Controversy over the lesbian and gay community's relationship with Coors Brewing Co. heated up throughout California in early June. In West Hollywood, turnout was low and tempers high at a June 2 community meeting called by Christopher Street West, producers of Los Angeles' lesbian and gay pride celebration, to discuss ending the organization's Coors boycott. Though Coors supporters were clearly in the majority among those who spoke, the anger evident on both sides suggested that whatever decision CSW eventually makes will be controversial.
Tempers also flared in San Jose, where controversy over Coors sponsorship of that city's pride parade spilled onto the pages of the San Jose Mercury News, while in San Francisco activists seethed over Lesbian and Gay Community Center Project acceptance of Coors sponsorship of an upcoming fundraiser--money that project board members now say they may return.
The gay and lesbian Coors boycott began in the late '70s in response to the brewery's antigay practices and the Coors family's funding of homophobic, far-right organizations. Since then the brewery has adopted a number of policies, including a sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy and domestic partner benefits, that have caused many lesbian and gay organizations and publications to rethink their position and call for an end to the boycott, and many have gone ahead and accepted Coors funding or advertising. In response the brewery's critics point to ongoing Coors family support of rabidly anti-gay groups like the Free Congress Foundation--financed at least in part by brewery profits--and argue just as strongly that gays and lesbians should continue to shun Coors.
The intra-community disagreement has become increasingly pointed, with Coors supporters accusing boycott proponents of clinging to past hatreds while boycotters angrily charge their opponents with selling out the community for money.
Both views were clearly stated--and often shouted--at CSW's community meeting. The gathering was sparsely attended--of the barely 35 people in the room 6 were CSW board members and 5 were Coors representatives--and CSW President Chris Ramirez acknowledged it had not been extensively publicized. Ramirez opened the session by emphasizing that it was just part of a longer process that had also included a telephone poll, and that no decision would be made at least until the board's retreat in August.
The poll itself sparked controversy. Donated ads in local gay publications announced it, listing a toll-free number readers could call to register a vote to either end or continue the boycott. But Ramirez acknowledged that the survey was "not terribly scientific "because the system logging the calls did not record the phone numbers from which they came, so "there was no way to identify who were repeat callers." The result, he said, had been a roughly 3-1 margin in favor of ending the boycott, but no way to know if either side had tried to stack the poll by having partisans make multiple calls.
In an interview Ramirez complained that a local magazine which donated ad space for the poll then turned around and sold adjacent space to Coors, apparently using the survey as a lure to entice the brewery to advertise--an advertisement that in turn might have influenced the poll. Another board member, Richard Slaughter, reported that a Coors representative had contacted the firm with which CSW contracted to televise its parade, telling the broadcasters "that they had done well in the poll"--before those results had been released.
The speakers were uniformly impassioned, starting with Tom Martin, who identified himself as "a past employee of Anheuser-Busch, currently in litigation for discrimination based on sexual orientation." He argued that Coors surpassed his old employer, maker of Budweiser, Michelob and other brands, by having a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation, a gay employee group and benefits for domestic partners. Coors, he argued, "did do some horrible things back in the '70s but has gone a long way to make amends."
Morgan Rumpf, executive director of OutFest, L.A.'s lesbian and gay film festival, noted that Coors had supported his festival for the last two years and is a "presenting sponsor" this year. Like other Coors supporters, he drew a distinction between the company and "individual family members" who support the radical right. "The issue here," he said "is that the corporation, Coors Brewing Co., has changed its policies to be gay and lesbian-friendly." He noted that Coors is the only U.S. brewery to pass the "Lavender Screen" test of gay-friendly policies developed by Howard Tharsing of V Management in Oakland and called it "amazing" that Coors covers employees' domestic partners. He praised the brewery for supporting gay organizations like OutFest, adding that "without Coors' support... we'd have to charge about $18 a ticket."
Several others, including OutFest festival manager Kelsey Bray and Santa Barbara bar owner Steve Warner, spoke along similar lines. Almost all argued that Coors was being unfairly singled out for boycott and several claimed that the Busch family, which has long dominated Anheuser-Busch, supported the homophobic right just as much as the Coors family.
And more than one speaker said that Coors' support of the gay community was costing it customers among conservatives. David Fisher, the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center board member who had gotten Coors to sponsor a Center fundraiser, dramatically waved a piece of paper in the air: "This is the American Family Association's 'Dirty Dozen,"' he said. "Coors is number one on here. So there are right-wing organizations that do not buy Coors anymore."
Only three speakers favored continuing the boycott: L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center co-founders Don Kilhefner and Morris Kight and writer/investigative reporter Stuart Timmons.
Timmons ridiculed the praise that had been heaped on Coors' recent improvements. "Are civil rights 'amazing'?" he asked. "Companies and governments should not be rewarded for providing basic civil rights that have been demanded by a grassroots movement founded on decades of sweat and blood." Citing the SF Bay Times' previous stories, he noted that Coors family members own a majority interest in the brewery and still use the money they make to support "some of the biggest right wing, homophobic people in the country. The Coors family wants gay and lesbian people to subsidize their own oppression. Don't be fooled." He added pointedly that most of the pro-Coors speakers seemed to have a financial interest, either personal or institutional, in breaking the boycott.
Kilhefner, noting the array of Coors representatives in the back of the room, declared, "We have lobbyists here doing a slick and expensive spin.... You're being told lies and half-truths."
When Timmons mentioned the family's ownership of the brewery, he was interrupted by Bray, who shouted, "That's not true!", an assertion she repeated--again in the form of a shout--when interviewed later by this reporter. When asked for the source of that information she yelled, "We got professional advice! From a stockbroker!" but didn't give a name. She dismissed questions about how much money the festival had received from Coors, exclaiming, "That's irrelevant!"
Rumpf was more forthcoming, giving a figure of $20,000 in Coors support for this year's OutFest and naming Shelley Meyers, manager of the Meyers Pride Value Fund and an L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center board member, as the information source. But when contacted, Meyers insisted she had never claimed the Coors family doesn't own the company (whose 1996 annual report confirms continued family domination), but does favor lifting the boycott because of the changes in workplace policies. "I personally don't buy Coors beer or own stock," she explained, "but I think we have to make a distinction between where the family stops and the company starts."
Skeptics have noted other misleading statements among the pro-Coors arguments as well, starting with the American Family Association "dirty dozen" list that Fisher had brandished. That list, which he had previously faxed to the SF Bay Times, was issued a year before Coors instituted domestic partner benefits and dealt only with companies' alleged sponsorship of excessively violent or sexy television shows, not with the workplace policies and political donations around which the current argument revolves.
And not everyone agrees that Tharsing's "Lavender Screen," is a fair test of queer-friendliness. One criterion, for example, is the presence of a recognized lesbian/gay employee group, but critics note that many companies that have domestic partners benefits and a reputation for supporting queer workers lack such a group--possibly because employees have felt no need to organize one. Even so, a company without such a group flunks Tharsing's test.
And missing from the Lavender Screen is any mention of workplace AIDS education, an area where Coors has notably lagged. When surveyed in1994 by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, as chronicled in the book "Cracking the Corporate Closet," Coors did not indicate that it had any workplace AIDS education program. In contrast, General Motors launched a $2 million AIDS education program in the mid-'80s. "Every GM plant," the book notes, "has developed an extensive AIDS library from which employees can borrow materials, and the company has held teleconferences linking all plants to presentations by AIDS experts."
In response to SF Bay Times questions, Coors spokesman Jay Downer, who attended the CSW meeting, faxed an announcement of a June 27 event being put on by Women at Coors and LAGER, the gay/lesbian employees group, as part of National HIV Testing Day, which Coors is co-sponsoring nationally. He also sent material about medical and case management services available to employees, but gave no indication that Coors has an ongoing AIDS education program.
We also asked Downer about the passage from Coors' "AIDS in the Workplace" manual quoted in "Cracking the Corporate Closet," specifying that due to "public concern" HIV-infected employees would not be placed in jobs having direct contact with the product--a policy that, if enforced after 1992, would directly violate the Americans With Disabilities Act. "Corporate Closet" co-author Daniel Baker said that the statement in question was indeed contained in materials the brewery had supplied--some time after the Americans With Disabilities Act took effect.
Downer said that no such policy is in force, but couldn't say for sure if it had existed or when it was stopped. "I have tried to track that down" with every department that might be involved, he said, but could find nothing. "We have never nor would we ever, I'm assured, transfer a person or not give them a job with direct contact with the product due to their HIV status."
Meanwhile, Coors has been pushing to enter the gay market in northern California, sponsoring San Jose's parade and running full-page ads in at least two San Francisco gay publications (one of which, Hype, reprinted in the same issue an article from San Jose's OutNow! based entirely on an interview with a Coors employee and airily dismissing "rumored support for anti-gay causes"). The company is also a sponsor of "Union," a dance party benefit scheduled for Pride weekend and benefiting San Francisco's Lesbian and Gay Community Center Project. A press release announcing the event included a photo of smiling LGCCP board member Mark Leno receiving a $4,000 check from Coors.
Local activists were outraged. Gay labor organizer Howard Wallace, one of the first to call for a gay Coors boycott, seethed, "I think it's pathetic. It's clearly not going to be a community center for everybody because it's showing a tremendous insensitivity." As for the distinction Coors supporters make between the company and the family's support of homophobic causes, he argued, "This is not some peripheral uncle out there who's off giving money, it's the main controlling force of the company. Every time you buy Coors you're helping fund the Free Congress Foundation, the Heritage Foundation and the Council for National Policy--a collection of Phyllis Schlafly and all the right wing loonies." That support, he said. was the main reason for the boycott in the first place, "not what was going on in the plant."
Activist Michael Petrellis compared Leno to "a Jew taking Nazi gold to build his center."
Supervisor Tom Ammiano took a softer tone, calling it "a judgment call" given the company's improved workplace policies, but added, "I'm still not comfortable with it. I'd rather not see it happen."
Leno, head of the LGCCP capital campaign to raise $2.5 million for the Center's construction, said he had arranged to receive the money before the event to avoid the misfortunes of some fundraising events which have produced lots of publicity but no money for the supposed beneficiaries. Originally, he said, he only knew it was a dance benefit, but later was told that Coors was underwriting the party and wanted to give LGCCP the money directly.
LGGCP had set a general policy specifying that the project would not take money from tobacco companies and that liquor industry donations would be looked at case by case, with certain limitations on how that support could be acknowledged. So Leno, who said he hadn't seen the previous SF Bay Times stories on the subject, "looked into Coors. Talking to different people I learned that Coors has for some time been making grants to different gay and lesbian causes, advertising in gay and lesbian publications."
Most of the information he got, Leno acknowledged, came from Gino Pucino, who handles gay accounts for California Beverages, the local Coors distributor. That information included material on Coors' workplace changes, the Lavender Screen and a copy of a forward that William Coors, chairman of the board and president of the Adolph Coors Co., wrote for a book written by his friend Ace Lundon in which Coors expressed dismay at "homophobic prejudice," adding that "all creatures are God's creatures."
But Leno didn't check with experts on the radical right or to others in the lesbian and gay community who might have differing views about Coors. "Obviously I missed a lot of that stuff," he admitted. "I really felt it was obvious. It seemed very clear that Coors was a responsible company, leading the way, offering benefits other companies don't... Maybe I was naive."
Indeed he was, argued Al Ross, who researches radical right groups for the New York-based Center for Democracy Studies, a project of The Nation Institute, affiliated with The Nation magazine. "Coors is really bad news," he said. "After 40 years of backing fascism and terror, after a year or two they suddenly change their marketing profile? You'd have to be deliberately naive to believe that."
Fellow LGCCP board member Scott Shafer sounded shocked when asked why they hadn't checked with local Coors boycott organizers like Wallace. "The boycott's over," he responded. "It ended in 1987."
"Scott Shafer is full of shit," Wallace fumed. "The AFL-CIO officially dropped the boycott in '87, though you still won't see [Coors] in many union halls. The gay community never ended it. The Pride committee, the Harvey Milk Club, Alice, they've all reaffirmed it." Indeed, though cracks in the boycott have multiplied, Christopher Street West's public agonizing suggests that Wallace isn't the only one who doesn't think it ended ten years ago.
After reviewing our previous stories, Shafer and Leno now plan to bring the matter to the full board for reconsideration at its July meeting. "I wouldn't be surprised if the board decided to return the money," Shafer said.
Leno emphasized that the fundraising drive is bigger and more important than one relatively small contribution, saying, "I have no problem with returning the money if it would compromise the integrity of what we're doing."
Most 1996 financial reports were not yet available when we did our previous stories about Coors, but 1996 data is now trickling in. William and Peter Coors remain in the top two executive slots at the company, and family control of all voting stock and much of the nonvoting stock remains essentially unchanged. We are still awaiting the 1996 tax forms for the Castle Rock Foundation, where William and Peter Coors serve as board president and vice president, respectively, and which in recent years has become a main Coors family vehicle for funding the homophobic right.
Jeffrey Coors continues as head of ACX Technologies, a Coors spin-off which still maintains close links to the brewery and which sold $145 million in cardboard and paper packaging and other supplies to Coors in 1996. He also continues as chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, a group generally credited with demonizing the "gay agenda" as a political and fundraising target for the far right. "Every goddamn can of beer goes into that wretch's salary," seethed Ross. Jeffrey Coors' 1996 salary and bonus totaled $897,460.
Last year Free Congress, recipient of nearly half a million dollars from the Castle Rock Foundation in the previous two years, joined with several other groups to file a brief in the Hawaii same-sex marriage case. The brief's argument centered on the notion that same sex marriage is "repugnant to... the laws of nature and nature's God," and to back up that contention it quoted writings by 18th century legal scholar William Blackstone calling sodomy "an infamous crime against nature... the very mention of which is a disgrace."
In commentaries published last year, Free Congress president Paul Weyrich accused the Walt Disney Co. of "immoral practices" for granting domestic partner benefits and producing a film "which portrayed a homosexual clergyman sympathetically." He also heaped praise on defeated Congressman Robert Dornan for being "willing to confront the homosexual lobby."
Regarding accusations that either Anheuser-Busch or company chairman and president August Busch III are major funders of the far right, we checked with three prominent right wing-watchers--Ross, Skipp Porteous of the Institute for First Amendment Studies and Jerry Sloan of Project Tocsin. All three said they had seen no evidence of such funding.
But Anheuser-Busch did turn up on a report issued by the Capital Research Center, a right wing think-tank devoted to the notion that liberal groups operating as nonprofit charities are a dangerous influence and that corporate America gives them too much support. Anheuser-Busch was number one on CRC's most recent list of "Eleven Worst Corporate Misgivers" for its support of "left" groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Business-wise, Coors struggled a bit in 1996, posting its second straight decline in sales, calculated in number of barrels of product sold. Anheuser-Busch, meanwhile, logged a sales increase and tightened its grip on the top spot in the beer market.
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