Transgender Rights Pit Corporations vs. Conservatives
For decades, big business and the Christian right have been allied together against ‘big government.’ Now they’re splitting over transgender rights.
The Republican-led crackdown on transgender equality is pitting two traditional allies against each other: corporations versus conservatives.
Normally, of course, these are two of the three core constituencies of the GOP base (the third being nativist-populists like Donald Trump’s supporters). Sometimes, they have ideological positions in common: opposition to “big government,” for example, or the “prosperity gospel,” which holds that Jesus wants you to be rich. But more often, they’re simply political bedfellows, allied together in the GOP.
Now, they are starting to clash.
Consider the parade of companies who have lined up against North Carolina’s Republican-sponsored anti-trans law: Dow Chemical, PayPal, the National Basketball Association, Google, Apple, IBM, Bayer, Salesforce, and many, many more.
No single fight may be as illustrative of the split as the one between Target and the American Family Association. The AFA is boycotting Target for confirming the company’s longstanding, commonsense policy to allow all people, transgender and cisgender alike, to use the restrooms corresponding to their gender. Though clearly not as widespread as the AFA would like us to believe, and filled with fake stories and claims, it nonetheless reflects the kind of Christian-versus-corporate action more commonly aimed at movie theaters or television programs.
And as my colleague Samantha Allen pointed out, to really boycott all trans-inclusive companies would mean giving up on Big Macs, iPhones, Budweisers, and Cokes—not to mention avoiding traveling by American, United, Southwest, JetBlue, or Alaska Airlines, or banking at Bank of America, Chase, Citi, or Wells Fargo.
That’s because all of these corporations, and many more, have signed onto various commitments (usually led by the Human Rights Campaign, often loathed by progressive LGBT people but extremely effective at corporate activism) to be fully LGBT-inclusive. On an economic and human scale, the main consequences of this are anti-discrimination policies in employment and zero tolerance of harassment. But, yes, one of the smaller consequences is letting people pee where they ought to pee.
Why have corporations often led the way in LGBT inclusion? Is it that secret gay cabal that you’ve been reading about? Lots of do-gooders at Monsanto and Goldman Sachs, to name two recent HRC honorees?
Not so much. While doing the right thing does play some role, in fact the main reason corporations are behind LGBT equality is, obviously, money.
First, gays are big consumers, and tend to be brand loyal: A 2011 study showed that 87 percent of LGBT adults said they’d consider switching to a brand that provided equal workplace benefits. which is why even Coors, which showers money on socially conservative causes, also sponsors gay pride parades. It’s the economy, stupid.
Second, and more importantly, LGBT people represent around 5 percent of the workforce, and large corporations are constantly in need of educated, capable employees. Just run the cost/benefit analysis. It does take some effort to get on HRC’s A-List, but if that investment helps your company access that 5 percent of the labor pool, it’s more than paid itself off. And, Target boycott notwithstanding, there’s almost no downside. There aren’t many prospective employees who will refuse to work for an inclusive corporation—but there are many who won’t work for a non-inclusive one.
Third, diversity, itself, has been shown to improve overall performance. According to studies by Forbes, McKinsey, and Harvard Business School—not exactly the Rainbow Alliance—diversity in the workplace correlates with higher rates of innovation, growth, and creativity. Gender and sexual diversity are part of that.
Fourth and finally, a variety of studies have quantified the cost of exclusion. According to 2015 data, more than 40 percent of gay and 90 percent of trans people have experienced employment discrimination, harassment, or mistreatment. That stress, turnover, and discord costs money: One study calculated the total amount of lost labor, productivity, and efficiency at $9 billion across the entire U.S. economy.
That’s why companies have, again and again, opposed state government efforts to attack LGBTs in the name of “religious freedom” or “public safety.” In the last year alone, Chambers of Commerce have led the charge (successfully or not) in Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and even Texas. Notice something about those states: basically Republican, with significant socially conservative populations, but also with large businesses in places like Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, and Nashville that depend on a highly trained workforce.
The bill was shelved, but Tennessee’s Republican leader in the House lashed out at those who signed the letter, threatening them with reprisal.
“All these companies that tried to blackmail us over this thing,” Gerald McCormick said, “when they come for their corporate welfare checks next year, we need to have a list out and keep an eye on it.”
To have a GOP leader threatening big business with reprisal—and sounding more like Bernie Sanders than any Republican—is perhaps the clearest evidence yet of the corporations-vs.-conservatives split within the party.
It won’t take forever for this split to heal—millennial evangelicals are far less obsessed with LGBT issues than their parents are, though by the time that rising generation assumes leadership in the movement, the Republican Party may well have fractured and recombined several times over. Already, religious voters are wondering if they have a political party left to vote for, at least in this year’s presidential election. And to the extent social conservatives continue to fight the culture war on LGBT equality, and profit-minded corporations continue to oppose them, that alienation seems likely to increase.
Ultimately, today’s corporate world is often a kind of melting pot, where different people learn to live and work with one another. That threatens conservatives afraid of anyone different, be they Muslims, or Mexicans—or transgender people who just want to pee in peace.