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Do Boycotts Work in the Battle for (or Against) Gay Rights?

By L.K. Regan

Are boycotts an effective weapon? Activists on both sides of the gay rights battle seem to think so. The most recent example targets Doug Manchester, owner of the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego, California. Manchester is currently facing a boycott organized by gay rights activists and supported by union allies. Activists launched the boycott in response to the revelation that Manchester had given $125,000 to a group launching a ballot proposition to end same-sex marriage in California. Proposition 8, which would amend the state constitution to outlaw marriage between anyone other than one man and one woman, will appear before voters in the November 2008 election. Its fate is uncertain, and current polling indicates that it will likely be a close vote. From the point of view of many gay rights supporters, Manchester's intervention in the political process constitutes a deliberately discriminatory act on the part of a member of the business community.

The boycott will not extend to Hyatt hotels in general, as the company in general has fair policies toward gay and lesbian employees and guests. But Manchester's San Diego hotel, and potentially his second hotel, the Grand Hyatt Del Mar, are targets. Activist Fred Karger, who is among those organizing the boycott, explains that, "This is someone who is giving an exorbitant amount of money to write discrimination into the constitution for the very first time." The boycott is intended to make that donation even more expensive, Karger says: "Our goal is to create a business loss for people who contribute. We want to make it a little uncomfortable."

There have already been at least some concrete losses to Manchester's business as a result of the publicity surrounding his donation. Both the GLADD and PlanetOut, Inc. have relocated events scheduled to take place at the hotel. The question remains, however, whether there are sufficient numbers of gay and gay-friendly businesses, and alerted potential gay guests, to make a sufficient dent in Manchester's profits for him to rethink his contribution.

Boycotts are a common feature on both sides of the ongoing battle between gay rights activism and homophobia. It is unclear, however, whether they have their intended effect. Over the years, a chief organizer of anti-gay boycotts has been the American Family Association (AFA), a conservative Christian organization. The AFA's record does not tell a glowing tale of success with boycotting organizations that supported gay rights in one way or another. Its most famous effort was the epic failed boycott of Disney, beginning in 1997 and ending only in 2005. The AFA's complaints about Disney ranged from its domestic partner benefits for same-sex coupled employees, to the sex and violence in the films produced by Disney subsidiary Miramax, to the gay-themed events (aka Gay Days) that took place at Disney parks. The nine-year boycott, which was joined by the Southern Baptist Convention, seemed to have little impact on the Disney juggernaut, which saw increased theme park attendance and hugely successful film releases. The Disney example would appear to demonstrate that huge corporations are relatively immune to the homophobic boycott.

Presumably this immunity formed part of the backdrop to McDonald's reaction to the AFA's announcement this week of a boycott in response to the fast food giant's decision to join the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. McDonald's appears thoroughly unphased by the threat, with its US spokesperson responding that, "Hatred has no place in our culture. That includes McDonald's, and we stand by and support our people to live and work in a society free of discrimination and harassment."

But the Disney example is unusually clear-cut. Often, the results of boycotts are in dispute and subject to biased interpretation. Take, for example, the AFA's impact on the Ford Motor Corporation. That boycott, which lasted from March 2006 until March of this year, and which garnered almost 800,000 signatures, was a response to Ford's "gay-friendly" policies, including its advertising in gay-oriented magazines and web sites. Ford initially seemed willing to negotiate with the AFA, apparently cutting its charitable giving to gay organizations, and pulling back on advertising. Claiming victory, the AFA chose to end the boycott this year, noting that Ford's profits were down substantially over the period of the boycott.

Take a closer look, however, and the picture is more complicated. Ford's sales losses were paralleled by the other major American automakers; changes in Ford's business model meant an additional loss in profits on sales to rental car companies; and the company claimed that its spending was reduced across the board as part of cost-cutting. By the same token, Ford was among the sponsors of a 2007 gay pride parade in Cleveland, Ohio; and in 2007 the company received the Human Rights Campaign's highest rating for its domestic partner benefits and anti-discriminatory employment practices. The facts are in dispute and the interpretations of them conflicting; it's hard to know what the boycott accomplished, if anything.

Of course, a boycott is a weapon that can be wielded on either side of any issue. In June of this year, Stonewall, an English gay-rights advocacy organization, called for a boycott of the H.J. Heinz Company. Heinz briefly ran a television advertisement in England showing a kiss between two men. When complaints rolled in, the company abruptly pulled the ad. Gay rights activists responded with an uproar on the Internet, an online petition to reinstate the ad, and a call for a boycott.

Only time will tell whether Heinz will pay at the checkout counter for its flip-flop on the kiss ad, and whether Doug Manchester's hotel will suffer for lack of pro-gay business. In general, the jury is out on the effectiveness of boycotts, regardless of which side of the political divide is calling for them. In a year in which same-sex marriage is so completely on the public agenda due to the California Supreme Court's