When Businesses Take a Stand on Gay Marriage

Amtrak launched an advertising campaign last week called “Ride With Pride,” with materials that depict same-sex couples and their children. The campaign’s official website features guides to gay-friendly destinations like Martha’s Vineyard, and a ticker with links to stories from The Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices.”

HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 01: PETA and the LGBT community's "Chick-fil-A Is Anti-Gay!" protest occurs at Chick-fil-A on August 1, 2012 in Hollywood, California.
David Livingston | Getty Images

The fast-food franchise Chick-fil-A, on the other hand, has run no advertising specific to any sexual orientation, and its website states that it treats “every person with honor, dignity and respect—regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.”

But announced opposition to gay marriage by its president, Dan Cathy, brought the company far more negative attention than Amtrak received for its public stance. Adding to controversy were accusations by gay-rights advocates that a charity created by Chick-fil-A's founder made donations to the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization designated as anti-gay by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010.

While gay advocacy groups and their allies were boycotting the company, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee led “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” and thousands of people turned out all over the country to support the fast-food chain with their wallets.

"While we don’t release exact sales numbers, we can confirm reports that it was a record-setting day," Steve Robinson, executive vice president of marketing, said in a statement.

This particular episode in the ongoing gay marriage controversy has yet to subside, and it’s been a particularly nasty and protracted one. Why has it become such a controversial proposition forbusinesses to take a public stand on same-sex marriage, one way or the other, when it was almost a non-issue for businesses just a few years ago?

Kathryn Hamm, president of the same-sex wedding information resource, said companies perceived as anti-marriage equality are now facing more pushback than before, not because of the gay community, but because of their heterosexual friends and family, as well as increasing numbers of people with no stake in the issue.

“The mainstream is largely accepting of same-sex couples,” she said in an e-mail. “The average American may or may not support marriage equality … but they take issue when it seems like someone is just being ‘mean’ for no apparent reason to a minority group.”

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Liberty Education Forum, a gay and lesbian organization that conducts outreach to conservatives, said CEOs should be aware of the thorny situations that may arise from voicing their opinions, whether for or against same-sex marriage, for the simple reason that it turns their companies into political entities.

“CEOs should be free to express any opinion they like, with the knowledge that doing so politicizes their company, their product and, by extension, their brand,” he said in an e-mail.

Angelo said that a tipping point for businesses is coming, as more and more people realize that support for same-sex marriage may be the smartest business move.

“With support for same-sex recognition growing throughout the United States, more and more businesses are realizing that in order to remain competitive and hire the most talented teams possible, it is in their best interest to be as inclusive as possible in their hiring practices,” he said.