What's Wrong With Exxon?
BY Antonia Juhasz
September 03 2013 6:00 AM ET
Above: From left: Rafael McDonnell, Cece Cox, Paul von Wupperfeld, and Rebecca Solomon at the Resource Center Dallas. “We would drive ten miles in a blizzard out of gas to not go to an Exxon Mobil station pushing our car the whole way.” —Cece Cox
On February 14, they gathered a small group of local activists for the first of what would become weekly Sunday organizing meetings around Reed-Walkup’s kitchen counter. They called it their “extended church meetings,” because “you go to church to get inspired, and this was our version,” Reed-Walkup explains.
Since that meeting they have led protests at Exxon gas stations and outside the company’s annual shareholder meeting. The protests are modest in size, but draw plenty of attention. A 2010 photo of Kirven yelling into a bullhorn has become iconic, used by news outlets to accompany Exxon shareholder meeting stories every year hence.
Reed-Walkup believes Exxon remains incalcitrant because of a “culture of homophobia.”
Kirven refers to Exxon alternatively as a “bully,” “bigot,” and “just this big, sloppy monster” doing whatever it wants, spilling oil with one tentacle and discriminating with another simply because it has the money to do so. It is a story that resonates far beyond the LGBT community, she argues, and therefore focusing on Exxon helps tell the LGBT story to a broader audience.
“There is something universally accepted about calling out the bully on the playground,” she says.
Changing the Law
At the 2000 shareholder meeting, Lee Raymond, then-Exxon CEO, brushed aside discussion of the nondiscrimination resolution, telling advocates to “go pass a federal law instead.” This has been the position of the company ever since. In fact, in countries where Exxon operates and the law requires it to provide same-sex partner benefits, for example, it complies.
There are several options before the White House and Congress that could force Exxon to change, including implementation of the Supreme Court DOMA decision, a presidential executive order, and passage of ENDA.
New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli says that in light of the DOMA decision, states such as New York in which same-sex marriage is legal will likely require companies to adhere to its laws.
President Barack Obama indicated as a candidate in 2008 that he would sign an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Exxon is a leading recipient of government contracts and would be heavily impacted by such an order. Even more impactful, of course, would be passage of ENDA.
But Exxon rarely sits by and waits for government action to affect it. More often than not, it is Exxon instead that changes government policy. Since 2008, Exxon has spent nearly $90 million lobbying the federal government and almost $6 million in federal campaign contributions. CEO Rex Tillerson has personally visited the White House a minimum of 13 times since 2009.
Exxon’s publicly available disclosure forms do not indicate that its lobbyists have addressed LGBT-related employment issues with the federal government. Tillerson, however, is not a registered lobbyist and does not have to disclose the contents of his meetings. In an email, White House spokesman Shin Inouye writes, “Regarding Mr. Tillerson’s visits to the White House, we routinely meet with a wide range of stakeholders, including business leaders, on a variety of issues.” The Advocate has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the details of those visits.
Inouye adds that the president continues to support ENDA and says, “Regarding a hypothetical executive order on LGBT nondiscrimination for federal contractors, the White House has no updates on that issue.”
While those I have interviewed remain frustrated by Exxon’s recalcitrance, and most feel stung by the lack of leadership from the White House to change course, none are giving up.
“We have the facts on our side and the values of fairness on our side,” says Freedom to Work’s Tico Almeida. “I think we’re going to win. Every once in a while David beats Goliath.”
Antonia Juhasz is a Fellow of the Investigative Reporting Program, specializing in oil and energy. She is the author of several books on the oil industry, including Black Tide. She lives in San Francisco. On Twitter @AntoniaJuhasz