In the years following the Stonewall riots, LGBTQ rights supporters chose corporations as targets for activism. At the time, some corporations had explicit anti-LGBTQ policies and practices for everyone to see. In 1970, for example, a Los Angeles bank made clear in its job application forms that it would not hire alcoholics, drug users, or “homosexuals.” At around the same time, the Pacific Bell Telephone Company, the largest private employer in California, announced that it would not hire open “homosexuals,” because doing so would “disregard commonly accepted standards of conduct, morality, or life-styles.” Until 1978, the Coors Brewing Company routinely asked job applicants, while attached to lie detector machines, whether they had engaged in same-sex sexual conduct and denied them jobs if they had. (The company's testers also inquired whether applicants were thieves or communists.)
One reason why post-Stonewall LGBTQ activism focused on large corporations was that the firms' interests in promoting and protecting their brands made them particularly sensitive to the negative publicity that came with exposing discrimination. Large corporations spend millions of dollars every year developing and marketing their brands and are, as a result, highly sensitive to criticisms that might tarnish those brands. Interestingly, the need to protect corporate brands from negative publicity made companies more willing to change explicit anti-LGBTQ policies than government entities. Indeed, it was more likely, during the 1970s and into the 1980s, that a large corporation targeted by queer activists would cease explicitly discriminating against sexual minorities than, for example, a government agency would stop discriminating against queer people or, just as important, a state or local legislative body would adopt sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws. To enact such laws, queer activists had to persuade a majority of elected officials in a given jurisdiction to support adding sexual minorities to civil rights laws; outside of a few liberal municipalities, this was an extremely difficult task for the embryonic LGBTQ rights movement to accomplish in the years following Stonewall.
Additionally, the fact that corporate America had tens of thousands of LGBTQ employees (most of whom were, admittedly, firmly in the closet) made corporate workplaces obvious and natural targets of LGBTQ rights activism. Whether they knew it or not, corporate leaders and heterosexual co-employees were already working alongside sexual minorities and transgender individuals, in many cases developing the cooperative bonds, mutual trust, and even lasting friendships that the pursuit of common objectives, including corporate ones, frequently engenders. In this sense, LGBTQ individuals, as a group, were not outsiders and “strange others” to corporate America; instead, they were integral members of corporate workplaces. And many of them were likely to come out of the closet and share the joys and challenges of their personal lives with their fellow workers (as heterosexual employees did all the time) if they could be guaranteed a modicum of job security and protection against discrimination.
Jack Baker, a gay law student at the University of Minnesota, was an early LGBTQ activist who understood that the movement had much to gain from targeting corporations and their internal practices. After realizing in 1969 that his university lacked policies governing corporate recruiters on campus, Baker pushed administrators to form a committee to draft such policies and made sure that he was named a member. Baker knew there was little chance that the university would explicitly prohibit recruiters from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. But the antidiscrimination protection could be provided indirectly if the university adopted a policy requiring recruiters to hire only on the basis of actual job qualifications. This would implicitly prohibit hiring not only on the basis of irrelevant criteria such as race and religion, but on sexual orientation as well. After Baker and others pushed for such a policy, the university, following almost two years of internal deliberations, adopted it.
After the policy was in place, the university's gay student group wrote to twelve large companies based in the Twin Cities inquiring whether they discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. The letter warned recipients that the group was prepared to bring public attention to companies that discriminated against queer people. Three corporations — General Mills, Pillsbury, and Dayton's department store — responded by claiming they did not discriminate against gay people. In contrast, a Honeywell Corporation vice president wrote back brazenly explaining that the company “would not knowingly hire a homosexual person” and adding, rather cryptically, that “our practice is the result of actual adverse prior experience.” (The other eight companies did not bother to respond.)
Gay students eventually filed a complaint with the University of Minnesota, asking it to bar Honeywell from recruiting on campus, given that the company hired individuals on the basis of a criterion (sexual orientation) that had nothing to do with job qualifications, in violation of the university's new policy. Honeywell, suddenly facing the troubling possibility that the state's largest university might prohibit it from recruiting students on campus, announced a few months later that it would no longer discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
It is worth emphasizing that discrimination by corporations was by no means limited to sexual minorities. During this time, advocates for racial and gender equality also repeatedly complained about the many ways in which corporations failed to provide equal treatment and opportunities to racial minorities and women. The difference was that while federal law rendered much racial and sex discrimination in the private sector illegal, and while federal agencies, along with some of their state and local government counterparts, were beginning to be more assertive in holding corporations accountable for such discrimination, none of this applied to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. For example, female employees of AT&T in the early 1970s brought a class action lawsuit under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that led to a groundbreaking $38 million settlement with the company. The fact that queer people could not similarly turn to the courts or to the government to seek protection against discrimination meant that the only way LGBTQ activists could bring about changes in corporate policies and practices was through grassroots protest campaigns. In doing so, queer people took advantage of the only meaningful source of legal rights they enjoyed at the time: the First Amendment's protections of the right to speak, organize, mobilize, and agitate.
Although there were obvious disadvantages to not having the option of suing corporate employers for violating antidiscrimination laws, there was one unanticipated advantage: it forced LGBTQ activists to engage in highly public campaigns to bring notice to the rampant discrimination against sexual minorities that prevailed across corporate America. This activism helped not only to bring public attention to discrimination by corporations, but also to heighten the visibility of sexual minorities more generally in ways that went beyond what could have been accomplished through anti-discrimination litigation in the courts. For LGBTQ people in particular, overcoming invisibility was a crucial first step in achieving basic civil rights.
Gay activists in San Francisco in 1964 formed an organization called the Society for Individual Rights (SIR). In the inaugural issue of its monthly magazine Vector, the group's president wrote, “By trying to give the individual a sense of dignity before himself and within his Society, SIR is dedicated to [the] belief in the worth of the homosexual and adheres to the principle that the individual has a right to his own sexual orientation.” The organization aimed, as an editorial in Vector explained, “to present the homosexual as he is — by far and large a responsible and moral member of his community and one seeking only the equal protections of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”
In pursuing its objectives, SIR engaged in a wide variety of activities, including holding voter registration drives, hosting forums for candidates running for local offices, and organizing social events. It also distributed a pocket-sized publication (called the Pocket Lawyer) informing queer people of their rights if they were harassed or arrested by the police in or near gay bars. The group's outreach to broad sectors of the LGBTQ community led it to become, by the late 1960s, the biggest gay group in San Francisco (and the nation) with a membership of almost a thousand.
As part of its efforts to increase membership and spread its message, SIR in 1968 attempted to place an ad in the Yellow Pages published by Pacific Bell. That firm, one of several regional telephone companies, provided telephone services to most Californians. Before the internet, the Yellow Pages was a widely used advertisement publication through which organizations of all kinds, both for-profit and nonprofit, advertised their goods and services to the general public. The ad that SIR wanted to place in the Yellow Pages included its address and phone number and read as follows: “HOMOSEXUALS — Know and protect your rights. If over 21, write and visit SIR.” Pacific Bell rejected the ad, claiming that the company had an obligation to protect its customers from a “filthy phone book,” that the word “homosexual” was “offensive to good taste,” and that the advertisement “would offend subscribers.”
SIR responded by filing a complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission, the regulatory agency that oversees utility companies in the state. The commission rejected SIR's complaint, concluding that the gay group had failed to show that Pacific Bell had acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner. It was only after SIR appealed the commission's ruling to the California Supreme Court, that Pacific Bell backed down and accepted the advertisement, three years after it first refused to publish it.
A young gay man sporting a white robe and a shaggy beard dragged a heavy telephone pole on his back, intended to resemble Christ's cross.
In the meantime, SIR and other LGBTQ groups continued to tangle with Pacific Bell because of another issue: its refusal to hire openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. At the time, the company was one of the largest employers in the country, with a workforce of more than ninety thousand employees.
In 1970, SIR wrote to Pacific Bell asking about its personnel policies as they related to sexual orientation. In response, an assistant vice president wrote back explaining that “we do not knowingly hire or retain in our employment persons — and this would include homosexuals — whose reputations, performance, or behavior would impose a risk to our customers, or employees, or to the reputation of the company. . . . We are not in a position to disregard commonly accepted standards of conduct, morality, or life-styles.”
Although Pacific Bell was by no means alone among corporations in refusing to hire openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals, the bluntness of its response to SIR's letter angered LGBTQ activists. Starting in 1971 and continuing for several years, groups such as the San Francisco Gay Activists Alliance regularly picketed outside the company's headquarters in San Francisco. During one of those protests, held on Good Friday in 1973, a young gay man sporting a white robe and a shaggy beard dragged a heavy telephone pole on his back, intended to resemble Christ's cross, to the cheers of a large group of LGBTQ protestors.
San Francisco enacted an ordinance in 1972 prohibiting city contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. LGBTQ activists quickly filed a complaint with the city's Human Rights Commission, arguing that Pacific Bell was subject to the ordinance because it had contracts with the city to provide public pay phones. The company responded by contending that, as a utility, it could only be regulated by the state and that therefore the local ordinance did not apply to it.
The filing of the complaint provided activists with access to relevant internal company documents. One document explained Pacific Bell's official policy regarding sexual minorities. Titled “Employment of Homosexuals,” the policy stated that “we do not give favorable consideration [in employment matters] to anyone who, in our judgment, may create conflicts with existing employees or the public we serve. This includes, but is not limited to, any manifest homosexual.” It was later learned that the company stamped “Code 48” on applications of suspected gay, lesbian, and bisexual job candidates as a way of internally flagging individuals who should be rejected due to their sexual orientation.
As LGBTQ activists continued to press the company to rescind its discriminatory policy, Pacific Bell defended itself by claiming that it only barred from employment individuals who “flaunted” their same-sex sexuality, a position that, not surprisingly, did not satisfy the activists. In the two years following the enactment of the city's antidiscrimination ordinance, government officials, company representatives, and queer activists held several meetings aimed at resolving their differences, but the disagreements over the legality and appropriateness of the company's policy remained.
Pacific Bell was not the only regional phone company that found itself in the crosshairs of LGBTQ activists. Northwestern Bell in 1973 admitted on the front page of the newspaper Minneapolis Star that it would not hire “admitted homosexuals.” As the company's public relations chief explained, “Until society recognizes homosexuality as socially acceptable behavior, we believe that employing known homosexuals would tend to have an adverse effect on how our company is regarded by other employees and the general Public.”
Northwestern Bell had been forced to address its employment policy regarding sexual minorities after activists publicized that it had rescinded a job offer to a young man, who had applied to be a bicycle messenger, after he told a company nurse during a preemployment physical that the army had rejected him because he was gay. Responding to the company's announcement and defense of its antigay policy, Twin Cities LGBTQ activists, in groups that ranged from a handful to around two dozen individuals, distributed leaflets and picketed in front of the company's headquarters in Minneapolis every workday for several weeks.
In response, the Minnesota chapter of the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action, a state senator, and a local television station came out in favor of laws prohibiting discrimination against sexual minorities. For its part, the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the phone company on behalf of the gay bike messenger, arguing that its status as a monopoly rendered it a quasi-governmental entity subject to equality obligations under the federal Constitution. In addition, LGBTQ students at the University of Minnesota filed a complaint with the school asking that the company be prohibited from recruiting on campus until it lifted its ban on sexual minority employees.
The following year (1974), Minneapolis amended its civil rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination in employment, in housing, and by places of public accommodation on the basis of “affectional or sexual preference.” Three days after the amendment became effective, Northwestern Bell announced that rather than fight the new law in the courts, as it had earlier threatened to do, it would rescind its exclusionary hiring policy aimed at sexual minorities. It also announced that it had settled the ACLU lawsuit by agreeing not to engage in any further discrimination against gay individuals and by paying the plaintiff $900 in back wages.
At the time, AT&T, the parent company of local Bell subsidiaries such as Pacific Bell and Northwestern Bell, was facing significant public scrutiny for its differential treatment of racial minorities and women. The corporation had recently reached a landmark settlement of $38 million in a class action lawsuit brought by female employees alleging systemic discrimination within the company. AT&T, shortly after Northwestern Bell rescinded its antigay policy, announced in an employee newsletter that it would not discriminate against gay workers.
The announcement explained that an “individual's sexual tendencies or preferences are strictly personal and information about these matters shouldn't be sought out by company personnel.” Bruce Voeller, the executive director of the National Gay Task Force (NGTF), hailed AT&T's announcement as “a very important beginning,” while the Advocate magazine opined that “this move by AT&T could be the breakthrough that [might] persuade other major businesses to lift the corporate barrier gay people in business find inhibiting their careers and life-styles.”
The announcements by AT&T and Northwestern Bell constituted the first time that large American companies took explicit and public steps to address the issue of sexual orientation discrimination in their workplaces. The companies' actions demonstrated to LGBTQ rights activists, only five years after Stonewall, that public pressure campaigns could be effective in persuading at least some large corporations to start addressing issues of sexual orientation equality in the workplace.
Hoping to build momentum from the telephone companies' announcements that they would no longer discriminate against sexual minorities, the NGTF wrote to eighty-six large corporations asking about their sexual orientation policies. About half the companies responded to the survey. The majority of the respondents, including DuPont, Exxon, and Procter & Gamble, skirted the issue by claiming that they did not ask their employees or job applicants about their sexual orientation. But several other companies, including American Airlines, Bank of America, and IBM, responded by assuring the LGBTQ group that they did not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Activist groups did not have the resources needed to organize campaigns against the dozens of large corporations that explicitly or implicitly discriminated against sexual minorities. It was also not possible in most parts of the country to use litigation as a tool for reform because, outside of a handful of ordinances enacted by liberal municipalities, there were no laws that explicitly prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
(The first state to enact such a law was Wisconsin in 1981; the second, Massachusetts, did not do so until nine years later.) All this meant that LGBTQ activists had to be strategic in choosing which corporations to target in public campaigns. Important factors in that determination included the company's size and visibility — the bigger the company, and the more visible it was to the general public, the more likely it would respond positively to LGBTQ rights campaigns aimed at changing its policies toward sexual minorities.
Another criterion that determined which corporations to target, interestingly enough, was a company's willingness to admit that it discriminated. When LGBTQ activists in the 1970s wrote to corporations asking whether they discriminated against sexual minorities, many firms refused to answer, and most of the ones that did reply skirted the issue by responding, usually falsely, that they did not care about the sexual orientation of their employees. But a handful of companies were honest enough to openly admit that they discriminated against sexual minorities.
Interestingly, queer activists were helped when companies like Northwestern Bell (for a brief period) and Pacific Bell (for more than a decade) dug in their heels by insisting publicly that there was nothing wrong with firing or refusing to hire individuals because of their same-sex sexual orientation. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not explicitly protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the enactment of that law and of other civil rights statutes (such as the Fair Housing Act of 1968) passed in its wake, helped cement in the minds of many Americans that discrimination was not only legally prohibited in many instances, but also morally wrong. This made it possible for queer activists to embrace the language of equal opportunity and justice, while painting discriminatory companies as being out of step with contemporary American ideals and values.
In the particular context of telephone companies, the fact that public utilities were subject to more rigorous forms of government regulation than most other corporations helped the LGBTQ rights cause. In California, Pacific Bell learned this lesson the hard way. Although its parent company, AT&T, had officially eschewed discrimination against sexual minorities, Pacific Bell continued to refuse to lift its ban on gay employees. (The regional telephone companies had significant discretion to set many of their own policies, including some employment policies, independently of the parent corporation.) In 1975, a group of gay plaintiffs brought a class action lawsuit against Pacific Bell in state court, challenging its exclusionary policy under both California's civil rights laws and public utility regulations.
Coors was well known among gay activists because of its polygraph testing policy.
One plaintiff was a job applicant who had been denied a position by Pacific Bell when he revealed during the application process that he was a member of the Metropolitan Community Church, a religious denomination composed primarily of sexual minorities. Another plaintiff was a former telephone company employee who had resigned his position in the face of pervasive antigay harassment by several of his coworkers.
Pacific Bell moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that California law did not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The California Supreme Court in 1979 agreed that the state antidiscrimination statute did not protect sexual minorities as such. But the court refused to dismiss the lawsuit altogether, ruling instead that since public utilities were analogous to state agencies, the state constitution applied to them. T
he court added that the constitution prohibited entities subject to its mandates, including privately owned utilities, from arbitrarily excluding classes of individuals from employment. The ruling constituted the first time that a state appellate court held that a private company violated state law when it discriminated against sexual minorities. The supreme court returned the case to the lower court for a factual determination of whether Pacific Bell had engaged in discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.
The court's ruling energized the LGBTQ rights campaign aimed at Pacific Bell. Facing growing criticism not only from queer activists, but also from some elected officials and media outlets, the company, a year after the court's ruling, adopted a policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Nonetheless, the lawsuit dragged on for several more years because Pacific Bell refused to admit that it had impermissibly discriminated against lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals in the past. The company finally settled the case in 1986, agreeing to pay $3 million to about 250 former employees and job applicants who charged that they had been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. Although, as is common in such settlements, the company did not admit wrongdoing, the agreement, at the time, constituted the largest settlement in a sexual orientation discrimination case.