How Business Coalitions are Redefining LGBTQ Advocacy

March 12, 2019 • 2:25 pm

There is perhaps no clearer case study on the positive intersection of business and social issues than the rise in business activism on LGBTQ rights. For many years, businesses have worked to improve their brands and internal practices by investing in culture, benefits, and marketing that shows their support for the LGBTQ community. And more recently, companies are vocalizing support for public policy impacting the LGBTQ community even when it is not politically beneficial. All of this activity takes up time, energy, money, and political capital, but it’s a fight that they are committed to for the long haul.

That commitment is why Freedom for All Americans (FFAA) is launching America Competes, a first-of-its-kind national coalition that ensures businesses have the tools, data, intel, and resources they need to advocate for fair treatment for their LGBTQ customers, their LGBTQ employees, and their families. FFAA is the leading bipartisan campaign seeking to win comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans and is uniquely suited to convene this coalition. We’ve helped found more than a dozen state-based business coalitions representing more than 7,800 employers since 2015.

“Advancing fairness and opportunity for all Americans requires many different voices to come together, and the emergence of business leaders as a major force for LGBTQ rights has fundamentally changed the conversation,” said Jessica Shortall, Director of Corporate Engagement for Freedom for All Americans and Managing Director for Texas Competes. “LGBTQ inclusion is good for the economy, just as discrimination against LGBTQ people presents major economic and business risks. That’s why businesses are vocalizing the economic case for nondiscrimination protections and speaking up against discriminatory laws nationwide. Business competitiveness, the war for talent, and a commitment to creating a better world for customers and employees create powerful incentives for businesses to advocate for LGBTQ equal treatment.”

New Connective Tissue at the National Level

America Competes is coming together at a critical moment. Though LGBTQ nondiscrimination legislation is advancing in places like New York and Virginia, hundreds of discriminatory bills have been filed in recent years. Many have also been filed in several states in 2019, focused on creating carve-outs on the basis of religion, preemption of nondiscrimination protections in cities and towns, and the rights of transgender people, particularly youth in schools. At the federal level, lawmakers in Congress will consider legislation that extends comprehensive nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans. Businesses will have a major role to play to continue to make the economic case for these nondiscrimination protections and to set a tone for state legislatures considering hostile bills. America Competes is the connective tissue between all major stakeholders – supporting the business community with intel, messaging guidance, and data, while providing smart connections to LGBTQ and business advocates working to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to live, work, and contribute to their communities, free from the fear of discrimination, no matter where they travel or which state they call home.

In 2019, the kind of coordination we’re developing at America Competes will be essential to enable business leaders to work efficiently and effectively at the federal level and across a number of states. Businesses with operations in multiple states are at risk of missing key opportunities – and of engagement fatigue – unless a centralized institution can streamline the flow of intel to them and offer clear engagement opportunities. America Competes provides the business community with education, legislative analysis, coordinated communications, prioritized opportunities to act, and connections to local, state, and national business organizers to effectively advocate for inclusive equality for all LGBTQ Americans.

The Power of Coalitions

  1. Coalitions increase collective power. Speaking up on a divisive issue, especially in opposition to elected leadership, can create risk of political retaliation among businesses. But if a business is able to join alongside other trusted institutions, the risk drops significantly.

  2. Coalitions centralize resources and expertise, such as political intel and data on the economic impacts of discrimination. For a company with its own industry-specific legislative priorities, even tracking legislation can be a challenge, because many discriminatory measures are worded in intentionally confusing ways—as was the case for Question 3, the historic popular vote on transgender rights in Massachusetts– or they might never explicitly mention LGBTQ people, as with Arkansas’ Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act, which preempts LGBTQ-inclusive municipal nondiscrimination ordinances. On their own, businesses are less likely to have the time or expertise to recognize and analyze these bills sufficiently and determine their economic cost. Coalitions provide outsourced expertise and provide invaluable resources.

  3. Coalitions help develop and deliver a clear and unified message that makes the case for LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections more powerful to lawmakers and the general public.

Together, these core functions of LGBTQ business coalitions help build trust among business leaders – an essential factor in those business’ willingness and ability to work together and to take action.

Demographic Shifts

In 2001, Pew Research found that 57% of American adults opposed marriage for same-sex couples; 35% supported it. By 2016, 32% were opposed and 62% were supportive. That’s a massive and rapid inversion. A deeper dive into the data shows a major generational driver: 74% of millennials approved of marriage equality in 2016. Similarly, millennials are driving rapid opinion shifts on the rights of transgender people. A 2016 USA Today poll showed that 62% of millennials support the right of transgender people to use the public accommodations that match who they are.

This increased public activity is largely the result of opinion shifts among young people. Sixty-seven percent of young adults oppose allowing small business owners to refuse service to LGBTQ people on the basis of religion, compared to 60% of Americans overall and 53% of senior citizens.

Millennials also make up the largest group in the US workforce and are essential to recruitment, brand, and consumer strategies. They are shaping the culture, politics, workplace, and consumer patterns all around us. The public opinion shift they are driving has had a wide range of economic impacts on driving talent and on the ability of cities and states to attract corporate investment, as well as on tourism including conventions and major sporting events. In a 2016 poll, nearly 50% of American meeting planners said they would avoid planning events in states that pass anti-LGBTQ legislation. It’s no surprise, then, that the net approval of same-sex relationships is a predictor of competitiveness and innovation in cities.

Businesses with operations in states that pursue anti-LGBTQ policies are voicing increasingly loud concerns that the millennial talent pool will “vote with their feet,” choosing opportunities in more inclusive states. Companies consider this talent dynamic when making decisions about corporate relocations and expansions, too. In 2013, the Detroit Regional Chamber conducted a study on Michigan’s brain drain. It found that 26,000 Michigan college graduates leave the state each year and 38% of educated Michigan workers leaving the state each year were moving to more LGBTQ-inclusive states. Calling LGBTQ rights a “bipartisan issue,” a Chamber executive noted, “what kind of climate do you think these companies are looking for? …it presents a very real economic threat to the state…businesses we are trying to attract here are really turned off by [anti-LGBTQ] behavior.”

Historical Context

In 2015, then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a bill that would have allowed businesses to turn away LGBTQ customers and potential hires based on their religious beliefs.  This development was met with an immediate loss of 12 conventions worth $60m, and the Indiana Competes business coalition launched to advocate for LGBTQ nondiscrimination. The law was quickly amended. In 2016 North Carolina lawmakers passed HB2, the most high-profile anti-LGBTQ law in the country at the time, to ban municipal nondiscrimination ordinances as well as restrict where transgender people could use the restroom. HB2 was filed, passed, and signed into law in a single day, and businesses immediately began to take action. Within a week, two groups organized more than 140 major CEOs and business leaders in an open letter to the Governor. In the year that HB2 remained law, the state lost $630 million in canceled sports events, job opportunities, performances, and conventions, and the law was repealed and replaced in 2017. That same year, Texas lawmakers pursued a similar  anti-transgender bill and economists predicted massive losses: in tourism, $3.3b in annual gross product and 35,600 FTE jobs. The legislation failed, but the state still saw $66m in cancelled conventions over the uncertainty created by the debate. Three business coalitions were active in this effort: Texas Competes (a coalition that has been making the economic case for nondiscrimination since 2015), Keep Texas Open for Business (a coalition within the state chamber of commerce) and Texas Welcomes All (a coalition of tourism stakeholders).

In July of last year, Yelp unveiled an “open to all” listing for businesses pledging LGBTQ nondiscrimination. In October, more than fifty businesses representing over $2.4tr in annual revenue signed an open letter opposing the reported Trump administration’s plans to “erase transgender protections through reinterpretation of existing laws.” And in November, when a supermajority of Massachusetts voters successfully upheld transgender nondiscrimination protections in a historic vote at the ballot box, a coalition of more than 250 large and small businesses publicly endorsed equal protections.

To learn more about the newly-launched America Competes, visit

Freedom for All Americans is the bipartisan campaign to secure full nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people nationwide. Our work brings together Republicans, Democrats, and Independents; businesses large and small; people of faith; and allies from all walks of life to make the case for comprehensive nondiscrimination protections that ensure everyone is treated fairly and equally.

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