Op-ed: When Companies Pretend to Be LGBT-Supportive

Los Angeles leader Lorri L. Jean takes the sultan of Brunei to task but urges us to remember there are plenty of other companies out there that have lackluster records on LGBT rights.

BY Lorri L. Jean

May 14 2014 4:39 AM ET

It’s called “pinkwashing” — masking unsavory policies with a glittery, LGBT-friendly facade. Enjoy your workouts at über-gay-friendly Gold’s Gym? You wouldn’t know that it’s owned by a Texas billionaire who donates millions to archconservative causes. Fan of the LGBT-friendly Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival? Guess what: it’s produced by Anschutz Entertainment Group, owned by another billionaire who’s funded antigay ballot measures.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more literal case of pinkwashing than the “Pink Palace,” beloved by Hollywood’s elite for a century: the Beverly Hills Hotel. It’s owned and managed by the Dorchester Collection, which itself is owned by the newest archvillain on the international LGBT stage, the sultan of Brunei. Brunei is a tiny nation that shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s famous for its oil, its shiny new mosques, and as of this month, a new sharia-based penal code that mandates death by stoning for LGBT people and public beatings of women for exercising their reproductive rights.

Now, nobody is accusing the Beverly Hills Hotel (or its sister property, the Hotel Bel-Air) of being anti-LGBT. But when asked on national television what he thought about his boss’s policies, Dorchester CEO Christopher Cowdray replied that he “had no opinion whatsoever” on whether LGBT people should be stoned to death. He did claim, however, to be concerned about employees, warning that they would only be harmed by a boycott.

I was floored. Cowdray had just washed his hands of the issue of the chain’s ownership, as if the money paid by well-intentioned customers at the tony Polo Lounge didn’t end up lining the coffers of a barbaric despot. So I wrote Mr. Cowdray a letter that read in part:

Your noncommittal response is less than cowardly, it is equal to tacit approval. I ask you quite plainly: If one of your LGBT employees, whom you claim to care so deeply for, were being stoned to death in front of you or on television for the world to see, would you still have “No response whatsoever?”

You also said that you are feeling “picked on” by those of us who are standing up against the sultan’s brutal and inhumane laws, cloaked as religious doctrine. If you feel bullied by our call to boycott properties owned by the sultan, I’m sure you can understand why it’s difficult to pity you. You are not the victim. Unlike LGBT people in Brunei, you are not risking your life simply for being who you are.
 
I can assure you that until either the sultan reverses course in Brunei and repeals all laws attacking the LGBT community and women, or until the Dorchester Collection is sold to owners who respect all human life, dignity, and worth, we will continue to urge people to take their business to other hotels. And we will not stop fighting his barbaric laws.
 
You are the CEO of a company owned by a man who is personally responsible for the passage of laws that call for the murdering of innocent LGBT people. You do not have the luxury of remaining silent and having no opinion. Your silence is a stone in the arsenal of your sultan.

We may never influence the sultan’s barbaric interpretation of Islamic law. Considering that he’s one of the world’s richest men, we may not even dent his bottom line by boycotting his hotels. But what he may care about more is how and whether he is accepted by civilized society. So, in addition to rejecting his hotels, all decent people — especially our political leaders — should have nothing to do with the sultan precisely because of his monstrous policies.

As for the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air, the local LGBT-friendly policies of a business don’t absolve management of accountability for how the business’s profits are used, especially if they’re used to oppress or harm LGBT people. Moreover, it’s important that LGBT people and our friends understand very clearly what their patronage of these hotels supports. People weren’t aware of the connection between these hotels and the sultan and his new, barbaric anti-LGBT, antiwoman laws. Now they are and they can respond accordingly. By refusing to patronize Dochester Collection hotels, all of us are sending a powerful and important message. Pretty pink facades don’t stop the flow of dollars into the accounts of people who would do us harm. It falls to every one of us to remember that each time we open our wallets.


LORRI L. JEAN is the chief executive officer of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.

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