One year after the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality is the law of the land, the movement is in the midst of an existential crisis. The reality is that many LGBTQ organizations do not center the lived experiences of most of the community, while simultaneously soaking up many of the resources the community has to offer.
That dichotomy has stunted the ability for grassroots organizers to sustain recent local wins — or to sufficiently respond to the ever-present violence and discrimination that LGBTQ people, especially people of color, face each day. Faced with this gap in leadership, many organizations have decided to cede the future of the movement to corporations and lawyers — believing that we have exhausted our capacity to win at the grassroots level, and must now move our fight to board rooms and courtrooms.
As the struggle has continued to heat up in North Carolina and elsewhere, we’re seeing a volley of lawsuits and laudatory comments about corporate “allies” from organizations like the Human Rights Campaign — while ignoring the painstaking work of grassroots organizing that has been led by courageous groups centering the needs and experiences of queer and trans people of color.
Rather than focusing on how to support and amplify the work of folks on the ground — people who have lived as queer and trans in North Carolina for decades — HRC has instead turned the LGBTQ movement into a contest to determine which corporation can rush to the defense of our community first.
According to a 2012 report, Wells Fargo — a sponsor of Pride festivals in all major U.S. cities — has both invested in and served as a major lender for all three of the for-profit prison and detention companies in the U.S. (Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, and Management & Training Corporation). There’s zero doubt that prisons are bad for all people — and they’re especially bad for LGBTQ people, who are regularly subjected to humiliation, abuse, and violence.
So what does it mean that a company investing in prisons is not only sponsoring Pride festivals, but also maintains a 100% rating on HRC’s 2016 Corporate Equality Index, is prominently featured as one of HRC’s National Corporate Partners, is a key corporate sponsor of the LGBTQ Task Force, and was the presenting sponsor of the Task Force’s 2015 Miami Gala?
This is the key problem for the LGBTQ movement. The largest organizations in our movement, and even movement spaces like Pride celebrations, are being supported by companies like Wells Fargo — a company that is part of Enlace’s “Million Shares Club” because the company owns at least 1 million shares of private prison giants CCA and GEO combined.
Why is that important to consider? Because at the same time that a vast majority of Pride festivities and the two largest LGBTQ organizations in the country are sponsored by Wells Fargo, that company is directly and unapologetically investing in and profiting from the prison/detention industry. The fact that movement organizations are, in turn, profiting from Wells Fargo means that our largest movement organizations are unapologetically funded by the imprisonment/detention of our LGBTQ family.
Of course, the corporatization of Pride and of the broader LGBTQ movement has been a topic of debate for a long time and many grassroots groups have pushed back in a number of ways on Pride committees hiring anti-Black performers, setting ridiculously high ticket prices, and erasing trans participation. But given the growing impact of detention and policing on LGBTQ people of color and HRC’s reliance on corporate voices to combat the recent spate of anti-LGBTQ bills and, it’s time to renew this debate.
Many of the very same companies that spoke up against the section of HB2 in North Carolina that reversed local non-discrimination ordinances have been completely silent on the section of HB2 that reversed local minimum wage ordinances. And companies like Bank of America, Blackrock, and Vanguard — all of which signed HRC’s letter opposing HB2 — join Wells Fargo on Enlace’s “Million Shares Club.”
We must insist that all LGBTQ organizations — from national to local — divest from corporations that are actively supporting and benefiting from the caging of our own people in prisons and detention centers.
There are many ways to do that — starting with the return of sponsorship dollars from Wells Fargo and other companies that invest in the prison industry, and reinvestment of those dollars in organizations led by queer and trans people of color, who are already doing the movement-building work to improve the lives of all LGBTQ people. LGBTQ organizations and local Pride organizations can also adopt policies that refuse sponsorship by these companies, and we need to have movement-wide conversations about the harm of detention and incarceration in our community.
Until and unless we re-evaluate the strategic direction of the LGBTQ movement, and redirect it to center the lives of queer and trans people of color, we will continue to simply sell the movement to the highest bidder rather than fighting for our own liberation.
Want to do something about it? Check out GetEQUAL’s petition to the leadership of DC’s Capital Pride, calling on the organization to divest from Wells Fargo and make a commitment to refuse sponsorship from any company that invests in and/or benefits from the private prison industry.
Heather Cronk is the co-director of GetEQUAL, a national grassroots organizing network focused on winning LGBTQ liberation for all.