In Gay Equality Battle, Target Is Own Worst Enemy

In a decision that would otherwise merit little attention, a California court recently ruled in favor of a gay rights organization’s challenge to canvass outside a big-box retailer. Because the retailer that sued the gay rights group was Target, the story was a scandal as the gay community continues to hold Target accountable for its history of political donations to groups such as MN Forward that support anti-gay candidates (an activity the chain continued even after a public apology). The decision came just weeks after Lady Gaga caved to pressure and backed out of an exclusive deal with the retailer.

Earlier in the year, a couple months before this last unfortunate PR hit, Target finally announced a new policy governing its political giving, ostensibly expanding oversight of donations and using a “Policy Committee” to vet them. Through this policy change, and increasing the profile of its LGBT Business Council, as well as a lot of money—a lot of money—Target is aiming to repair its reputation on gay equality.

But after talking to Target PR, gay advocacy organizations partnered with Target, and gay employees at the stores, in addition to reviewing the company’s 2011 political donations, what’s clear is that Target has become no more transparent and that its commitment to gay equality merits sincere questioning.

Surprisingly, Target was largely in the right in its California case against the gay rights group, Canvass for a Cause. The retailer has long had a policy restricting access to all non-profit activity on its grounds, Salvation Army bell-ringers or otherwise. In this regard, many members of the gay community even gave Target credit; one blog commenter wrote, “I am openly gay, and all my co-workers know that. I agree with Target’s standings on this, but that doesn’t mean that I agree with they’re [sic] past political donations.”

This sentiment seems to sum up the feelings of a community that is still weighing its feelings on the brand. On the one hand, Target broke its heart. On the other, the retailer should still get credit for publicly, and monetarily, supporting gay equality.

Dot Belstler, executive director for Twin Cities Pride, wrestles with this conflict. While still negotiating with Target about funding this year’s Pride event, Belstler passed along the organization’s official statement, which, in part, reasons that Target is a “model employer” and has donated “in excess of half a million dollars” to LGBT causes, adding “Pride draws a clear distinction between the views of the candidate in question, and the companies that chose to support this PAC.”

While others I spoke with off record in the LGBT activist community refuse to give the retailer the benefit of the doubt, Belstler herself told me that she believes there is more to be gained by engaging Target than by ostracizing it. She notes that Target appears to be making an effort and is certainly spending a lot of money to make things right. Plus, Belstler, along with many others, point to Target’s overhauled political giving process, explained in a new section of its website. Most notably, Target says it now uses a policy committee “to guide the decision-making process regarding financial support of political activities.”

But here begins the confusion about Target’s “revised” political giving.

Even within Target, employees do not seem to understand the differences between the money given to MN Forward that went to support anti-gay gubernatorial Tom Emmer, and the federal Target PAC, through which Target gave significantly large sums of money to anti-gay national politicians like Michele Bachmann and Roy Blunt. (The MN Forward donation was for state candidates, the PAC is for federal ones.)

When Target continued to donate to anti-gay politicians through last fall, even after CEO Gregg Steinhafel made his public apology in August, it was through this federal PAC, which is controlled by Steinhafel, the VP counsel, and political-relations exec Matt Zabel (appointed by Steinhafel after serving as the right-hand man for John Thune of South Dakota, who holds extremely anti-gay positions).

It was through this same federal PAC that Target donated thousands of dollars between January and March of this year to such renowned Congressional homophobes as Orrin Hatch and Pete Roskum.

Just before announcing its new giving policies in February, Target PAC went on a spending spree, doling out $15,000 each to the Democratic and Republican Senate Committees, and directly giving to Orrin Hatch, Jim Matheson, Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe.

Orrin Hatch’s longstanding anti-gay positions need no introduction. Despite being a Democrat, Hatch’s fellow Utahan, Matheson, has voted in favor of both constitutional amendments against gay equality and openly opposed the Obama administration’s recent decision to stop defending DOMA.

Richard Lugar has voted in favor of a same-sex marriage ban and issued a “worried about unit cohesion” statement regarding his vote against DADT.

While the spending was billed as “bipartisan” giving, among the gang receiving funds, Snowe counts as the gay-friendliest because the only actions she’s taken against gay equality was a vote for the Defense of Marriage Act.

More curious is Target’s giving after the policy committee was announced. While money went to very pro-gay rights Rep. Shelley Berkley, Rep. Ron Kind and Sen. Mark Begich, it was, combined, still $8,000 less than what Target gave to Orrin Hatch and stridently anti-equality Reps. Jim Matheson and Pat Tiberi.

Despite its stated desire to make good, Target Communications did not permit me to speak directly with either of the two chairs of its LGBT Business Council. But through an intermediary, I was forwarded an email response about Target’s most recent giving from one of them:

Target’s PAC contributions went 55% to Democrats and 45% to Republicans. Target PAC donations—including during non-election years, such as 2011—reflect Target’s support of key business priorities, such as reforms to control organized retail crime or interchange fees (the fees charged to merchants by Visa and MasterCard), trade and other business issues.

Target’s spin, even from its LGBT point people, is that the company’s donations are “bipartisan” because 50 percent go to Democrats and 50 percent to Republicans.

That being a Democrat means one is gay-rights friendly is absurd. In addition to the Matheson example , look at Target’s recent donation to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin is indeed a Democrat, but not only does he strongly oppose same sex marriage, but, last October, he was the single Democrat to join the Republican roadblock of a DADT repeal. Yet, both Matheon and Manchin, amongst others, fall into Target’s definition of bipartisanship as “Democrats.”

So what oversight exactly does the new Policy Committee have?

One of Target’s latest donations, made on March 9 after the announcement of the Committee, was to the Republican Operation To Secure And Keep A Majority PAC, better known as “ROSKAM PAC” for its controller, Congressman Peter Roskam.

Roskam has never met a gay-equality bill he liked; he’s even voted against bills outlawing workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. As a state assemblyman, Roskam opposed banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, saying that it would force churches to hire gays.

Obviously, the question is: if Target now has a committee in place to review these donations, just who green-lit a $2,500 gift to the PAC of one of Congress’s most prominent gay haters?

When asked about who makes up the new policy committee, Target’s Jessica Carlson said, “While I can’t share specifics about the members of our committee, what I can tell you is that the Committee represents a variety of Target leaders with varying perspectives. All details about how that committee works are available on our corporate web site.”

The PAC entry on Target’s new “Civic Activity” page explains that the “Policy Committee determines the factors to be considered when making contribution decisions.” It does not define who sits on the policy committee beyond noting that the committee “consists of our most senior executives in areas most affected by public policy decisions.”

I went back to Target to get specifics on the makeup of the committee and its specific involvement in donations by the PAC (like the ones to Hatch and Roskum). Here was the email exchange:

Me: One more question, were these latest donations made with the review of the new “policy committee”?

Target Communications: The Policy Committee is solely responsible for approving the use of general corporate funds for political contributions. The Target Citizens Political Action Committee (PAC) is funded through the voluntary efforts of our team members. PAC funds are distributed to federal candidates and national party committees that support Target’s core retail business. Donations noted in your recent inquiries were made through Target’s PAC.

Me: So, just so I’m clear myself, Target’s PAC donations are still made solely by Mr. Zabel, Mr. Steinhafel and the VP counsel?

Target Communications: The Target Citizens Political Action Committee (PAC) is funded through the voluntary efforts of our team members. PAC funds are distributed to federal candidates and national party committees that support Target’s core retail business.

Me: Can you answer my earlier question about the policy committee’s involvement in these PAC donations?

Target Communications: I’ve already shared that information.

Me: Sorry, I’m asking again because I’m stupid and don’t understand the answer, which seemed to define what the Target PAC is and not who facilitates its donations. I’m asking who makes the decisions for the donations from the PAC.

Target Communications: …

I received no further responses despite numerous direct questions about who the policy committee is and which donations exactly it governs. In a way, this represents a step backward in terms of transparency—at least under Target’s old policy, the exact executives responsible for political gifts were directly identified. Once out, Target’s political giving has gone in the closet (while at the same time appearing to be more open). Not to worry, Target released a high-end video that demonstrates the company is committed to equality. What more is needed?

Target’s conflict is best embodied in LGBT Business Council co-chair, Daniel Duty. After last year’s $150,000 MN Forward scandal, Duty became a high-profile defender of Target, recently granting an interview with dot429‘s magazine about “Being Gay at Target.” In that interview, he says, “I think we felt really good about the company response.”

Until he was promoted to Director of Enterprise Strategy in December, Duty was Target’s Director of Business Partnerships & Negotiations. In that role he strategized on how to use relationships with the gay community to drive profit. For example, at a recent Out & Equal Workplace Summit, Duty was a presenter on “How your Employee Resource Group can engage leaders and drive business results” as well as a workshop “about what Target is doing to leverage its LGBT ERG to drive bottom-line results.”

Target insists its donations to anti-gay equality politicians are just business, but at the same time it sends one of its execs, the company’s LGBT Business co-chair, to lecture on how leveraging LGBT groups is good for the bottom line. A paradox for Target, and Duty.

In his dot429 interview, Duty said of the scandal, “the first thing Target was concerned about” was “how do we ensure our own people feel good about us and that we are going to live up to the inclusive environment that we always talk about?” I spoke with a few of those “own people.”

Far from the protections of Target’s HQ and the gay-friendly Minneapolis metro, gay Target “team members” felt as betrayed as anyone else, but the handful I talk to tell me they didn’t get much of an explanation. One said that the gay employees in Minneapolis might have felt what Duty called “a huge coming together,” but at his store elsewhere in the Midwest, he thinks there was a memo.

From a store in Ohio, Mike (not his real name), a gay Target team member, told me about the reality of being gay at Target.

When I learned about the MN Forward, I was pretty shocked, and I thought they were overlooking things that effected everyone.

Soon after [customers] started coming into the stores and complaining, a memo of sorts was sent to all the stores, basically saying that they were sorry about what they were doing and that the only thing they were trying to support was job creation. That also said that they were going to stop the donations to that group because of the anti-gay views. Now, I know it didn’t stop there, but as far as I know, I am pretty disappointed in the company I work for. How they overlook some things and try to justify for ‘job creation.’

I think Target could do better, and it would make more people want to work for them and it would also help sales coming for the gay community.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind companies making political donations, so long as they stick to their morals, and above all, keep [their] promises when it comes to all inclusiveness, and fostering a community of diversity.

When I point out to Mike that Target recently donated to Roskam and Hatch under the banners of bipartisanship and business interests, he says, “I am very disappointed. Of course it doesn’t surprise me.”

The thing about “being gay at target” is that the company’s inclusiveness can indeed be very encouraging—if you’re gay at Target HQ, or a gay employee at a Target in an area that is itself gay-friendly. If you’re gay at any one of the hundreds of Target stores in many of the 38 states that don’t even extend basic sexual-orientation employment protections to their citizens, being gay at Target is only marginally better than being gay at any other plain old job.

Congressman Barney Frank recently reintroduced the national Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would assure that all gay Americans had at least the beginnings of the kind of protection Target affords its employees.

But the Republican-led House is not expected to take up the bill, especially since Speaker John Boehner himself has come out against such protections in the past.

Boehner, the congressman from Ohio, where Mike works at Target, is a House speaker who, in addition to making sure Frank’s bill is never taken up, favors constitutional amendments banning same sex marriage and gay adoptions.

Last year, in October, two months after Steinhafel apologized, even when it was clear John Boehner would win his race (he received 68 percent of the vote), the Target PAC gave the Speaker the annual maximum donation.

Barney Frank has never received a dime from Target.

Target can release all the diversity videos it wants, but it will never be able to square its less-public behavior with employees like Mike.

Meanwhile, Target continues to hold up its domestic partner benefits as proof of its dedication to the LGBT community. And while these benefits are certainly above average (as, increasingly, are any benefits at all), they are less and less a hook on which to hang the totality of a brand’s gay rights bona fides.

According to the HRC, the majority of Fortune 500 companies now extend domestic partner benefits to employees (seven of the Fortune 10 do). Orange was just the latest county in Florida to extend same sex partner benefits to all employees.

Last year, about the same time that Target was donating to Michele Bachmann’s reelection campaign, the Department of Defense committed to offering same-sex partner benefits. Yes, the Department of Defense. And as Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, told Military.com in March, “If the Defense Department is going to extend benefits to civilian partners [of civilian employees] it’s not a very big step to say the same rules should apply to military personnel.” She noted that after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the increasingly unpopular Defense of Marriage Act is the only real barrier to this happening.

And when the US military begins offering domestic partnership benefits to active soldiers, private businesses that want to claim above-board LGBT friendliness are going to have to do better than “same-sex benefits”

At the very moment that Target is negotiating its sponsorship of this year’s Twin Cities Pride event, its MN Forward donation is starting to bear fruit.

Sure, the homophobic gubernatorial candidate MN Forward backed, Tom Emmer, was defeated. But two of the six state representatives that Target’s MN Forward money financed, Rep. Doug Magnus and Rep. Kurt Zellers, will likely vote in favor of Minnesota’s just-introduced measure that puts a constitutional amendment against gay marriage on the 2012 ballot. It’s Minnesota Nice Prop 8. Why is it likely that Target-backed Magnus and Kurt will vote in favor? Because they both already supported the original marriage definition bill sponsored by then-state Rep. Bachmann in 2005.

When viewed in totality, Target’s espousing pro-gay rights claims while engaging in such political behavior is a little like bragging about a glorious sidewalk you built that is meant to go to a house for which you refuse to pay for the construction permit.

All of which isn’t to say Target is against gay equality, even if some of its top executives probably are. But it certainly is no more an advocate of gay equality than the majority of other successful corporations that recognize that discrimination is just plain bad for business.

It seems as though Target thinks spending a lot on gay equality organizations and causes alone will get it back in the good graces of the community. But this idea of buying influence is what got Target here to begin with. Now, not only does the retailer refuse to answer simple questions justifying its latest political giving, it also needs to be held accountable for its behavior, starting with its support of politicians who currently represent a real threat to the rights of Minnesota’s gay community.

Abe Sauer can be reached at abe sauer at gmail dot com.