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GLAAD’s Sarah Kate Ellis wants CEOs to stand up for LGBTQ rights

Ellis reflects on the business community’s response to a wave of anti-LGBTQ bills, and how GLAAD is urging leaders to do more.

GLAAD’s Sarah Kate Ellis wants CEOs to stand up for LGBTQ rights
[Illustration: Malte Mueller/Getty Images]

Barely six months into the year, state lawmakers have proposed hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills, from legislation that targets trans kids to bans on LGBTQ characters in books. That’s the equivalent of multiple bills each day—and a record high even after years of fervent activity.

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It’s a moment of incredible urgency for GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis, who has steered the LGBTQ advocacy organization for the last eight years with an emphasis on courting the business community. “We haven’t seen companies standing up as much as we would like,” Ellis says. “And I think that has a lot to do with the politicization of the LGBTQ community. What I’m constantly saying to CEOs is: ‘This is not a political issue. This is a human issue.'”

Amid the mounting pace of legislative proposals—and the real possibility that the Supreme Court could take aim at landmark LGBTQ cases—Ellis is imploring business leaders to take a stronger stance, beyond pledging their support for the community through Pride celebrations and social media campaigns. In a recent conversation with Fast Company, Ellis reflected on how corporations should respond to an endless onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation, and what GLAAD is doing to push them to act. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fast Company: Since 2014, you’ve been instrumental in turning things around at GLAAD, financially and otherwise. Can you tell me how you see GLAAD’s role now, especially at such a tumultuous time?

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Sarah Kate Ellis: As we saw media shifting and culture shifting, I was brought in to modernize [GLAAD] and make it an organization for the future generations of the LGBTQ community. [One] of the directives that I took on when I started was creating the GLAAD Media Institute, which works very closely with corporate Hollywood. We launched the Social Media Safety Index. That measures and holds accountable the five largest social media platforms because we know that LGBTQ people are the most discriminated against on these platforms and the most censored.

The organization was built to be a watchdog for media and journalism, and to be an advocate or lobbyist for Hollywood to include us in storylines, so that we grew our visibility. Now culture is created by CEOs. It’s created out of Washington, DC, and politics. It’s created out of Silicon Valley. Pretty much anyone who has access to a phone can influence culture. So, we’ve grown accordingly, to help not only watchdog those platforms and those places, but also to advocate for our stories to be told, and for fair and accurate representation.

The corporate voice can be really powerful, as we saw when hundreds of companies came out in support of same-sex marriage and opposed bathroom bills. But the business community is still reluctant to speak on these issues. We’ve seen some companies respond to the recent wave of anti-trans legislation, but those efforts pale in comparison to their investments in, say, Pride events and social media campaigns. You’ve focused a lot on business engagement during your tenure and have far more corporate sponsors now than you did in 2014. How would you characterize corporate engagement on LGBTQ issues right now?

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Corporations have a growing influence so, therefore, they have a growing responsibility. Within [the GLAAD Media Institute], we have a whole group of people that work directly with corporates [on] everything from their HR policies to how they are speaking out on social justice issues. I think in 2016 there was great momentum around CEOs and companies speaking out against anti-LGBTQ legislation, and it was really effective at those moments in time. You saw Marc Benioff from Salesforce [speak out]; in Georgia, we saw Disney take a stance that really helped stop bad legislation. We’ve seen companies throughout the years really start to understand the importance of who they are in the world.

But in this past year, we haven’t seen companies standing up as much as we would like. And I think that has a lot to do with the politicization of the LGBTQ community. What I’m constantly saying to CEOs is: This is not a political issue. This is a human issue. The LGBTQ community is living in an unsafe America, and we need you all to step up, using your political clout and your economic footprint to help support the community.

GLAAD recently released what you’re calling “Recommendations for Corporate Allies” to help companies do exactly that. What do you think businesses should be doing differently, and how can these recommendations help guide them?

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These recommendations give them a playbook on how to step out in a way that is affirming and supportive of the community, [but] that’s still safe for them. We’ll give them the playbook, but we won’t give them a pass. I hear from a lot of CEOs about not understanding how to navigate the current political environment in the U.S. because it’s become so polarized. Yet, I hear from senators that they’re not hearing from business leaders on LGBTQ issues—that they are not prioritizing them when they have their member meetings. So, I think that there is a disconnect happening here, because these companies internally are saying, ‘Here’s our value proposition: Equality for all. DEI is a priority for this company,’ but when you see the legislative moves and the rhetoric that is demonizing our community, it’s creating an incredibly unsafe space for LGBTQ people.

And if you take into consideration the Edelman Trust Barometer—it says employees trust their companies more than they trust their government. So, there is an added responsibility on these CEOs. Their employees trust them. Employees see what’s going on out there in the world at large, and they expect them to stand up and support them, and do so in a public way. And I think CEOs have been falling short.

One of the things you touch on in your recommendations is that it’s not enough for companies to support LGBTQ employees through internal policies or DEI initiatives alone—that they need to take a public stand and lobby for these issues with their dollars. This is where a lot of companies seem to fall short, whether we’re talking about issues like abortion access or trans rights. How are you pushing leaders to take those steps? 

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One way that we’re helping them is our Visibility Project, which we launched a year ago with P&G. We know how impactful advertising can be. One [part] is just basic inclusion, having LGBTQ families [and] queer kids in the ads. Then the other is using these advertising platforms to address issues that directly affect and impact the LGBTQ community. Nike did an ad around trans kids in sports. That’s a perfect way to educate people about what it really means to include trans people in sports—and the perfect brand for it in Nike. We recently [created] a PSA that the major networks ran for us. And this was a PSA specifically around a family in Texas who has a trans son, and how the directive in Texas by the governor is affecting their family and putting them in harm’s way. It was really, really powerful, and we saw Comcast, Paramount, and Disney run it.

The general population doesn’t know too much [about] the Equality Act that would help to codify LGBTQ rights. It has passed the House and moved to the Senate; it has about a month left to gain traction and move forward. Right now, our rights are secured through a patchwork [of state laws and] the Supreme Court. Those human rights that we had to fight for—that others are granted upon birth—are only safeguarded by nine Supreme Court justices. I think that corporates should be speaking out on the Equality Act. Signing a letter is clearly not enough. It’s the first step, not the beginning and the end.

If I can’t appeal to your moral compass, and if I can’t make the business case, you have another business imperative that’s coming fast and furious. Twenty percent of Gen Z [identify as] LGBTQ. That’s your next generation of employees and consumers, and they also bring with them allies—and our allies are just as powerful and outspoken as we are.

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Fast Company touched on this in a recent editorial series on the business case for abortion access, but the pending SCOTUS decision on Roe v. Wade could have all kinds of ripple effects, jeopardizing the hard-won LGBTQ rights secured by cases like Obergefell v. Hodges. Could you talk about what’s at stake here, and what GLAAD is doing to promote that message?

I think you can draw a direct line between Roe and Obergefell. The underpinning of Obergefell is privacy—the 14th Amendment—which is what’s being unwound with Roe right now. And we’ve heard directly from two of the nine Supreme Court justices that they do want to revisit Obergefell.

When you look at the anti-women playbook and you look at the anti-LGBTQ playbook, they are written by the same players, funded by the same people, and moving in the same direction. So, this is all coordinated against women and LGBTQ people—anyone who is marginalized in this community who has secured some level of protections for themselves. When I talk about these issues with CEOs, I frame it for them as: ‘This is creating a very unsafe country for women.’ It’s not a political issue. And for the LGBTQ community, it is the same thing. A large majority of [these anti-LGBTQ bills] are solutions to problems that never existed. They are used and created to start a narrative against our community that others us and puts us in harm’s way and demonizes us. Most of it is done for political gain and power.

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I imagine it’s hard to feel optimistic right now, but are you hopeful about where things go from here? Do you think companies that have been reticent to speak out will start to show up more for the LGBTQ community? 

It’s been a tough year. I’m not going to lie. It has been hard to see our allies not jump into the ring with us and be really reticent to do so. Now I will say, for CEOs, every day [brings] something new that they have to speak up on. One day it’s Ukraine. The next day, it’s a mass murder in a Texas school and gun safety. The next day, it’s an anti-LGBTQ bill. You can’t react to everything, and that’s a lot of the conversations that I have. What they can do is figure out where they have the most power and influence as a company, and use those moments to take a larger stand.

I think we are going to see more and more CEOs speaking out on these topics in a powerful way. They need to come out [and say]: Here’s where we stand; this is unacceptable. And then they need to back that up with action.

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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