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Big businesses step up to support gay pride events

Marchers from Delta Airlines carry a banner as they walk ahead of the company's truck in the 43rd Annual Motor City Festival and Parade in Detroit. [AP photo]
Published Jun. 28, 2014

In between the dancing, the drag queens and all the fun, many of the nation's gay pride parades feature a few more conventional participants: some of America's most well-known companies.

From Starbucks to eBay to Macy's, the increasing visibility of corporations at the parades in recent years comes as same-sex marriage bans fall in the courts and polls show greater public acceptance of gay marriage.

In that climate, companies are finding that the benefits of sponsorship outweigh the risks of staying away, giving them a chance to make a statement in support of diversity and use it to help recruit and retain top talent who want to work for a business that supports LGBT rights.

At the St. Pete Pride parade today, about 200 Wells Fargo employees will march the route along Central Avenue. For the first time, the bank joins Florida Blue, HCA West Florida hospitals and St. Petersburg Distillery as the event's presenting sponsors, donating $10,000 to $20,000 each. Other major corporate sponsors include TD Bank, Bud Light, State Farm and Macy's, which presented a fashion show on Thursday. (Tbt*, the Times Publishing Co.'s free daily newspaper, is a media sponsor of the event.)

Executive director Eric Skains said more corporations got involved with St. Pete Pride a few years ago after a report showed the weekend event had an economic impact of $10 million, a number that could rise to $18 million this year.

"We were able to show them the buying power of not only the people going to the event but of the entire LGBT community,'' he said.

Corporate sponsorships have been a big boost for the event. Without them, organizers would not have been able to bring in headline singer Mary Lambert or donate as many proceeds to local charities.

This weekend, some of the largest gay pride events are scheduled, which attracts tens of thousands of people. They come just days after a federal appeals court ruled for the first time that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry. At many companies, support for pride parades and festivals is being fueled by internal Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender councils that are given small budgets and freedom to spend that money where they choose.

"We understand there are people who might have different points of view on that," said spokesman Michael Palese at Chrysler, which has been a sponsor of the Motor City Pride Festival and Parade in Detroit for years and became a primary backer this spring.

"We respect their point of view as long as they respect ours," Palese said.

The continued transformation of the parades around the country from small, defiant, sexually daring protests to family-friendly, mainstream celebrations has been on full display this summer as new companies join businesses that have been supporting the cause for years.

In Salt Lake City, American Express Co. workers carried giant letters that spelled, "Love (equals) Love," the theme of the parade. JPMorgan Chase marchers wore T-shirts that said, "just be you." A Budweiser semitrailer truck festooned with rainbow flags drove slowly through the parade, honking its horns.

The purchasing power of the U.S. gay and lesbian population was estimated to be $830 billion last year, up from $610 billion in 2005, according to a study by Witeck-Combs Communications, a marketing firm specializing in the gay marketplace.

Some years ago, Ford resisted a pushback from the American Family Association against its support of gay groups, said Gregory Varnum of Equality Michigan, a group leading the fight for same-sex marriage rights in the state.

There have been no reports of organized boycotts against companies. Overstock.com, which was a first-time sponsor with a float in the Utah parade this year, has seen a bit of criticism in Facebook posts but no coordinated boycott, said Stormy Simon, the company president.

"It was important for us to show the support in the civil rights movement that every person is equal," Simon said.

The number of corporate sponsors and cash donations has doubled in the last seven years for the Utah festival. This year, cash donations reached $97,300, with much of that coming from 36 corporate donors, said Jen Parsons Soran, sponsorship director for the Utah Pride Festival.

In Boston, more businesses sponsor each year, leading to $143,000 in cash donations this year, a rise over recent years, but still less than the $186,000 in 2004, when there were fewer sponsors but larger donations, said Sylvain Bruni of Boston Pride, a group that organizes the parade.

TD Bank has been sponsoring gay pride parades and festivals in various cities since 2009. The company said it spends nearly $1 million annually on LGBT events and initiatives in the United States and Canada. This year, the company is sponsoring 20 gay pride parades.

"Having corporate sponsors out there at the forefront and seeing them provides greater opportunity and visibility to get the message out that it's okay to be gay," said Robert Pompey, a senior vice president and co-chair of TD Bank's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Allies panel.

Walmart is joining in, too, sponsoring the New York parade — a decision made by stores in New Jersey, said spokesman Randy Hargrove.

The uptick in support comes as corporations increasingly display their backing for gay rights on social media and in ad campaigns.

Marriott International put pictures of well-known LGBT spokespeople wrapped around hotels in its#LoveTravels campaign. Macy's is selling T-shirts, hats and accessories with the slogan, "I stand on the right side of history" with sales going to help make gay marriage legal.

Some longtime festival-goers have bristled at how mainstream and corporate the parades have become, but Nick Morris of Utah said he welcomed them because the corporations are showing acceptance of the gay community.

"We need to be open and willing to accept them as they've accepted us," he said.

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