This holiday season, Wal-Mart faces a boycott. To most Yalies, this is hardly controversial: Our idealistic ivory-tower classmates are rarely enchanted with union-busting, health-care-withholding corporate mega-chains. But this latest criticism comes not from liberal activists, but from evangelical Christians. Their complaint? Wal-Mart is cooperating with homosexuals to further the “gay agenda.”
On Aug. 21, the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce announced that the world’s largest retailer had joined a long list of corporate partners, all pledging to include LGBT-owned businesses on their supply radar. Evidently anxious about the response in the Bible belt, Wal-Mart kept the deal quiet and let the NLGCC announce the partnership. A sneaky move, but insufficient to evade the alert snouts of anti-gay Christian watchdogs.
The most vocal of these is Don Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association. This group launched an e-mail campaign, spamming 3 million supporters and urging a boycott on holiday shopping at Wal-Mart. The company should be punished, apparently, for daring to suggest that the “homosexual agenda” is worthy of support.
What precisely is the “homosexual agenda?”
Judging by most gay people I know, I’d say their only real “agenda” is to live a normal life, and perhaps escape persecution by spiteful bigots. I sense this is not the agenda to which Wildmon refers.
So what is it? According to a sinister book titled “The Gay Agenda” by Pastor Ronnie Floyd, the problem is that homosexuality threatens the “traditional family.” Our families are under attack, he suggests, and a return to a traditional family values — with attendant far-right ideological baggage, of course — will set society right.
What rubbish. Even if we arbitrarily anoint the “traditional family” as ideal, it’s still unclear how the presence of homosexuals in society threatens any individual instance of it. Such a premise depends upon a delirious and totally fictitious characterization of gays as depraved, Constitution-shredding bogeymen with a diet rich in moral fiber. If roving gangs of homosexuals stalked the land devouring families, I might sympathize.
They don’t. I can’t. Back to Wal-Mart.
In hopes of comprehending the boycotters’ anger, I queried the issue online. A rash of hits led to the popular conservative news site “WorldNetDaily,” whose intensive coverage of this matter (which ran alongside articles titled “Mommy, there’s a liberal under my bed” and “Corporate America snuggles up to gays”) includes the story of Janet Baird, a longtime Wal-Mart employee.
Janet worked at Wal-Mart for 14 years, a job she described as “a ministry given to me by God Himself to help His people in need.” She quit instantly when she learned the company was negotiating with homosexuals, and overnight began picketing her Ohio store entrance and urging a boycott. She described this activity as bringing “the Gospel of Christ to the very gates of Hell.” Her stance? Sam Walton “loved God,” but “the store he began does not.”
So, to clarify: A company agrees to consider goods produced by gay-run businesses, and suddenly it’s transformed from God’s ministry into the seat of Satan. Both seem like strong reactions to a retail outlet. Of course, I was also unaware that big-box stores were capable of loving God. I have much to learn.
In the wild eyes of fanatical Bible-thumpers, dealing with homosexuals is Wal-Mart’s third misstep this year. First, the company neglected to acknowledge Christmas in its catalog, referring instead only to a nondescript “Holiday” season. This predictably whipped Christian activists to a fury. Next, the store agreed to sell “Brokeback Mountain” on DVD. That heartwarming tale of two strapping ranchers finding love in a rain-pattered tent evidently hit too close to home for heartland tough-guys and drew heavy fire as well. The store recently buckled and returned “Christmas” to its vocabulary, but on the other two has thus far stood firm.
The Wal-Mart-NGLCC partnership isn’t about God, Hell or preserving the family; it’s about money. Facing waning sales, the company hoped to boost its customer base and combat its stigma in the gay community. They have done this before, partnering with Hispanic and other groups in hopes of fostering a community-friendly image. Usually, no one much cares.
But given the furious backlash from their bedrock Christian clientele, one does wonder why they don’t just renege. After all, it’s unlikely that the gay community — traditionally liberal and thus hardly enamored with Wal-Mart on any front — will suddenly embrace the chain, and if Don Wildmon and his wild minions succeed, the company could take a major financial hit. It will be interesting to see what happens after Thanksgiving, when the boycott officially kicks in.
The evangelical right continues to rejoice in backward parochialism and institutionalized bigotry. The need to satisfy their interests imposes sharp constraints on political parties and businesses alike. That the world’s largest retailer has stood up to this so far is encouraging.
Let’s hope it lasts.
Michael Seringhaus is a sixth-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.