In 1991, Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel made no bones about why it fired gay and lesbian workers, saying in a company memo that the firm's "traditional American values" could not co-exist with those "whose sexual preference fails to demonstrate normal heterosexual values which have been the foundation of families in our society."
This year, the restaurant and gift shop is a corporate partner at the Out & Equal Summit, an annual meeting of companies and organizations seeking to promote workplace equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. And putting its money where American consumers' mouths are, the company handed out coupons offering a 35 percent discount on all online purchases into December, but only if buyers enter "EQUAL35" in the promo code line.
There is still no federal law against firing people for being LGBT, and the courts are still deciding if gays and lesbians are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. And President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are seeking to reverse many of the gains the LGBT right movement made during the Obama years. But corporate America, despite its conservative, buttoned-up image, is pushing back in the boardroom and the courtroom on behalf of LGBT employees, shareholders and customers.
"When [companies] provide an environment for employees to be themselves, they are more productive," Frank Bisignano, chairman and CEO of First Data told more than 4,000 conference-goers at the Out & Equal Summit. "Workplace inclusion is not just the right thing to do. It's good for the P/L [profit-loss] of the company. It's good for the bottom line."
It's been a long evolution, says Selisse Berry, who founded Out & Equal 20 years ago. At the group's first conference, fewer than 200 people attended and little more than a dozen companies were brave enough to declare themselves "Out & Equal" supporters. The audio-visual company workers hired to do the lights and sound for the event's gala put down their equipment and walked out when they realized they were setting up for an LGBT rights event.
This year, the list of more than 100 corporate Out & Equal partners reads like the guest list for an exclusive business gala: Bank of America, Comcast, Dell and HSBC. As a JP Morgan Brazil executive promoted his company's LGBT-friendly policies at a luncheon sponsored by Walt Disney, corporate exhibitors downstairs competed for the attention of job-seekers. Aetna proudly pointed out that its heath insurance covers gender reassignment therapies. Chevron noted that its commitment to equality and inclusion goes beyond its own staff, with the energy company making LGBT businesses part of its Supplier Diversity program. "Prejudice is Ugly. People Are Beautiful," said the banner for HP, one of scores of employers handing out rainbow-colored SWAG.