The Coors Brewing Co. is run by a family that has helped fund a conservative backlash against gay rights, but has become one of the first companies in the country to extend health benefits to the partners of its homosexual employees.
As a consequence, the corporation, whose annual beverage sales total $1.6 billion, finds itself boycotted both by gay and lesbian activists and by anti-gay Christian fundamentalists.
“It’s tough,” said Earl Nissen, a Coors executive who, as a member of the Lesbian and Gay Employee Resource (LAGER), helped persuade the company to adopt the new policy. “We are caught between a rock and a hard place.”
It is too early to see how the conservative Christian boycott has affected the company, but the gay boycott, which has been in effect for more than a decade, has affected sales. “We can’t tell you how much we’ve lost,” said Coors spokesman Joe Fuentes, “but we know it has had an impact.”
The controversy illustrates the perils for a corporation whose profits and employee morale come in conflict with the personal ideology of important shareholders. It also shows, despite the strong disdain still felt for Coors by many homosexuals, how far the gay rights movement has come in winning corporate benefits that many gays and lesbians see as a big step toward full marriage rights.
The Christian right and the gay protesters appear somewhat disoriented at finding themselves assailing the same enemy. Coors, for its part, says it stumbled into this predicament through sincere efforts to keep its employees happy and politically involved.
Coors’s board of directors voted unanimously in May to extend full domestic partner benefits to its gay and lesbian employees, as it had earlier done for unmarried heterosexual employees living with a person of the opposite sex.
“The company evaluated the proposal and it fit really nicely into our arsenal of benefits that we can offer new employees,” Fuentes said.
The move stunned conservative Christian groups that had been accustomed to Coors support for anti-gay rights efforts. Jeffrey Coors, the nephew of Coors Chairman William Coors and the brother of Coors chief executive Peter Coors, is chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, a Washington-based group that opposes the extension of any special rights to homosexuals.
Fred Phelps Sr., minister of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., announced a boycott of Coors and began organizing a picketing and lobbying campaign. In an interview, Phelps said his church has only 150 members, but has 10 fax machines that he uses to publicize the boycott.
Christine O’Donnell, press secretary of the 600,000-member Concerned Women of America, said her conservative group also opposed the new Coors policy. “We think that it legitimizes the homosexual lifestyle,” she said.
O’Donnell said she was sympathetic to those who wished to boycott Coors, but noted that CWA members weren’t “very big drinkers” and would not add much to any anti-beer effort.
Gay and lesbians still angry with the Coors family acknowledged that the company’s decision to have a domestic partners program would encourage the conservative managers of other firms to do the same. The largest firms to make the change so far often have been entertainment and software companies, such as Time Warner Inc. and Microsoft Corp.
Coors’s recent initiatives in the gay and lesbian community, including money for AIDS research and gay community conferences, have softened the resistance of some gays and lesbians, but not all.
“I hear from bar owners who say, ‘Earl, we have customers coming into our bars asking for Coors, but I am afraid to place your products because I don’t want to have activists hassling my customers,”’ Nissen said.
The gay and lesbian boycott of Coors grew out of a national labor boycott of the company that ended in 1987. Gay and lesbian organization officials say they know of no national group that formally endorses the boycott any more, but none of them discourages it and many leaders say they still refuse to buy Coors products.
“We are always pleased to see any company make a step in the right direction,” said Donald Suggs, spokesman in New York for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media watch group, “but we have to be careful shoppers and look at the big picture.”
Coors’s new policy, like that of other companies that have taken the step, extends to gay and lesbian partners the same benefits given married spouses: medical and dental insurance, medical leave, vision care and use of company facilities and the employee store. The partners must sign an affidavit that they have been together at least a year and provide further evidence, such as a joint checking account or joint mortgage.
Howard Tharsing of V Management, who publishes in Oakland the Lavender Screen rating of corporate friendliness to homosexuals, said only 21 other publicly traded companies have done as much for their gay and lesbian employees as Coors.
O’Donnell said she fears the domestic partners’ policy will “desensitize” Americans to gay liaisons and lead to legal marriage for homosexuals.