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Corporate sponsorship of gay pride parades on the rise

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Friday, June 27, 2014 - 8:57 am

SALT LAKE CITY — In between muscular men in speedos gyrating to thumping dance music and drag queens decked out in formal gowns, Salt Lake City's gay pride parade also featured a few, more conventional participants: Some of America's most well-known companies.

From Starbucks to eBay to Macy's, the increasing visibility of corporations at the parade in Utah and at others across the country in recent years comes as same-sex marriage bans fall in the courts and polls show greater public acceptance of gay marriage.

In that climate, companies are finding that the benefits of sponsorship outweigh the risks of staying away, giving them a chance to make a statement in support of diversity and use it to help recruit and retain top talent who want to work for a business that supports LGBT rights.

"We understand there are people who might have different points of view on that," said spokesman Michael Palese at Chrysler, which has been a sponsor of the Motor City Pride Festival and Parade in Detroit, Michigan, for years and became a primary backer this spring.

"We respect their point of view as long as they respect ours," Palese said.

This weekend, some of the largest gay pride events are scheduled, including ones in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. They come just days after a federal appeals court ruled for the first time that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry.

At many companies, support for pride parades and festivals is being fueled by internal Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender councils who are given small budgets and freedom to spend that money where they choose.

The continued transformation of the parades from small, defiant, sexually daring protests to family-friendly, mainstream celebrations has been on full display this summer as new companies join businesses that have been supporting the cause for years.

In Salt Lake City, American Express Co. workers carried giant letters that spelled, "Love=Love," the theme of the parade. JPMorgan Chase marchers wore T-shirts that said, "just be you." A Budweiser's semi-truck festooned with rainbow flags drove slowly through the parade, honking its horns.

At the 43rd Motor City Pride Festival in Detroit, banners were adorned with corporate logos, including those of General Motors, Ford, Comerica bank, Kroger and Whole Foods Market. Delta Air Lines employees handed out day packs, luggage tags and the same cookies that passengers get.

"They're recognizing that there's a loyal, reliable customer base," said Gregory Varnum of Equality Michigan, a group leading the fight for same-sex marriage rights in the state. "Advertising to the LGBT community is working. They wouldn't keep coming if it wasn't working."

The purchasing power of the U.S. gay and lesbian population was estimated to be $830 billion last year, up from $610 billion in 2005, according to a study by Witeck-Combs Communications, a marketing firm specializing in the gay marketplace.

Some years ago, Ford resisted a pushback from the American Family Association against its support of gay groups, Varnum said.

There have been no reports of organized boycotts against companies. Overstock.com, which was a first-time sponsor with a float in the Utah parade this year, has seen a bit of criticism in Facebook posts but no coordinated boycott, said Stormy Simon, the company president.

"It was important for us to show the support in the civil rights movement that every person is equal," Simon said.

The number of corporate sponsors and cash donations has doubled in the last seven years for the Utah festival. This year, cash donations reached $97,300, with much of that coming from 36 corporate donors, said Jen Parsons Soran, sponsorship director for the Utah Pride Festival.

In Boston, more businesses sponsor each year, leading to $143,000 in cash donations this year, a rise over recent years, but still less than the $186,000 in 2004, when there were fewer sponsors but larger donations, said Sylvain Bruni of Boston Pride, a group that organizes the parade.

TD Bank has been sponsoring gay pride parades and festivals in various cities since 2009. The company said it spends nearly $1 million annually on LGBT events and initiatives in the U.S. and Canada. This year, the company is sponsoring 20 gay pride parades.

"Having corporate sponsors out there at the forefront and seeing them provides greater opportunity and visibility to get the message out that it's OK to be gay," said Robert Pompey, a senior vice president and co-chair of TD Bank's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Allies panel.

Wal-Mart is joining in, too, sponsoring the New York parade — a decision made by stores in New Jersey, said spokesman Randy Hargrove.

The uptick in support comes as corporations increasingly display their backing for gay rights on social media and in ad campaigns.

Marriott International put pictures of well-known LGBT spokespeople wrapped around hotels in its #LoveTravels campaign. Macy's is selling T-shirts, hats and accessories with the slogan, "I stand on the right side of history" with sales going to help make gay marriage legal.

Some long-time festival-goers have bristled at how mainstream and corporate the parades have become, but Nick Morris of Utah said he welcomed them because the corporations are showing acceptance of the gay community.

"We need to be open and willing to accept them as they've accepted us," he said.