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Charlotte Pride’s Sponsors In Bed With Anti-Gay Politicians

Big businesses like to showcase their expertly curated pro-LGBTQ bona fides — and those of us who very much want to believe in right-thinking corporate benevolence take them at their word.

Who can blame us? The acts of symbolic support are everywhere: Skyscrapers glow in celebration of gay liberation. Business logos take on rainbow hues during Pride Month. Companies offer LGBTQ-themed merchandise and employee affinity groups.

The businesses that celebrate Pride Month by lighting up Charlotte’s skyline also generously contribute to anti-gay politicians who would turn off the lights for good.

And corporations certainly never miss a chance to tell us about their support for the community.

Duke Energy announces on its website that the company “celebrates LGBTQ teammates and their allies,” while Truist trumpets its perfect score on the so-called Corporate Equality Index published by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), among the country’s preeminent gay rights groups.

Meanwhile, Wells Fargo claims its support of queer folks is old hat and notes that its “commitment and service to the LGBTQ community dates back more than 30 years, and continues to grow year after year.”

The company’s website includes employee testimonials intended to bolster the business’s credibility as an ally.

“I work for a company where I am celebrated and supported, not only by how I’m treated individually, but also by the intentional actions the company takes to ensure we are equal citizens outside of work, such as supporting the Equality Act,” writes Matt Hurwitz, executive vice president and head of commercial banking communications.

To further convince us of their queer-friendliness, these and other businesses in the Queen City work with Charlotte Pride, which is best known for its annual festival celebrating the LGBTQ community.

Charlotte Pride sees itself as a descendant of the 1969 Stonewall riot, which launched the modern gay-rights movement, and takes as its mission the creation of “programs and activities to enrich, empower, strengthen, and make visible the unique lives and experiences of LGBTQ people in Charlotte and the Carolinas.”

The corporations that make Charlotte Pride possible also fund anti-gay politicians who seek to undermine the mission of Charlotte Pride.

The overlap of Charlotte Pride’s mission with the social consciences of seemingly progressive corporations invites partnership: Listed among Pride’s sponsors are a bevy of banks — PNC, Truist, Wells Fargo, Ally, Regions, Fifth Third, and US Bank — along with a host of other businesses, including Lowe’s, Duke Energy, Ernst & Young, Walmart, Microsoft, and Walgreens.

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But all is not what it seems.

Beneath the well-polished surface of pro-queer PR pitches emanating from the C-suite, there lies a pattern of corporate financial support for politicians who take as their mission the work of stripping LGBTQ people of our rights, denying our existence, criminalizing our most intimate moments, slandering us as pedophiles, and generally shoving us back in the closet.

What’s more, there’s a boldness to the business community’s anti-gay political activity: It sits in plain sight for us to see — if only we would look behind the corporate rainbows, those progressive Pavlovian equivalents of red hats at MAGA rallies.

To begin the work of understanding corporations’ real political priorities, let’s review their campaign contributions to just those federal officeholders from North Carolina who earned a zero rating from HRC in the last congressional session: Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis and Reps. Patrick McHenry, Richard Hudson, Ted Budd, Virginia Foxx, and David Rouzer.

We’ll limit our inquiry by looking at only the thirteen Pride sponsors named above (there are others, past and present) and by considering political contributions dating back only to the 2016 election cycle.

In short, we’re looking at just a small number of contributors to an even smaller group of politicians in just one state over a relatively brief period of time. It is but a slice of these companies’ anti-LGBTQ activities, but a thick slice all the same: Over this short period of time, our thirteen Pride sponsors donated more than $1.1 million to these seven candidates.

Wells Fargo has a long history of sponsoring Charlotte Pride and its annual festival. The bank also generously funds anti-gay politicians.

In the Senate, Burr took in $92,000, while Tillis received $155,000.

By themselves, these numbers tell a tale of corporate homophobia, but they take on greater meaning when viewed comparatively. To that end, a query: During their last elections — Burr in 2016 and Tillis in 2020 — how did our Pride sponsors’ contributions to these anti-gay senators compare to their contributions to Burr and Tillis’s pro-gay opponents?

In 2016, Burr faced off against Deborah Ross, whom HRC called a “pro-equality champion.” Our Pride sponsors gave Burr $90,000. Ross didn’t receive anything. (All the numbers here are drawn from the website Open Secrets, which tracks and compiles campaign contributions.)

In the 2020 race, Tillis ran against Cal Cunningham, who earned HRC’s endorsement. Pride’s sponsors contributed $102,000 to Tillis. They gave nothing to Cunningham.

The story has been much the same in the House, where our Pride sponsors have generously doled out campaign contributions to anti-gay members: McHenry received $385,000; Hudson got $191,700; and Budd received $161,000. Foxx got $100,000, while Rouzer received $97,000.

And remember: Each and every one of these legislators earned a zero rating from HRC for their failure to support pro-LGBTQ legislation. This included proposals to enact sweeping anti-discrimination protections, prevent claims of religious freedom from justifying anti-gay discrimination, ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in jury selection, and prevent Medicaid from funding conversion therapy. (Know this, too: In previous sessions, Hudson and Rouzer co-sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment to limit marriage to one man and one woman.)

The Pride sponsors who contributed the most to these anti-queer politicians include Truist ($171,500), Duke Energy ($163,700), Lowe’s ($136,000), PNC Bank ($118,500), and Ernst & Young ($102,000).

PNC and Truist are among Pride’s three presenting sponsors. The third, Wells Fargo, contributed $101,000 to these politicians.

Other contributions included $72,000 from Walmart, $66,500 from Regions, $59,500 from Ally, $57,000 from Microsoft, $50,500 from US Bank, and $28,500 from both Fifth Third and Walgreens.

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In 1989, just sixteen years after the Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that women possess a constitutional right to terminate their pregnancies, and in the early days of the conservative campaign to reverse that decision, Justice Harry Blackmun sounded a pessimistic note.

“For today, at least, the law of abortion stands undisturbed. For today, the women of this Nation still retain the liberty to control their destinies. But the signs are evident and very ominous, and a chill wind blows,” he wrote in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, a case out of Missouri in which the Court chipped away at abortion rights while falling short of overruling Roe.

Blackmun, who had written the Court’s opinion in Roe, saw the writing on the wall: The right to abortion was under attack and may well fall. Now, in 2022, Blackmun’s prediction stands at the cusp of realization as it’s widely expected a Court supercharged with conservatives will overrule Roe this year, either expressly or in effect.

While companies like Duke Energy tout their pro-LGBTQ bona fides, corporate America has a long record of contributing to anti-queer politicians.

There are doctrinal and political lessons the LGBTQ community ought to draw from the likely fate of abortion rights.

As for doctrine, a woman’s right to choose to terminate her pregnancy and the constitutional protections gays and lesbians enjoy, including the right to be free of sexual criminalization and the right to marry, arise from the same source: the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and, in particular, the right to privacy found in it.

The Court’s work recognizing a right to privacy began in earnest in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), a case that invalidated a state law criminalizing the use of contraception by married couples. Writing for the Court, Justice William O. Douglas observed that the Constitution’s provisions create “zones of privacy” that are protected from government intrusion. The right of married couples to use birth control occupies such a zone.

Then, in 1972, the Court extended Griswold‘s reasoning to unmarried couples. A year later, the justices handed down Roe, which built on the reasoning of Griswold. The Roe Court noted that while the text of the Constitution did not expressly protect a right to privacy, “the Court has recognized that a right of personal privacy, or a guarantee of certain areas or zones of privacy, does exist under the Constitution.” The right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, like the decision to use contraception, finds protection in this constitutional guarantee of privacy.

Justice Harry Blackmun, who penned the Supreme Court’s opinion in Roe v. Wade, warned that conservative forces sought to reverse the decision. The same forces — with the help of Charlotte Pride’s sponsors — are targeting gay rights and queer people.

It was on the basis of this judicially recognized right to privacy that in the mid-1980s, gay rights activists challenged state laws that criminalized sodomy. When the Court had a chance to invalidate such laws in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), it flinched by a 5-4 vote and upheld the ability of states to outlaw certain sexual behaviors. The march to gay equality under the banner of privacy hit a roadblock, though it would prove to be temporary.

Ten years later, the Court signaled a new approach to gay rights in Romer v. Evans (1996) when it invalidated a state constitutional amendment in Colorado prohibiting the adoption of laws, policies, and regulations intended to protect gay people.

Then, in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the Court overruled Bowers and invalidated criminal sodomy laws, at least as they applied to consenting adults in private. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority and cited Griswold and a handful of abortion cases in support of his opinion. “The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime. Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government,” he concluded.

Two marriage-related cases followed: In United States v. Windsor (2013), the Court invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, which adopted a federal definition of marriage, and, finally, in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Court held the Due Process Clause prevents states from banning same-sex marriage.

Justice Kennedy again wrote for the Court in Obergefell, citing Griswold and observing that the Constitution protects “certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.” In a word, Kennedy relied on privacy — the same rationale used in Roe to protect a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.

Justice Anthony Kennedy became a champion of gay rights, writing the Supreme Court’s opinions in Romer, Lawrence, and Obergefell. Charlotte Pride’s corporate sponsor support anti-gay politicians committed to undoing Kennedy’s legacy.

Obergefell and the right to marry are thus built on a foundation of constitutional law — the right to privacy — that a GOP-dominated Court is poised to reject.

Once Roe and its doctrinal basis are no more, simple logic will take over: If abortion rights find no protection in the Due Process Clause because there exists no right to privacy, then same-sex marriage will be unable to seek constitutional refuge.

Republicans in Congress have regularly echoed the critique of privacy rights advanced by conservative justices.

During the recent confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson, for example, Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said Griswold is “constitutionally unsound,” while Senator John Cornyn of Texas assailed Obergefell and suggested the decision is akin to Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which established the constitutionality of “separate but equal.”

In his Obergefell dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts anticipated these arguments when he not only lodged his disagreement with the majority’s reasoning, but argued the Court hadn’t rendered a judicial decision at all. The majority, he said, had engaged in “an act of will, not legal judgment,” and he wrote that the Constitution “had nothing to do” with it.

Conservative jurists and Republicans officeholders thus share a doctrinal perspective: the constitutional privacy rights recognized by justices in recent decades — and upon which the legal structure of gay equality is built — are illegitimate and should be discarded.

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That leads us to the political lesson LGBTQ folks ought to draw from the imminent demise of abortion rights.

If Roe, a fifty-year-old judicial precedent, is vulnerable to reversal, it’ll be easy for conservative justices to overrule the relatively recent decisions in Lawrence and Obergefell. Progress is neither inevitable nor irreversible if one of our two political parties and its judicial allies possess a desire to undo the queer community’s gains.

And the Republican Party certainly harbors such aspirations. Despite the efforts of some national and local Republicans to transform the GOP into a gay-friendly political space, the party remains steadfastly homophobic.

Its national platform still opposes same-sex marriage, as does virtually every state platform, including North Carolina’s.

Republican politicians continue to attack the gay community while party leaders stand by in silence. North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, for example, recently compared gay people to maggots and cow excrement, and the state party’s establishment said nothing to distance itself from him.

GOP legislators in the North Carolina General Assembly have introduced proposals that would discriminate against trans youth and deny them the ability to access medical treatment. These bills have analogs in other legislatures, some of them already enacted into law.

And down in Florida, legislators passed, and Republican governor Ron DeSantis signed, the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which seeks to banish from classrooms any mention of LGBTQ people and is premised on the libel that queer adults groom children for sexual exploitation. Republicans have introduced similar bills in other states.

Ron DeSantis, Republican governor of Florida, stands at the forefront of the GOP’s war on LGBTQ people, which is generously funded by Charlotte Pride’s corporate sponsors.

The trend is unmistakable. As Matt Comer, communications director for Charlotte Pride, recently tweeted, “I’m watching the entirety of the south pass some of the most extreme anti-LGBTQ laws that have existed since Lawrence v Texas. I’m so incredibly sad and angry, and yet there’s literally nothing we can do to stop it. Just one big hopeless march toward fascism.”

Unmentioned by Comer is that Charlotte Pride’s corporate sponsors are among the very businesses promoting the political party he so oftenand rightlycriticizes for its homophobia. Of course, if Pride and other LGBTQ groups honestly confronted this reality, they would face the uncomfortable task of choosing between continued complicity in their own marginalization and cutting ties with wealthy benefactors. Comfort sometimes counsels ignorance — or at least a strategic blind eye.

*******

A chill wind blows for queer people. Republican politicians and the conservative jurists they confirm to the bench have made clear they possess both the desire and the means to attack gay rights.

But anti-gay politicians cannot do this work alone. They must seek and secure the financial support of the business community.

And when Thom Tillis and Patrick McHenry and Richard Hudson come calling — and when their peers from other states do the same — corporations open their checkbooks and generously give to players throughout a Republican political ecosystem that has demonstrated its animus toward LGBTQ people.

So, for example, our thirteen Charlotte Pride sponsors have contributed more than $1.4 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee since the 2016 election cycle. They gave more than $1.1 million to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. These organizations have one purpose: to install Republicans in power.

Then there were contributions to the Republican National Convention Host Committee in 2016, including $1.8 million from Microsoft, $1 million from Fifth Third, $402,500 from Ernst & Young, and $250,000 from both US Bank and PNC. At its convention that year, the GOP again adopted an anti-gay party platform and nominated a presidential candidate who enacted a host of anti-queer policies once in the Oval Office.

Or consider contributions to Republican-aligned political action committees. To cite just two examples, Walmart gave GOPAC $157,500 in 2018, and Duke Energy gave the Senate Leadership Fund $150,000 in 2016. Again, these PACs have as their singular mission the election of Republicans who want to roll back the progress we’ve made in achieving LGBTQ legal equality and social acceptance.

And let’s not overlook contributions to prominent Republicans who lead the party: Since 2016, our Pride sponsors have given $113,800 to Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has a zero rating from HRC. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who also has a zero rating from HRC, got $294,000 over the same period.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Charlotte Pride’s sponsors in recent years. Both men have earned a zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign.

On and on it goes, establishing a clear pattern and giving rise to an undeniable inference: Across the country, the business community generously supports politicians who work to demonize and marginalize the LGBTQ community.

Then, to curry favor with the cultural elite, corporate America tries to launder its anti-gay activism in a symbolic sea of rainbows, hoping to distract us so we don’t examine too closely its real political bedfellows.

And while we can at first cast blame on those companies that seek to distract us in service to their own ends, our continued manipulation requires our consent. At some point, our gaslighting becomes self-inflicted and we choose to treat corporate mythology as reality.

But we’re free to make a different choice: to seek the truth and look behind the business community’s rainbow-themed spin. If we do, we won’t help but see that these supposed allies are doing us real harm right now.

Faced with this realization, we must decide: Will we continue to be the fools that corporate America has taken us for, naively consuming and eagerly endorsing their pro-queer propaganda, or will we instead refuse to any longer play the part of mere props in their phony, self-serving narrative?

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

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