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When June rolled around this year, corporations rushed to proclaim their love for Pride month and LGBTQ rights.
Walmart is currently awash in rainbows: Shoppers can pick up rainbow masks, rainbow balloons, rainbow-hued figurines of “Star Wars” stormtroopers, shirts that read “Be You” beneath—what else?—a rainbow. Wells Fargo offers debit cards in a variety of Pride-themed designs, including one that reads “WE ARE FAMILY” and another striped in the tricolor transgender flag. Other massive companies, like Pfizer and Bank of America, have draped their social media avatars in rainbows.
“We welcome everyone to be their authentic selves—always!” Walmart’s website says on its Pride page.
But a VICE News review of campaign finance records and companies’ political contribution disclosures has found that all of these corporations, as well as a slew of others who proudly trumpet their support for Pride and LGBTQ folks, have recently donated to state legislators who backed bills that target transgender youth.
These donations, some handed out through a complex web of political action committees, arrived after those lawmakers had sponsored the anti-trans legislation. And it wasn’t a close call: In many cases, the donations came months after these anti-trans bills had not only been introduced, but after the bills had died and the state legislatures had closed for the year altogether.
In other words, at the time of their donations, these corporations could have known that their dollars were going into the coffers of people who wanted to curtail the rights of trans people.
Corporations have a history of quietly giving to politicians on both sides of the aisle, including those with a history of opposing LGBTQ rights, and LGBTQ rights advocates have just as long a legacy of calling them out for it. This dynamic can be especially striking at the state level, where businesses tend to primarily give to incumbents, regardless of their political party, said Edwin Bender, former executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which tracks state-level campaign finance records and recently merged with the Center for Responsive Politics.
“They’re not giving to candidates for partisan purposes or ideological purposes. It’s for access,” Bender said. “They’re opening the door so that their lobbyist can go in.”
These donations, some handed out through a complex web of political action committees, arrived after those lawmakers had sponsored the anti-trans legislation.
Yet, particularly in 2021, corporations clearly want credit for supporting LGTBQ rights, at least in principle. This year has seen an unprecedented level of legislative battling over the rights of trans children: State legislators across the country introduced at least 75 bills that would’ve blocked trans youth from participating in sports that match their gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank that tracks public policy that impacts LGBTQ people. These bills became law in eight states. At least 40 more bills would have banned trans kids from accessing gender-affirming health care, although only one state, Arkansas, turned that legislation into law.
In 2020, dozens of legislators in at least 22 states sponsored similar anti-trans legislation. Just one state, Idaho, managed to pass such a law, which blocked trans kids from playing the sports that correspond with their gender identity. But those bills set the stage for the onslaught of anti-trans legislation to come in 2021.
Take AT&T, which sponsored the 2021 New York City Pride March organizers. Earlier this year, the telecommunications giant signed onto an open letter, organized by the Human Rights Campaign and the Freedom for All Americans Education Fund, where more than 130 businesses declared that they are “deeply concerned by the bills being introduced in state houses across the country that single out LGBTQ individuals—many specifically targeting transgender youth—for exclusion or differential treatment.”
But in 2020, AT&T gave money to the political campaigns of at least 16 state legislators who had, by the time of the donations, already sponsored legislation that had done just that.
That money didn’t always come directly from AT&T: Like many corporate behemoths, AT&T tends to give to state-level candidates directly and through an array of political action committees. (AT&T regularly and voluntarily discloses these contributions and its network of committees; not all companies do so, making it difficult to always untangle what, or who, is donating to candidates.) AT&T employees can contribute to those political action committees, whose donation decisions are guided by, as AT&T puts it, “committees comprised of employees across the business.”
The contributions uncovered by VICE News came both from AT&T itself and from the company’s state-level, employee-led political action committees. In total, the corporation gave at least $7,750 to legislators, spread across nine states, who had backed bills that would’ve kicked trans kids out of sports that correspond to their gender identity or banned them from gender-affirming health care.
In 2020, AT&T gave money to the political campaigns of at least 16 state legislators who had, by the time of the donations, already sponsored legislation that had done just that.
“Our employee PACs contribute to policymakers in both major parties, and it will not agree with every PAC dollar recipient on every issue,” an AT&T spokesperson told VICE News in an email. “We’re proud of our corporate value to Stand for Equality and our diverse team of employees, including our LGBTQ+ colleagues. We support the Human Rights Campaign, The Trevor Project and other organizations that advocate for full civil rights protections for the LGBTQ+ community. We also support passage of the Equality Act.”
AT&T gave directly to at least one known anti-trans legislator, who supported the Idaho sports bill that ultimately became law. After VICE News asked about AT&T’s direct political contributions, the spokesperson once again emailed the same statement.
Earlier this month, AT&T announced that it was working with the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, to “#TURNUPTHELOVE for LGBTQ+ youth.” Its Twitter avatar was lassoed by a rainbow.
Verizon, another signatory of the Human Rights Campaign Letter, also recently swapped out its Twitter picture for a rainbow logo. But in 2020, the company directly donated at least $1,500 to two South Carolina legislators who sponsored a bill that would have required student athletes to furnish school administrators with an “original birth certificate issued at the time of birth” in order to play sports. Verizon didn’t respond to a VICE News request for comment.
The Coca-Cola Company, which makes Diet Coke, another sponsor of the New York City Pride March organizers, have also given money to legislators with a track record of sponsoring bills that would’ve curtailed trans kids’ rights. In November 2020, the Coca-Cola Company’s Georgia-based political action committee handed $500 to Rep. Mark Newton, a Republican in Georgia who had sponsored an anti-trans bill introduced that February. Had it passed, the bill would’ve punished doctors who offered gender-affirming health care to minors with up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
In an email, a spokesperson for Coca-Cola confirmed that it had donated to Newton and said that the company’s political donations had been suspended since January “as we further review our giving criteria to ensure it fully aligns with our business purpose and values.”
“We have long supported the LGBTQ community through our actions inside our company and throughout society. That support has not wavered,” the spokesperson said. “We have explicit criteria for our political giving, and we are transparent about how we make our decisions. In the fall of 2020, we updated our political contributions criteria to specify equality and inclusion as one of the aspects we use to evaluate candidates. We call out the LGBTQ community as part of that equality and inclusion criteria. We are also transparent about what we give.”
The Coca-Cola Company has not asked Newton for its money back, the spokesperson confirmed.
Between August and October of last year, Anheuser-Busch donated at least $1,250 to two known anti-trans legislators in Kansas and Washington state.
This year, Anheuser-Busch released a splashy pro-Pride initiative, bragging that the company had received a “perfect 100% score from the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for LGBTQ Equality,” a metric that gauges how well companies treat their LGBTQ employees. Bud Light, an Anheuser-Busch brand, also sponsored the New York City Pride March organizers. But between August and October of last year, Anheuser-Busch donated at least $1,250 to two known anti-trans legislators in Kansas and Washington state.
A third donation, for $250, to New Hampshire Republican Rep. Regina Birdsell in August 2020, was also attributed to Anheuser-Busch in campaign finance records viewed by VICE News, although the address listed on records belongs to a local Anheuser-Busch brewery. That donation arrived in Birdsell’s pocket months after she sponsored a bill that could exclude trans girls from women’s sports teams. If an athlete’s gender was “disputed,” that bill could have required an athlete to show a doctor’s note detailing her “internal and external reproductive anatomy,” among other characteristics.
Anheuser-Busch didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Many of the companies who gave to anti-trans legislators often did it more than once.
Sometimes, the donations to anti-trans legislators appeared to be one-offs, like in the case of Coca-Cola or Lyft. The latter company, which both signed the letter and is a sponsor of the New York City Pride parade, also gave $1,000 to Birdsell. (It’s unclear if the donation came directly from Lyft or from a political action committee; the address listed on campaign documents matched an address associated with Lyft, Inc. in Federal Election Commission records.) Lyft didn’t reply to a request for comment.
But many of the companies who gave to anti-trans legislators often did it more than once. Comcast and its subsidiary, NBC Universal, have launched a comprehensive initiative to celebrate Pride this month, complete with a slate of LGBTQ programming and an extravaganza for employees that the company has dubbed “virtual ‘Pride World,’ where we will feature events, Pride floats, Pride flags, and even a Pronoun Guide for employees.”
But Comcast has donated at least $3,850 to eight legislators who, at the time of the donations, had recently sponsored anti-trans bills across six states. These donations sometimes came from its Comcast Corporation and NBCUniversal Political Action Committee, while others were attributed to entities like “Comcast Financial Agency Corporation” and “Comcast Corporation.” Comcast has included contributions from these groups in past documents about political donations. (Comcast didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Walmart, meanwhile, donated at least $3,500 to five legislators after they had introduced anti-trans legislation in four states. While Walmart doesn’t publicly disclose its contributions to political candidates, a spokesperson confirmed that all of the company’s giving is done through WALPAC, its political action committee. The spokesperson also confirmed that WALPAC had donated to the candidates, telling VICE News in an email, “Our political contributions do not mean we support every view of an elected official. We adjust our political giving strategy every election cycle and that is ongoing.”
Bank of America, which maintains a number of political action committees funded by employees’ donations, gave at least $1,250 to three South Carolina legislators who had signed onto the same anti-trans bill backed by the lawmakers who received money from Verizon. One of these donations was attributed to one of Bank of America’s political action committees on campaign records, while two were credited to “Bank of America Corporation.” The address associated with those donations matched the political action committee’s. (Bank of America didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Of the corporations surveyed by VICE News, Pfizer may have given the most widely to known anti-trans state legislators, donating at least $9,300 to 28 such lawmakers across nine states. (The company also gave another $1,000 to one of those legislators, a New Hampshire Republican who also sponsored Birdsell’s bill, just two days after it was introduced.) Based on campaign finance records, donations appear to come from both Pfizer Inc.—that is, the corporation—and Pfizer’s political action committee; in its own disclosures, Pfizer acknowledged both sources of money but didn’t clearly delineate which candidates got money from where.
Of the corporations surveyed by VICE News, Pfizer may have given the most widely to known anti-trans state legislators, donating at least $9,300 to 28 such lawmakers across nine states.
On June 1, less than eight months after the last of its donations to anti-trans lawmakers, Pfizer released a lengthy video in honor of Pride month—complete with employees introducing themselves using their pronouns and a commitment to “affirm every way people may choose to identify.”
Pfizer didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Wells Fargo also gave expansively to anti-trans legislators, with donations of at least $5,500 to 15 such legislators in four states. In early June, the bank tweeted about how “Pride is a time of celebration, reflection, visibility, and affirmation for the LGBTQ community.”
“Since the beginning of this year, the Wells Fargo Political Action Committee has paused contributions to all lawmakers and is currently reviewing its strategy,” a Wells Fargo spokesperson said in an email.
Most of Well Fargo’s donations were made in late summer and early fall 2020 to Colorado legislators who, just months earlier, had sponsored a bill that would’ve made providing gender-affirming health care a class C felony. The bill dismisses that health care as “mutilation and sterilization.”
“Their issues are bottom-line profits, regulations, taxes,” Bender said of corporations. “All the other stuff would be superfluous to them, to some extent.”
He added, “They’re looking at, ‘How do we make sure we have a seat at the table?’”