT employees can bring their whole selves to work,” Peng says. By providing equitable policies and benefits across their entire workforce, companies position themselves to “be on the right side of history.”

‘Still puts a smile on my face’

While Pride events aren’t protests anymore, they’re not exactly trips to Disneyland. They’re celebrations, with a whiff of a painful history that makes them both emotional and personal.

This year, Toonen and his partner Jan are helping out Harbor Room bar to create a float for the Milwaukee Pride Parade. Plans include a hay wagon stocked with a crop of young men in tight jeans and cowboy hats. Noonen — now age 60 — will ride shotgun in a ’53 Chevy pickup that will be towing the urban cowboys past Milwaukee’s gay bars.

“Pride, to me, isn’t necessarily about Stonewall,” Toonen says. “It’s about my inner feelings, my refusal to hide, and my wish to express what still puts a smile on my face.”