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These Companies Condemned Anti-LGBTQ Bills But Funded the Bills’ Sponsors Anyway

Since January 2022, 25 corporate PACs have contributed $13.5 million to anti-LGBTQ politicians, one analysis found.

Disney employee Nicholas Maldonado holds a sign while protesting outside Walt Disney World on March 22, 2022, in Orlando, Florida.

Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ+ civil rights advocacy organization in the United States, declared a “state of emergency” Tuesday for the first time in its 40-year history following an “unprecedented and dangerous spike in anti-LGBTQ+ legislative assaults sweeping state houses this year.”

State lawmakers who played a key role in passing 62 “anti-LGBTQ” bills in the first six months of 2023 have received millions from companies that signed an HRC petition condemning legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

As of June 1, 323 companies had signed onto the petition “stating their clear opposition to harmful legislation aimed at restricting the access of LGBTQ people in society.” But over 50 of those companies or their corporate PACs have contributed more than $2.4 million since January 2020 to state legislators who played a key role in passing bills deemed anti-LGBTQ+ by the American Civil Liberties Union, OpenSecrets’ analysis of state campaign finance disclosures found. That year, Idaho kicked off a wave of legislation aimed at keeping transgender athletes out of sports.

In the first six months of 2023, 18 states passed 62 laws deemed anti-LGBTQ+ by the ACLU. The ACLU is tracking an additional 272 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that are advancing through 33 state legislatures.

The ACLU’s lawyers flag legislation as anti-LGBTQ+ if it is “targeting somebody for mistreatment under the law by virtue of their sexual orientation or their gender identity,” ACLU Communications Strategist Gillian Branstetter told OpenSecrets.

“Corporate leaders need to double down on their values, not back down, especially in a year that has seen historic restrictions on basic freedoms aimed at our community, and trans people in particular,” ReShawn “Shawnie” Hawkins, director of workplace equality at HRC, told OpenSecrets in an email.

The ACLU’s analysis does not include federal legislation, and since a new wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is being driven by state-level actors, OpenSecrets’ analysis excludes contributions to members of Congress. Since regulations regarding corporate political donations vary by state, OpenSecrets’ analysis includes both contributions from corporate treasuries and affiliated PACs.

An analysis by Popular Information found that, since January 2022, 25 corporate PACs have contributed $13.5 million to “anti-LGBTQ politicians,” including sponsors of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and members of Congress who received a “zero rating” on HRC’s latest congressional scorecard. Twenty of the 25 received perfect scores on the annual HRC Corporate Equality Index, which rates more than 1,200 companies’ treatment of LGBTQ+ employees, customers and investors.

“The [Corporate Equality Index] tool does not currently rate corporate political giving, but it does provide points for companies that speak out for LGBTQ+ equality under the law. Our primary goal is to work with companies and have ongoing, productive conversations about how they can continue to show support for the LGBTQ+ community, internally and externally,“ Hawkins wrote.

“We expect that companies will act on the values they espouse in support of our community, and not only follow the letter of the [Corporate Equality Index], but the spirit of it as well,” Hawkins added.

Top Nine Companies Make Up 83 Percent of Contributions From HRC Signatories to Sponsors of Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation

Ahead of Pride 2022, OpenSecrets reported that AT&T alone accounted for over a quarter of contributions to state officeholders backing anti-transgender bills received from companies that signed the HRC petition. These 2022 laws included laws banning transgender athletes from sports, discussion of gender and sexuality in young classrooms and gender-affirming care for minors.

AT&T declined to comment and pointed to a statement provided to OpenSecrets last year.

“When it comes to taking public positions on government policies, we focus on areas where we as a company have expertise, such as broadband access and expansion, our ability to hire and retain a skilled workforce with good pay and benefits, and regulations that affect our ability to deploy capital and invest in networks,” AT&T’s director of communications and PR, Alex Byers, previously told OpenSecrets.

T-Mobile, which also signed the petition, contributed $27,475 to backers of anti-LGBTQ+ laws through the same period. Verizon, another telecommunications giant, signed the original petition but is no longer listed as a signatory.

Several companies also told OpenSecrets their political giving was not defined by a single issue but rather to advance policies related to their industry.

“The decision to contribute to elected officials is made based on their support of the biopharmaceutical industry and policies that protect innovation incentives and patients’ access to medicines and vaccines. In no way does our support translate into an endorsement of their position on any social issue,” Steven Danehy, director of media relations at Pfizer, told OpenSecrets in a written statement. Since January 2020, the pharmaceutical giant has contributed more than $163,000 to state lawmakers who played a key role in passing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in 2023.

“We support candidates whose views are consistent with our company’s public policy agenda and business issues, and we have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination in the workplace,” Union Pacific Communications Manager Robynn Tysver told OpenSecrets. Union Pacific contributed $188,750 to anti-LGBTQ+ state lawmakers through the same period.

Daniella Ballou-Aares, founder of the Leadership Now Project, a membership organization of business leaders committed to strengthening American democracy, told OpenSecrets in a phone interview that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to compartmentalize political contributions and the full range of policies promoted by those politicians.

“I think companies can see all of these activities as very disconnected — I write checks in one place and I think about my employees and social issues in another place,” Ballou-Aares said. “It should become increasingly clear that they’re not unrelated.”

Since January 2020, nine companies that signed the HRC petition each steered at least $100,000 — through corporate PACs or treasury funds — to lawmakers who sponsored or signed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation this year. AT&T, Altria and Amazon were the three largest contributors to these sponsors.

Of the half a million given by AT&T and its corporate PAC to the campaigns of state lawmakers who sponsored anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, $80,000 went to Florida Gov. and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis, who signed bills into law last month that change some facility requirements and non-discrimination regulations from being based on gender to being based on biological sex.

Two more bills directly affect LGBTQ+ youth. SB 254 criminalizes physicians providing gender-affirming care to minors and HB 1069 created a statewide K-12 policy that finds it “false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.”

The last time AT&T or its corporate PAC donated to DeSantis was late 2021, before these bills were introduced.

AT&T donated another $20,000 to Florida lawmakers who sponsored or cosponsored the legislation.

The only state where AT&T gave more to anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers was Tennessee, where the company gave $141,500 to 69 lawmakers who sponsored and cosponsored anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Tennessee is leading the nation in legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

Altria Client Services, a subsidiary of tobacco producer Altria, was the second largest contributor of the HRC signatories, giving $360,000 to lawmakers involved in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. The majority of these contributions went to Georgia, where the company gave $214,000 to lawmakers that backed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

Most of Altria’s Georgia contributions to sponsors of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation went to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who signed SB140 into law in March. That bill bans hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgeries for minors.

The last time Altria or its corporate PAC donated to Kemp was in late 2022, while SB140 was introduced and signed in early 2023.

Despite touting its internal affinity group for LGBTQ+ employees “GLAmazon” and its perfect score on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index as one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality,” Amazon contributed $273,900 to 46 lawmakers and governors who sponsored or signed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, almost all of them from Tennessee.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed three bills classified as anti-LGBTQ+ this year. SB 1 criminalizes gender-affirming care for minors and SB 1237 restricts trans youth from participating in sports with their chosen gender.

Companies that signed the HRC petition and donated to state officeholders backing anti-LGBTQ+ laws gave the most to DeSantis, Kemp, Lee and three other governors. Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson and House Speaker Cameron Sexton are also in the top 10, along with Tennessee Sen. Ken Yager.

Johnson sponsored the ban on gender-affirming care and the so-called “drag show ban.” The last reported contribution from AT&T Tennessee PAC to the Johnson campaign came in November 2021.

The Adult Entertainment Act, sometimes referred to as the “Tennessee Drag Ban,” restricts “adult cabaret performances” in public or in the presence of children. Like a similar Arkansas Law passed this year, the bill does not explicitly mention drag performances, but critics are concerned that the law could lead to over-enforcement.

“One of the impacts of censorship is that it always goes further than the letter of the law,” Branstetter told OpenSecrets.

Last week, a federal judge blocked the law, citing First Amendment concerns.

“The Court concludes that the AEA is both unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad,” Judge Thomas Parker wrote in the ruling. “The [Adult Entertainment Act’s] ‘harmful to minors’ standard applies to minors of all ages, so it fails to provide fair notice of what is prohibited, and it encourages discriminatory enforcement.”

A similar bill has made its way through the Texas legislature and has been sent to the Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to sign. Last month, a Houston lesbian bar said it was denied insurance because it hosts drag shows.

“That is part of the impetus they’re trying to have here, which is make it untenable for businesses to host these because a lot of these venues and private businesses need to keep their head above water,” Bransetter said.

Some Companies Cut Off Corporate Contributions to State Lawmakers Advancing Anti-LGBTQ+ Bills

Of the $167,000 Walt Disney contributed to anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers in their home state of Florida, over $100,000 went to DeSantis, whose public feud with the entertainment giant has prompted a backlash against “woke” companies from some Republicans.

Disney last donated to DeSantis in March 2021, almost one year before the governor signed the Parental Rights in Education Act, which prohibits classroom discussion about sex and gender before the fourth grade. Critics have dubbed the bill the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which the ACLU classifies as anti-LGBTQ+.

Disney did not take a public stance on the bill until the day after the bill passed. CEO Bob Chapek apologized amid backlash from employees and advocacy groups and unsuccessfully attempted to persuade DeSantis to veto the bill.

HRC initially refused to accept a $5 million donation from Disney but accepted the money months later, praising the company for having “stood firm” in its support for the LGBTQ+ community since.

Disney has since ceased all political donations in Florida. The last contribution the company made in its home state was in January 2022. Since then, Disney has mostly donated to candidates in California, home of its Disneyland resort.

Ballou-Aares of Leadership Now Project called Disney the “poster child” for systemic pushback companies are facing for speaking out on social issues.

As someone who advises companies on how to navigate politically fraught environments, Ballou-Aares urges executives to remember the role they play in society and get more comfortable speaking out — but, ideally, they should be prepared and not ignore political retribution, hoping it goes away. She pointed to Leadership Now Project’s library of resources for companies developing their corporate civic action plans.

Target is the latest company embroiled in a culture war over LGBTQ+ marketing. The company has faced boycotts and a falling stock price for weeks since unveiling this year’s Pride product line.

The company signed HRC’s petition about two years ago and has not contributed to any sponsors of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

While companies can give directly to politicians in some states, employees may pay into the corporate PACs that companies use to steer money to politicians. Ballou-Aares said employees can ask their company to do more than just sign a petition, and encouraged them to identify who may have influence over how certain decisions are made within their organization.

Going to the board or chief financial officer may be the best way to shift the process on political contributions, while marketing or human resources may have the most influence to promote voting in a state, Ballou-Aares said.

“There are often champions for this at multiple levels of the organization,” Ballou-Aares told OpenSecrets.

But Branstetter of the ACLU was more skeptical of corporations’ role in protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans.

“I think the best Pride initiative any workplace can take is unionizing,” Branstetter said.

Researcher Ciara O’Neill contributed to this report.

OpenSecrets received funding from Leadership Now Project in 2019. You can read our editorial independence policy here.

June 9, 2023: The top recipients chart has been corrected to reflect that Brad Little is governor of Idaho.

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