After decades in pursuit of significant forward movement for gay rights, we have witnessed history with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and the near-universal celebration that followed. Years of embattled legal cases, ballot initiatives and bitter rhetoric could not have prepared us for the outpouring of heartfelt support and celebration. We have seen the emergence of ubiquitous flags and hashtags from our friends, families and colleagues – and major American companies. 

In 1989, ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s became one of the first major national brands to extend insurance benefits to the same-sex partners of employees. In 1992, Lotus Development Corporation, a maker of electronic spreadsheets, became the first publicly-traded company to do so. This was at the height of the AIDS epidemic – a time when there were no effective HIV treatments. Death tolls in the gay population were high and the expense associated with end of life care was enormous. It was a counterintuitive thing to do. At the time only a few dozen companies in the United States had similar policies. 


The pathway to marriage rights for the LGBT community has been both long and difficult. But by time it was finally achieved, corporate support was much wider and deeper than the few brave companies in the decades preceding. The number of amicus (friend of the court) briefs filed with the Supreme Court over the same-sex marriage decision set a new record and included 370 businesses - many in the Fortune 500. In the wake of the decision we saw major companies sending message of support and even some like the San Francisco Giants and AT&T “rainbow-izing” their logos as well.   

What has this corporate involvement meant? One could argue it’s finally added the mainstream, moderate voice that has been needed. Who is better than corporate America at looking at the world, seeing the new reality, and adjusting accordingly? Demographics and social momentum are certainly lapping at the door of entrenched social discussions, and when companies take a hard stand – as they are also doing on issues of race and the confederate flag – they are truly capable of accelerating progress. One need look no further than the gay backlash in Indiana and Arkansas that was stopped cold once corporate America said “enough.”    

That said – corporate America should not consider this book closed. Supreme Court decisions do not mark the end of most battles. In many respects, they are the beginning. In 1954, when Brown v. the Board of Education ended separate schools for the races, the practice of segregation did not end. While marriage rights have been recognized for the LGBT community, there are clearly challenges ahead.   

A major piece of unfinished business is the fact that there is no federal statute to offer anti-discrimination protection to the LGBT community. For two decades the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has come before the Congress session after session and lost.   

And at the state level with the marriage issue won, we now face the cruel irony that for many the freedom to marry in a state without legal protections for you could result in being discharged from a job or kicked out of a home. Moreover, many in state legislatures will continue to seek legislative means for carving out exceptions to marriage.  

Ironically, many of the company’s amicus briefs with the Supreme Court have headquarters located in the states where there are no protections and in states where there are efforts to undermine equality.

The next chapter in the fight for equality may truly reveal which companies are serious about supporting LGBT progress, and which are only seeking the benefit of being wrapped in a rainbow flag. NGOs, activists and shareholders have come to quickly see through “greenwashing”, environmental programs that are just for show or marketing purposes. So major companies must understand that taking a stand for LGBT rights must be done authentically – and comprehensively. 

For those who have been in these trenches for decades, we truly welcome the company. The evidence is clear that in partnership we win. And while we celebrate the moment, we know that the fight for LGBT rights is more than a cause celeb or a marketing opportunity. Corporations who truly care about achieving respect and equality for their employees and their customers will continue to be critical partners as we move on to the next challenge. Serious corporate leaders who wish to be credible beyond “gaywashing” should immediately work toward the enactment of ENDA.

Sheridan is founder of  The Sheridan Group, and has worked on using policy and public-private partnerships to shape social issues for over 25 years.