Business Finance

Levi Strauss Wears Equality Well

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jul 19, 2013

What company is the most gay friendly and best on LGBT issues?

Posing such a question is probably silly. Equal rights, after all, is not a beauty contest. As more and more companies qualify for the Human Rights Campaign's perfect 100 Workplace Equality scorecard, why bother singling out one company as better than the others?

That said, many if pressed, I have a feeling, would agree with the blogger known as JoeMyGod, as he has called Levi Strauss "the strongest corporate supporter of LGBT rights."

It makes sense for Levi Strauss to be in the front of LGBT rights. Few brands are as closely associated with gay men and lesbians as Levi jeans. A "Levi's bar" is a step below a leather hangout. The company has always been headquartered in San Francisco, where gay rights come as naturally to corporations as, well, as the lack of them in some other cities.

But it's also true that there are many companies that are closely identified with gay men or lesbians (or, as is the case with Levi's, both). Many Fortune 500 marketers are terrified lest their brands be marked as too gay. The normally snarky gossip website Gawker put it very well: "Yes, gay people buy a lot of jeans, but there's more to it than that. It's somehow comforting to live in a world the most standard, default maker of plain old jeans is vocally supportive of gay rights."

Then again, Levi jeans have always been emblematic of society's rebels. That was hardly the aim when Mr. Levi Strauss himself made a discovery that would end up being worth more than all the gold discovered by the prospectors he was outfitting. Strauss was part of the horde of men that descended on Northern California during the 1879 Gold Rush. He put rivets in trousers and used denim, which enabled them to withstand the hard workout the "49ers" gave them.

Like many of the miners he outfitted, Strauss put his roots down in Northern California. The company has grown to become the largest clothing manufacturer in the world.

As for LGBT rights, it might be easier to detail what the company does not do.

Everything Done Right

Workplace-wise, the company does everything it is supposed to -- and more. It was the first Fortune 500 company to offers equal health benefits to partners of unmarried employees.

The company really does put its money where its mouth is. Only recently, it began a program called "Pioneers in Justice," a Levi Strauss Foundation initiative that brings together next-generation leaders who are poised to shape the next wave of social justice work. It has put LGBT, progressive and AIDS causes into its corporate DNA.

Even a very partial list of organizations that regularly receive its support reads like a catalog of familiar names. For example, there’s the Hetrick Martin Institute, the oldest organization in the country to serve LGBT at-risk youth. Based in New York City, Hetrick-Martin began the Milk School, which remains the only accredited public secondary school in the world specifically targeted to LGBT youth.

Levi Strauss was one of the first -- actually, the first -- major company to self-identify with the fight against AIDS. It seems hard to believe any company would have been willing to come forward in 1982, only the second year into an epidemic that was then limited in the public’s mind to gay men. In the ensuing 31 years, Levi Strauss has donated $45 million to AIDS service organizations.

The company has a worldwide program to educate employees in more than 40 countries about how to prevent HIV. The company even gives its employees a paid day off to volunteer with local AIDS charities.

Groups that receive donations include ones in far-off places. For example, there’s AIDS Care China, which advocates with that country’s public health bureaucracy to address the stigma and discrimination against people with HIV.

The company is equally giving when it comes to LGBT groups, both local (such as the San Francisco LGBT Center) and national. Last year, it partnered (again; hardly the first time) with the Human Rights Campaign. Levi Strauss had created displays for its flagship New York stores the year before when the state’s legislature was debating marriage equality.

This time around, Levi Strauss released T-shirts with designs taken from the window design. That wasn’t the first time Levi’s outfitted mannequins in marriage-advocacy attire. In 2009, the company eagerly worked white knots in its outfits as part of the White Knots campaign.

The year before that, Levi Strauss was prominent among California companies opposing Proposition 8, which it backed up with sizable donations. Not surprisingly, Levi Strauss signed onto the amicus brief in the landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.

Most significant, however, is where the company has chosen not to put its money. Way, way back in 1992, Levi Strauss stuck its collective neck way, way out when it decided to end all funding for the Boy Scouts of America in response to its anti-gay policies.

In response several right-wing activists urged a boycott of Levi Strauss’s products. Siding with LGBT consumers was not only the right thing to do, but also it may have made good business sense, as the New York Times and other pointed out. Typical was this response on ultra-right wing blog site
Freerepublic: "I haven’t owned Levi’s in years, but I wish I was a customer so I could boycott them!"

Marketing to gay consumers would seem to come naturally to the brand synonymous with long pants in the gay universe. And yes, Levi’s signed on as one of the first big advertisers when the Logo network was getting started. It also became involved in the marketing of the film "Milk," about a local hero who has become an icon of our movement. The company’s gay-oriented ads won it a special award from GLAAD.

"We always try to connect to the energy and events of our time," Erica Archambault, the director of brand marketing and public relations, said when "Milk" was released. "What’s the pioneering spirit of today? A lot of people are rallying around marriage equality and fighting for that and so many individuals within our company feel so strongly about it."

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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