At Pride in the Workplace (PIOW), some of the most common questions we receive are: How can I be a good ally? How can my company be a good ally? How can we do more?
Like everything in business and in life, the answer begins with integrity. In recent weeks, Dylan Mulvaney has been brought into an emotional and politically-charged debate on trans rights. Mulvaney is a social media influencer. She is trans, bubbly, femme, funny, and very excited to bring visibility to each step of her gender transition.
Finding your voice and identity as a trans person right now is very difficult. As our community becomes more visible, individuals can be targeted and placed under a microscope for public scrutiny. Research shows fewer than 1 in 3 adults (29%) personally know someone who is transgender. Many people use their “one-trans-friend” as a barometer for all trans people, which means each trans person can have an outsized impact on how others perceive trans communities.
For Dylan Mulvaney, when you add her 1.8 million instagram followers and 10+ million TikTok followers to the mix, the impact of one’s visibility can extend beyond what we as individuals have traditionally imagined to be possible.
It’s these dynamics that move us to have deep compassion and empathy for Mulvaney during this time in her life.
She gained this following, in part, by sharing the story of her transition through popular daily updates. Mulvaney’s giddy, TikTok-ready persona contributes to the success of her career, as she welcomes millions of viewers to share in the experience of living as her most authentic self. Some criticize her demeanor as one that “stereotypes women,” but it is important to remember that she is just one voice in the trans community, amidst a sea of influencers, including many cisgender women who also make a living sharing their story on social media.
Rightfully, companies have recognized her success, reaching out to establish partnerships and place their products in front of Mulvaney’s engaged audience of potential consumers. Unfortunately, one recent brand relationship has positioned Mulvaney as the latest “it-girl” of targeted anti-trans sentiment.
One such anti-trans response to Bud Light’s campaign came from Kid Rock, who piled onto the “Bud Light boycott” with a video on Twitter that has garnered over 11M views as he used an assault-style rifle to shoot cans of the beverage. His video, which we are not sharing in this post, should be considered in the context of the growing epidemic of gun violence across America and the reality that the transgender community experiences higher rates of violence and discrimination.
Conditional Allyship: Lessons from Bud Light’s Response
As Bud Light came under fire by some for engaging Mulvaney as a spokesperson, it is their response that provides an important lesson for other companies.
Budweiser and Bud Light’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch posted a half-hearted, tonally confusing apology from its CEO, claiming “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.”
The VP of Marketing responsible for the campaign then took a leave of absence from the organization.
We must consider their leadership’s choice to put the marketing VP responsible for including Dylan in the March Madness campaign on leave and to issue this public nothingburger of a statement a full 10 days after the initial backlash.
What does it say about the integrity of a company as it relates to its values, and its allyship with the LGBTQ+ community?
As is the case with many large corporations, Anheuser-Busch received a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index in 2022. The company has supported hundreds of Pride events and local LGBTQIA+ non-profits. Based on its HRC score, one could surmise that the LGBTQ+ staff working for these organizations feel seen, heard, and valued.
What’s interesting is that the company has been here before. Bud Light has a history of including transgender actors in its commercials (2016), and creating custom bottles to benefit GLAAD in celebration of World Pride (2019). Going further to partner with a visible member of the trans community in 2023, at a time of increased anti-trans violence and rhetoric, should only strengthen the company’s commitment to supporting LGBTQ+ communities, right?
We acknowledge that anticipating and responding to community backlash has become a complex environment for organizations to navigate. Companies have become increasingly sensitive to accusations of rainbow-washing, and consumers have grown better equipped to recognize when empty “standing with marginalized communities…” statements lack the actionable policies needed to back up these sentiments.
The core problem: Allyship cannot be conditional, or it is meaningless.
While the LGBTQ+ community is no stranger to pandering – we experience rainbow-washing each June when companies roll out rainbow logos on social media and launch their limited-run Pride collections, often seen in larger retailers – current conversations surrounding Mulvaney’s role in this partnership seem to cut much deeper.
The key difference and a core problem in the case of this Bud Light campaign is that the brand decided to use a transgender person as a marketing tool, only to hang her out to dry at the first sign of public backlash.
Bud Light should have been well aware of the environment in which they were making the decision to include Dylan in their March Madness campaign. With 480+ bills introduced in 2023 that are anti-trans, seeking to block trans people from receiving basic healthcare, education, legal recognition, and the right to publicly exist, this is a time full of dangerous rhetoric threatening the real lives of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues. In a company of their size, they must have the resources to inform them about this community and the challenges they face.
In the harshest light, conditional allyship is no allyship at all. As individuals, when we don’t have the courage to stand our stated ground or position, that lack of character hurts those in our immediate circles. In recent weeks, we have watched the implications of a corporation making a similar mistake play out on a much larger scale.
While individuals and leaders within the company are true allies to and members of the LGBTQ+ community, it currently stands that the brand was ill equipped and irresponsible in its handling of this incident.
Corporate allyship is about integrity.
Some companies like Gillette, Heineken, and Mattel have successfully launched trans-inclusive campaigns. From the perspective of PIOW’s President, Cheryl Katon, “these campaigns exemplified companies being an ally and ‘doing more’ without jeopardizing their integrity. They did not rest on goodwill garnered from years of allyship with the LGBTQIA community, only to jeopardize their credibility by sensationalizing the trans community.”
In the end, the specifics of this Bud Light partnership will fade. It will become another chapter in our journey toward creating a safer, more equitable society for trans folks. Bud Light can choose to prove itself as an LGBTQ+ ally by speaking up for and investing in our community over time, or they can walk back their support of Mulvaney, exposing the performative nature of these campaigns and their prioritization of profits over people. In the interim, the drama stokes the flames. Some may stand to benefit from the fallout surrounding these campaigns, but the ones with the most to lose are everyday trans and non-binary people.
This situation has provided people with anti-trans sentiments new data points to exploit. It means some dad of some trans girl somewhere feels a renewed societal pressure to reject his daughter. And no doubt, many trans people who watch this backlash feel despondent because the world showed itself to be that much more hateful.
How can LGBTQ+ employees working at these companies trust their employer to support them when they are unable to firmly voice their support of their community?
Our recommendations for all organizations:
- It is important to remember that lives are impacted by these campaigns and their collective fallout. If an ad campaign is powerful enough to help a community (and your bottom line) then an ad campaign is equally powerful enough to hurt a community.
- If a backlash happens to your brand’s public displays of LGBTQ+ allyship, remember that the majority of Americans stand with the LGTBQ+ community, a new high of 70% supporting same-sex marriage for example.
- The 8 million employees in the US workforce who identify as LGBTQ+ deserve respect and safety at work. The environment you create, as well as the policies in place to support them, matter. Keep in mind that this point is more than just a recommendation, as it is illegal at the federal level to discriminate against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
As for Dylan, she has already begun to return to social media, and we wish her success and safety.
It is what we wish for all transgender individuals and LGBTQ+ professionals, as we work to make workplaces safe, and more equitable in a world that has much work to do.
We thank Cheryl Katon, Katie Martell, and Carly Davis, each members of the PIOW Team, for their contributions to this article. We also thank Bryan Vermes and Dimitri Makris for additional editing. Browse related posts below for more trans workplace inclusion and allyship best practices.
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