Coors Brewing Company recently became one of the country's most progressive corporations. It happened quietly on May 11, when the board of one of Colorado's top ten employers voted unanimously to expand the company's generous benefit package (everything from health insurance to adoption assistance) to include "domestic partners": unmarried adults who live together, be they gay or straight.
There was no press release, no major announcement. But it was a decision that has been made by only twenty other publicly traded companies nationwide (mostly high-tech companies like Apple and Lotus), according to gay activists. And only a handful of other companies based in Colorado (Quark, Tattered Cover, Celestial Seasonings) have made the same commitment to their not-so-traditional employees.
Coors's action is raising eyebrows across the country. After all, the Coors clan is better known for its right-wing philanthropy, its polygraph testing of employees and its questionable environmental record. More to the point, members of the family have publicly railed against homosexuality, calling it a sin. Because of the family's views and previous company actions, the Los Angeles Times once called Coors "the company Americans most love to hate." Unions, women, racial minorities, environmentalists, and gays and lesbians have all boycotted Coors at one time or another since 1967.
And yet right now Coors is one of a select few that pass what socially conscious investors know as "The Lavender Screen," a five-tiered "test" of whether or not a company is truly gay-friendly. To get a perfect score, a company needs to include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination clause, have a lesbian and gay employee group, sponsor diversity training, offer programs supporting employees with AIDS and HIV, and--and this is the real test--provide benefits to domestic partners.
Coors Brewing does it all.
But the gay community is split over just what to make of it. What's stopping some gay and lesbian groups from hailing the brewery (as they normally would) as courageous and noble is that the Coors family's charitable foundations are still forking over huge amounts of money to ultraconservative think tanks.
"We take issue when this action--which is certainly an important step--translates into Coors Brewing Company being embraced as a whole," says Robin Kane, spokeswoman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Some of the same family members sit on both boards of the company and the Coors Foundation, and the foundation has been a nemesis of the gay and lesbian population through funding of profound radical-right organizations for years."
Sue Anderson, executive director of Equality Colorado (the main group that fought the passage of Amendment 2 in 1992), agrees, saying, "I support the work of the gay and lesbian activists at Coors, but I think there's a lot of unanswered questions about the relationships between the corporation, the foundation and the family."
Joe Fuentes, spokesman for Coors on this issue, says the easy answer to that question is that "Coors Brewing Company and the Adolph Coors Foundation have no affiliation."
That depends on what you mean by "affiliation." The Coors family directs two foundations that share the same $150 million portfolio: The Adolph Coors Foundation funds strictly Colorado-based charities, while the Castle Rock Foundation funds out-of-state interests, including policy institutes. This past year the Coors Foundation gave a total of $6 million to Colorado groups, including Big Brothers and Catholic Charities and Community Services. Castle Rock gave a total of $900,000 in 1994, including $100,000 to the Heritage Foundation and $150,000 to the Free Congress Foundation. Both Heritage and FCF are stridently anti-gay organizations; FCF has been credited with helping nurture the Christian right by disseminating propaganda warning that homosexuality is a threat to everything from children to national security.
Aside from the fact that the chairman and vice-chairman of Coors Brewing also sit on both Coors foundation boards, the two family foundations are partially funded by the dividends from the $12 million of Coors Brewing stock they hold in their portfolios. That investment yielded about $360,000 for the Coors foundations in 1994 alone.
But some gay-rights activists--including the man who founded the Lavender Screen, Howard Tharsling, a stockbrocker with the Progressive Asset Management Investment firm in Oakland, California--think there are other ways to judge companies. Tharsling started and maintains a database on publicly traded companies' stances on gay issues, which he makes available to investors who want their money nurturing gay-friendly companies.
"Are you supposed to look at who owns the company and what they do with their investment income, or do you look at the company itself and what it does as policy?" he says. "Usually you don't even know who owns the company. Coors is just an easy target in this case, because the family owns the controlling stock. What are you going to do with other companies? How are you going to be able to tell if their shareholders are right-wingers?"
Dan Baker, co-author of the new book Cracking the Corporate Closet, has more mixed feelings. The book details the records of 200 companies on gay and lesbian issues. Coors is mentioned, but the authors refuse to make a recommendation, saying instead that "readers will have to weigh the company's recent record against the family's activities and make their own decision."
And if gays are uncertain how to judge Coors, it's also clear that some of Coors's conservative fans will have the same problem. In the past, major corporations like Apple and AT&T have taken heat after taking pro-gay stances. In Apple's case, a small Texas town revoked special tax breaks it was offering corporations that decided to locate plants there because of Apple's domestic-partner benefits. In AT&T's case, the American Family Association (a Christian lobby) and the Christian Coalition were outraged after AT&T courted the gay market by placing ads in gay magazines. Both groups urged followers to cancel subscriptions to AT&T long-distance service and make protest calls. The telephone giant's lines were swamped for months.
"We anticipate there will be some backlash," Joe Fuentes says. "But it's something we needed to do. We think it's the right thing to do."
So does Earl Nissen, a member of the Lesbian and Gay Employee Resource at Coors. LAGER, which was formed in 1993, first proposed the extended benefits to the company's board. Nissen sees its decision as nothing less than a victory. "Coors put a nondiscrimination clause [for gays] in its company policy way back in 1978," Nissen says. "We have a long tradition of supporting gay and lesbian employees. I'd like to see credit given to a company who's a real leader."
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But after hearing the news about Coors's new benefits policy, activists like Dan Baker are still puzzled.
"There just aren't any easy answers," he says. "It's kind of foolish to say that they don't deserve praise--just so you can hate them a little more. That's not helping anybody."
Even Chip Berlet, a senior analyst with Political Research Associates, publishers of The Coors Connection--a 1991 book detailing Coors's financial support of right-wing organizations--admits that the contradictory behavior of the family and company is hard to square. He offers this explanation: "The corporation has joined the twentieth century, but the family's still stuck in the nineteenth."
But Berlet says he's untroubled by that. "If you can't appreciate irony," he says, "you can't report on Coors.