Event for Brazilian leader tests companies on LGBT rights

Key Points
  • Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro, who has a history of homophobic comments, will receive the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year award at an event in New York City on May 14.
  • A Marriott hotel in New York is the event venue. Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson has a long history of supporting LGBT rights.
  • Morgan Stanley, Citi and Bank of America are among event sponsors. Bain & Co. and Delta Air Lines pulled out on Tuesday.
  • The event already was moved from the Museum of Natural History, which faced backlash over Bolsonaro's Amazon rain forest policy.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a discussion on US-Brazil relations at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC on March 18, 2019.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

Marriott International, among many big corporations, has gone on record in support of the LGBT community. Its CEO, Arne Sorenson, has been one of the most vocal defenders of LGBT rights in recent years as corporations have been pulled more squarely into divisive social and legal battles related to LGBT discrimination.

But now Marriott is among the corporations facing backlash over an event that will honor Brazil's new and controversial president Jair Bolsonaro, who has a history of homophobic comments. He also has made incendiary comments about gender, indigenous groups and torture.

The Marriott Marquis in New York City will be hosting the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce 2019 Person of the Year Award Gala Dinner, honoring Bolsonaro. The event attracted major corporate sponsors, including Delta Air Lines, UnitedHealth Group, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America.

Additional sponsors include HSBC, Citigroup, JPMorgan, UBS and Bank of New York Mellon, Santander, BNP Paribas and Forbes' local licensee Forbes Brasil, whose publisher said it has been a media sponsor of the event for five years and will continue to sponsor it to strengthen ties between Brazil and the U.S.

Bain & Co. pulled out of event sponsorship on Tuesday, as did the Financial Times. Delta told CNBC on Tuesday afternoon that it had pulled out of event sponsorship.

Bolsonaro is reportedly receiving the reward for his prioritizing of Christian values and family. He's been president of Brazil since January and has been a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, homosexuality and abortion. According to the New York Times, which cataloged some of his controversial comments, Bolsonaro said he would "rather have a son who is an addict than a son who is gay" and that he was "proud to be homophobic."

The only award President Bolsonaro should be receiving is bigot of the year.
Brad Hoylman
New York State Senator

The event has been a magnet for controversy — the Marriott Marquis is not its first choice of location. It was originally planned to take place at The American Museum of Natural History's Hall of Ocean Life. Yet pressure from environmental and LGBT groups resulted in the museum's withdrawal.

Marriott's Sorenson was among the first CEO "activist" leaders when he took on Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in 2014 over legislation perceived as discriminatory. Brewer vetoed the legislation. Sorenson also said at the time of the 2017 battle over the North Carolina bathroom bill perceived as discriminating against LGBT rights, "I have personally received hundreds of emails in the last week complaining about the position I have taken with respect to the law in North Carolina. I think the way the law was passed was trying to drive a wedge between people who think and believe different things, as opposed to building a bridge. We end up creating a polarized and exclusionary environment with laws like that," he told CNBC.

When North Carolina's bathroom bill became a focal point for corporate social activism, Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America spoke out, with its CEO Brian Moynihan telling shareholders, "We've been steadfast in our commitment [against] discrimination. We have been a leader in LGBT practices since the [19]90s."

Delta has spoken out against anti-LGBT legislation — often referred to by backers as "religious freedom" bills — in recent years, including bills introduced in its home state of Georgia. The airlines' decision to end discounts to NRA members, another hot-button social issue for corporations, led the state legislature to even attempt to punish the airline by removing a tax break.

Marriott, Credit Suisse defend decision

Marriott is sticking by its decision to host the event for Bolsonaro.

"Diversity and inclusion are part of the fabric of our hotel's culture and operations. We have welcomed all for over 90 years and focused on putting people first. We are required by law to accept business even if it conflicts with our values," said a Marriott spokesperson to CNBC. "Acceptance of business does not indicate support, or endorsement of any group or individual."

Openly gay New York State Senator Brad Hoylman told the Daily News "The only award President Bolsonaro should be receiving is bigot of the year. [It is] incredibly offensive that a business in my Senate district, which has a large LGBTQ population, would host a man who once said he'd rather have a dead son than a gay man."

"It's imperative that the companies and organizations associated with this event first understand the egregious anti-LGBTQ record and rhetoric of the Brazilian President and then stand by LGBTQ people in Brazil and everywhere by withdrawing their support," said Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD to CNBC. "His brand of anti-LGBTQ activism is actively [hurting] LGBTQ Brazilians and companies that host or participate in this celebration of him need to take a stand."

A spokesperson for Credit Suisse, one of the event sponsors, said the bank, "like other major banks who operate in Brazil, has taken a table at this year's event, as we have for the past 15 years."

Watch CNBC's full interview with Citi CEO Michael Corbat
Watch CNBC's full interview with Citi CEO Michael Corbat

Citi CEO Michael Corbat defended the bank's sponsorship of the event in an appearance on CNBC's Squawk on the Street on Thursday, saying, "We spend a lot of time making sure our people understand the values of our company and I hope in this case there is no question in terms of our support, our unwavering support, for the LGBT community. ... We are supporting the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce and have operated in Brazil for many decades. We're very clear in terms of our stance. But we've spent a lot of time making sure we're communicating those messages and that we're clear with our people."

Representatives for UnitedHealth, MorganStanley, HSBC, Bank of America, JPMorgan, UBS, Bank of New York Mellon and Forbes could not provide a comment by press time.

This story has been updated to reflect comments from Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat on CNBC, that Delta Air Lines pulled out of event sponsorship since the time of publication, and that Forbes' local licensee Forbes Brasil is a media sponsor of the event.

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