Copyright 1997 Bruce Mirken
1335 words

In a move that has many longtime gay activists seething, the West Hollywood City Council adopted a resolution May 5 commending Coors Brewing Co. for its gay-friendly workplace policies.

The resolution, sponsored by openly gay City Councilmember Steve Martin, states that the company “has made strides to be a socially reponsible company and has expressed and made efforts to improve its relationship with the lesbian and gay community” and “calls on the community to acknowledge the efforts that the Coors Brewing Co. has made in its policies and relations with the lesbian and gay community.”

The resolution was suggested by West Hollywood’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Council because, according to member David Fisher, the brewery’s adoption of domestic partner benefits, policies banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and HIV status and other changes sought by lesbian and gay employees put Coors “on the cutting edge” of corporate America in terms of its relationship with gay workers.

West Hollywood’s action comes at a time when gay-positive workplace policies are becoming increasingly common in U.S. companies. The Human Rights Campaign’s list of firms offering domestic partner benefits–a list HRC acknowledges is incomplete–now runs to nearly eight full pages, single-spaced, and includes such companies as American Express, Atlantic Records, the Boston Globe, Levi Strauss and the Walt Disney Co. While many of these joined the bandwagon recently others, including Apple Computer and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, offered DP benefits well before Coors.

The biggest problem with West Hollywood’s move for observers of the far right as well as many other activists is the Coors family’s longstanding and continuing support for far right, antigay causes, financed to a substantial degree by proceeds from the brewery. Martin acknowledged this apparent conflict in a press release put out by his office, suggesting it is unfair to blame the company for the actions of the Coors family: “On the one hand we have a company that is now on the cutting edge with regard to corporate policies concerning its lesbian and gay employees, but on the other we have a family who has members that have historically not been friends to the lesbian and gay community. Unfortunately for the Coors Brewing Co. those family members bear the same name as the company!”

Martin’s comments astonished several right wing-watchers contacted by the SF Bay Times. “I’m flabbergasted,” Jerry Sloan of California’s Project Tocsin responded. “They’re such asinine statements. It’s obvious he hasn’t done his research. Doesn’t he know who owns the goddamn company? The family and the company are one and the same.”

As we have previously reported, the Coors family, as individuals and through various family trusts, own the majority of the brewery’s stock and reap approximately $9.5 million in annual dividends. The Coors family controls the Castle Rock Foundation, also a major brewery stockholder, which donates hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to homophobic far-right groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation. Brewery president and board chair William Coors and vice president and CEO Peter Coors also serve as president and vice president, respectively, of the foundation’s board of trustees. PACE, Coors’ political action committee, has donated almost exclusively to candidates on the rightward fringe of the Republican Party, the overwhelming majority of whom have strongly antigay voting records.

Martin acknowledged the Coors family’s support of “a lot organizations that people in our community would be very uncomfortable with. That’s putting it mildly.” But he insisted that the company must be looked at separately from the family. “We are saying that Coors corporation deserves credit for the steps they’ve taken… People felt that there was this interesting dichotomy, with the company having become a good corporate citizen which was still saddled with the legacy of a boycott which had more to do with the old activities of the Coors family.”

Although many other companies now have domestic partner benefits and antidiscrimination policies, Martin admitted “we have not done resolutions like this” for those firms. Coors, he argued, deserved to be singled out for praise because it had been singled out previously for condemnation and boycott.

Martin aide Richard Ryan added that it is unfair to target Coors without subjecting all companies to similar scrutiny. “Why aren’t we going out and identifying all the companies that are despicable?” he asked. “There are many.” Coors should be commended for its turnaround, he said, although “personally I would never buy Coors beer.”

The resolution’s most energetic supporter was Fisher, who works as a lobbyist for GTE and serves on the board of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. Last year Fisher helped to put together a pool party/barbecue fundraiser for the Center called “Splash,” partly underwritten by a $10,000 grant from Coors, which also supplied beverages, but he insisted there was no connection between the two events. “That’s not what this was about,” Fisher said.

Perhaps, but the Center’s founders are furious that the organization took money from Coors and that gays are now being encouraged to support the company. Center co-founder Morris Kight, one of the first proponents of a gay and lesbian Coors boycott, put it this way: “They have contributed, the Coors family, very heavily for a very long time to repressive causes. They have every right in the world to do that, but we have every right to deny them access to the money with which to do it. I’m disappointed that organizations are accepting pennies, crumbs for selling out the boycott. The dissolution of the boycott is unconscionable… It has been scuttled by quislings.”

Don Kilhefner, another longtime gay activist and Center cofounder, scoffed at the notion that the brewery should be looked separately from the Coors family. “If you believe that I have a bridge for sale. Do they think we’re fools? The accumlated evil that Coors had done to gay people, we’d be fools not to see that.” He called the company’s overtures to the gay community “a marketing ploy.”

But Fisher argued that giving the company a pat on the back is savvy political strategy. “You’ve got to be willing to end any boycott you begin if a company meets your demands,” he said. Only by using the carrot as well as the stick, he argued, can lesbians and gays successfully prod corporate America to address their concerns. “I’m an idealist. I think the world’s getting better. That’s what this is all about.”

Fisher insisted that Coors has risked a backlash from its conservative supporters by offering domestic partner benefits, which “hurt them on their political agenda,” and supporting gay groups and events. But the only evidence he could produce of negative fallout was a 1994 mailing from the American Family Association listing Coors at the top of its “dirty dozen top sponsors of sex, violence and profanity on daytime network TV.”

That mailing came nearly a year before the company added domestic partner benefits, but since then the religious right has had almost nothing to say about Coors. Though AFA and other right wing groups have virtually declared war on Disney and Chevron for their “anti-family” domestic partner benefits, fundie-watchers Sloan and Skipp Porteous of the Institute for First Amendment Studies said there has been no sign of similar attacks on Coors. “I don’t think they ever would,” Porteous commented. “Most of these people are members of the Council for National Policy [a far right coalition whose membership includes Pat Robertson, Donald Wildmon, Phyllis Schlafly and several Coors family members]. They’re all members of the same fraternity. They’re going to support each other. They do differentiate between the family and the company and realize that the company has to do business.”

And what advice would Porteous give lesbians and gays? “I think the gay community should certainly continue to court Coors and get all the money they can,” he suggested. “No, I still don’t buy Coors beer. Court them, be nice to them, but don’t encourage people to buy their beer.