When Bar Is Exceptionally Low, Lots of Companies Are Gay-Friendly, Reports Corporate Equality Index

Every year, the Human Rights Campaign rates American corporations on how they treat their LGBT employees. On the face of it, American corporations seem to have the public sector beat. After all, in 29 states companies can fire or refuse to hire someone for sexual orientation and/or gender identity, perceived or otherwise. Yet corporations, even those with offices and locations in those 29 states, are taking the reins and developing policies that prohibit this kind of discrimination. So is Corporate America more progressive than the American government? That’s what the numbers seem to say.


Based on the HRC Corporate Equality Index, there’s been a drastic improvement since the first survey in 2002 – in the inaugural year, only 13 businesses scored 100 percent. This year a record-breaking 304 corporations earned that “perfect” score. That seems, well, really high. So given how high that number is, what exactly are the criteria were that a corporation had to meet to score a 100?




Obviously, one survey can not and should not encompass everything to everyone. Rarely is data itself problematic; data is data, as long as the way it was obtained is methodologically sound. What can be problematic is how it’s interpreted, especially if (when; we’re all human) the people doing the interpreting bring their own values to the table. The data and interpretation are different; one might be solid while the other might be flawed. That said, let’s look at what’s going on with this index:

  • The idea that these vital components can be weighted is nuts – who’s to say that one criterion is worth 15 points where another one is worth 10? Especially when one of the items worth ten points is trans * inclusive health care and the HRC has come under fire for not representing trans * and minority interests? We have to go into these numbers accepting that the weight we personally assign to each of these may be different than those who created the survey.
  • Under criterion 2, the one all about benefits – good benefits are how companies retain their most talented employees. Frankly, corporations would be crazy not to extend these benefits to as many employees as possible, because that makes it very easy for employees to be scouted into other positions. Though same-sex partner benefits are very important, they are also a bit self-serving. That’s just something to keep in mind – you can be fine with that or not, that’s all you. But just know that it is to a company’s benefit to treat LGBT employees equally in this respect, and so using it as evidence of their ethical superiority may not be logical.
  • Under criterion 3, organizational LGBT competency, a corporation must have at least 3 of those bullet points to garner the ten points.  That’s a pretty darn low bar. Especially when one considers that the first bullet point is that workers must be aware of LGBT inclusive policies, which is a pretty basic everyday facet of an office. Like, the only way this could be considered a high bar is if we’re talking about limbo.
  • Under criterion 4, Public Commitment, advertising to the LGBT audience is considered the same as philanthropic support. While acknowledging LGBT community members in advertisement increases visibility and is important in some ways, those two things don’t necessarily seem to be on the same level.
  • Who decides what is a large-scale or official anti-LGBT blemish, as stated under criterion 5? Because that seems really subjective, even with the guidelines laid out. Does it include political donations to anti-gay candidates? What about employee donations to the Salvation Army that the corporation matches? How public does the blemish have to be before it’s enough to lose a corporation 25 points?
  • Wal-Mart not only made this list, they got an 80 out of 100. For many of us, any index that includes Wal-Mart and suggests it’s a good place to work for anyone, LGBT employees included, is immediately called into question. Wal-Mart’s businesses practices are terrible – and because it’s the world’s largest company, they hold the market share on employees and employee treatment. The things Wal-Mart does affects America’s corporate climate as a whole. And they’re doing really terrible things, things that also deeply affect their employees, who are often women, of color, and poor. Perhaps the HRC has some explanation that accounts for these things, and that talks about Wal-Mart’s treatment of gay employees while acknowledging their overall problematic stance? Oh wait, let’s look at this statement from Dina Fidas, director of HRC’s Workplace Equality Program:

 “There is no more succinct way to say we have arrived than the Walmart story.”

The story to which Fidas is referring is Walmart beginning to offer partner benefits to same-sex couples. That’s the whole story. That bar is so low, it’s underground.

This point of view from HRC doesn’t work for a few reasons. Wal-Mart participates in many kinds of discrimination. And they have been called out publicly for it. HRC has been consistently criticized for its lack of engagement with intersectionality, and this is an example of why; Wal-Mart offering partner benefits to a gay employee won’t mean very much if that employee is also denied access to a promotion because they’re a woman of color, denied the option to work full-time so they can’t get benefits in the first place to support their family, and have to work two other jobs because they can’t live on what Wal-Mart pays them. It’s alarming that HRC doesn’t acknowledge this in what is meant to be a comprehensive report on corporate ethics. Cracker Barrel is another that made the list but in reality isn’t doing a wonderful job. The bottom line is though numbers are helpful and national policies can mean local change, that’s not always the case. When you’re looking into corporate culture, there are so many details that have to be considered. Yes, there’s a non-discrimination policy in place, but is it enforced? How about relations between co-workers – is harassment ignored? Do non-normative queer people get passed over for better assignments because they’re not invited to play golf? What is it actually like to exist in that environment? Numbers can’t always paint that picture for us, and neither can over-arching policies.

Ultimately, it seems that this survey is literally measuring the bare minimum of corporate responsibility to queer employees, and that it seems to be ignoring intersectionality. These criteria forget that gay people can also be women, people of color, gender nonconforming, working-class, or all of these, and that more goes into making equality than offering partner benefits to same-sex couples (though that is really important). But does that mean the numbers are meaningless and should be discounted?

Not entirely.

First off, seeing the trend over time does indicate progress, even if it’s slogging progress towards the absolute tiniest minimum of equality. And it does indicate that if we set new goals and work toward them as doggedly and with as many resources as we’ve worked on equality up until this point, then maybe in 15 or 20 years, we’ll have a new bare minimum. And if you are looking for a place to start a conversation about workplace environment for LGBT employees, then the Corporate Equality Index and the accompanying database is a good place to start, just not a good place to finish. And that’s okay. One thing can’t be everything to everyone. But let’s all push our understanding when confronted with numbers like this, and let’s all push our workplaces to be even better at treating their employees equally.

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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.


  1. Thank you for not giving the HRC another PR blurb. Yes, this list has always had a lot of problematic issues surrounding it. The information is basically supplied by HR Departments. Hello… what’s wrong with this picture? Moreover, it never addresses the issue of whether the company actually hires trans or gender variant people or not (isn’t that kind of a core question?) It’s easy to theoretically bestow benefits but if there aren’t any employees falling under that category to receive them, then what does it mean? Sad to say these days, most large corporations have become far more sophisticated about their practiced discrimination. They know how once someone is hired, certain acts of discrimination must be handled with a kid glove using the proper language and timing. But when persons (for instance) who are trans or gender variant and applying for a position, it’s relatively easy to not hire them so long as certain “normalizing” language is used. Moreover, none of this applies to the rapidly growing population of freelancers and supposedly temporary workers (who are doing the same work as fulltime-perm staff), the largest growing part of the workforce, who pretty much have zero protections. And honestly, who cares if Chevron gets a 100 score… that means we’re supposed to ignore the garbage they render unto the world because they’ve got a pinkwashed HRC score?

  2. as you know ali my #1 feeling about this situation is WAL-MART ARE YOU KIDDING ME? WAL-MART? The only list Wal-Mart belongs on is the list of places that fucking suck.

    • If any good is to come from Amazon’s creepy Dr. Octocopters, ’twill be the loosening of Walmart’s stranglehold on the U.S. retail market.

      Also, after thinking about them some more, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’d seem a lot less threatening were they to undergo a bit of a makeover so as to look like the cute little alien robots from *batteries not included. Who’s with me?

  3. I have noticed (just my personal observation) that gay white females are usually not discriminated against at the corporate workplace. Most in this demographic usually rise to executive positions. What I have noticed is that the people who experience the most discrimination are gay males of every race and to some extent minority lgbt women.

    • I would disagree strongly, both anecdotally/personal observation and statistically — white gay men do much better across the board in all measures of economic success, including status positions at work, than gay women or gay people of color. There are high-ranking white gay men in some of the largest most successful companies in this country (including the CEO of Apple!).

      • My point is that there are groups within lgbt that are discriminated against more so than others. My personal observation (“personal” being the key word here) has been that white gay females rise to the top at quicker levels. You’ll see white gay females who hold prominent positions in academia, the legal and marketing fields, whereas that doesn’t necessarily hold true for other groups – especially those of “color” within lgbt.

    • I volunteer with an LGBTQ legal helpline. We get a lot of employment discrimination calls, even in this liberal area. Based on experience with those I would say that white lesbians are definitely not immune from employment discrimination (nor is any other LGBTQ subgroup).

    • “and to some extent minority lgbt women”… I have no idea what group you’re even talking about here. Trans women of any color and, specifically trans women of color have a way, way, way higher history of unemployment (and just plain being outside the mainstream job market) than other lgb women. Gay men have been/are presidents and high level executives of many companies. Wanna show me one with a trans CEO? (okay, Good Vibrations… a small company) Let’s not use LGBT in some blanket way which just obfuscates the real issues of unemployment which overwhelmingly have to do with gender identity/expression, class, able-bodiedness and race.

      • I agree that the trans demographic is discriminated against in huge ways. But I wasn’t really referring to who is discriminated against, but who is discriminated less. Like I said, it’s based on my personal observation.

    • Two words: glass ceiling. So, taking into consideration intersectionality, saying that “gay white females are usually not discriminated against at the corporate workplace” and that “the people who experience the most discrimination are gay males of every race and to some extent minority LGBT women” is just plain completely inaccurate.
      The lowest earning demographics in the US by far are LatinAs and Native women. White women make more than black/Latin/Native men on average, but less than white men. Studies, man. Studies.

    • *blink* well, this is why anecdotes don’t mean anything to the world at large. And why we have sociologists. Thanks, sociologists for your statistics!

  4. I may or may not be a person who contributed to this index almost in its entirety one year in the past 5 years. first, let me say that i’m an avid autostraddle reader and since leaving HRC, i have become a self-identified radical queer who believes strongly in the importance of lgbtqia initiatives outside of marriage equality. i am the true comeback kid – i came into the org a “straight” self-proclaimed “fag hag” ignorant ally (“whats trans???”) and left the org an angry, raging, uber informed queer.

    i don’t support hrc through monetary donations and i don’t hesitate to talk about my issues with them. however, i hope you can sympathize with me in keeping my anonymity, because as many of you probably are dealing with as well, i am unemployed with a liberal arts degree, and at this early of a stage in my career, i don’t want to sour my reputation with the little references i have, and in my paranoid mind, writing on a queer website publicly could do that- humor my paranoia, please.

    having said that, i didn’t come here to apologize for anything the CEI does or writes. i only came here to give my two cents about an organization and initiative which i took a large part it.

    *i’d like to note the cover page of the publication itself. the cei makes itself very clear, as does HRC, that it is not intersectional. it rates a company on its LGBT policy initiatives- so specifically, rating a company based on the measures they have protecting and benefiting their employees. this does not talk about living wages, working conditions, union rules, etc- simply, the things which *supposedly* LGBT employees are concerned about. one thing i like to point out to a lot of my queer friends who bash HRC is that HRC never has and never will be and also never claims to be a group promoting anything else but simply LGBT rights. its located in DC, a gay men’s mecca, and caters to the group of people who are gonna give them the most money- people who often are *suprise suprise* gay white men. also, you have to think about the people they are lobbying to. unlike other more progressive LGBTQ groups, HRC is trying to get a group of people involved in an initiative through convincing them “we’re just like you!”, and unfortunately queer cis women of color, trans women and trans men who are impoverished or homeless or maybe just don’t own a house in the hamptons with two beautiful babies “don’t look good” in the eyes of a republican politician who might be willing to get him and his rich friends to shell out some dough. white people. white people everywhere in the organization.
    *know that the policies outlined apply to not only laborers on the lower end of the totem pole, but to the corporate employees as well. these policies are blanket policies. so, while a minimum wage worker at walmart may not be worrying about the trans* health coverage walmart provides for them because they don’t even work enough/have enough benefits for basic coverage, someone in the corporate sector who does have the money and the benefits might greatly appreciate knowing that an option exists for them.
    *the methodology for this index has changed in a positive way to be trans inclusive- to the extent, with most options, that sexual orientation and gender identity are coupled and cannot stand on their own. To be highlighted as “in the green” you have to score an 80 or above. so, for example, if you refuse to meet the trans health requirements and don’t include gender identity in your EEO, but support everything else, you’re automatically down to a 75, which means that you will be seen as “in the yellow” in the buyers guide- which is the useful part of the cei, telling you places which are and are not LGBT inclusive.
    *additionally, HRC is giving none of their endorsement to these companies. this is not an “HRC approved” index. so if you don’t include a trans EEO statement or trans benefits but you’re still rated, HRC isn’t endorsing you. to even be a sponsor, to donate money as a company to HRC, you have to be a rated company with 85 or higher.
    *diversity and competency training has to be trans inclusive
    *the public blemish section has actually been used to the advantage of HRC to tell companies that we will call them out. for example, in my research once i found a GIANT donation to some random anti-gay pac from a really big company who was already teetering on the line between acceptable and not acceptable. my boss took it into her next meeting, told them we were gonna make a huge statement and they added policies they hadn’t planned on implementing- yes, HRC and gay men have that much power
    *alllll of this is backed up by documentation which has to be supported by practice. so for that instance i just discussed, its not like that company could just “say” they were going to stop giving money, it had to be written in a statement, their policies had to be verified by the HR department and they sign a contract saying that if we found out through any avenue that we could sue them/revoke their names from our database/a lot of other legal crap i couldn’t understand
    *also, employees at any time could blow the whistle on companies. if somebody worked at a company and they were found to be discriminated or that the policies weren’t being followed, we could take away our rating.

    that’s about all i’ve got so far. feel free to ask me questions too. once again, i’m not advocating for HRC, i’m not sympathizing, and my current partner and i have definitely been included in the group of people who HRC has completely overlooked and thus set us back. i don’t plan on working their again and i definitely won’t give money to the cause. i feel comfortable calling them out and i do, but i just wanted to shed some light on the CEI. when you look at all of the things HRC does, i think the CEI is an important initiative they have, specifically for people living in states which may not have non-discrimination workplace policies; that way, they can see companies which do and choose to work in a place which promotes tolerance outside of state policies. many programs in the foundation, one of three parts that makes up HRC, are often overlooked; welcoming schools, faith based initiatives, HBCU leadership seminars; the HEI, elderly LGBT projects are all examples.

    if you dont like HRC and are making a monetary donation monthly, consider giving it to other causes which directly benefit more needy persons in the community. the transadvocate is having a 12 days of giving thing this month where they spotlight small trans non-profits with good reputations. i think its important to call out and try to change lgbt non-profits like HRC, but i think at the same time we can also support and give to ones we agree with so that we are always helping the community.

    • Thank you! Both the article and this comment were really informative and balanced. What gives me pause is the mention that HRC will only take corporate sponsorship from companies scoring 85 or above.
      I can see that it might be problematic for HRC to have its name associated with companies which are known for acting contrary to LGBT interest — or there might be a worry that other companies could rely on their sponsorship of HRC for good PR, but do little in the way of action to improve their LGBT employees’ work environment.
      But — couldn’t this also provide a financial incentive for HRC to inflate the scores? Or, if not inflating in individual cases, to score on a really generous curve?

      • Yes, this is definitely something which I was never told “explicitly” was happening but always assumed. Most of my role was reaching out to companies which either hadn’t responded, weren’t typically rated well or were having trouble filling out their surveys. However, my boss worked directly with a lot of companies I didn’t, companies who I never was supposed to call (scared of an intern much?) or communicate with. These companies were always companies which were sponsors and/or rated at 85 or higher. Correlation? That’s kind of what I got from it.

    • Thanks for providing this information. I hope in the future the HRC bumps up what’s required to maintain an 80 score so we can keep improving.

    • Thanks for this perspective!

      I would add, maybe, because I’ve been thinking about this a lot since reading this post yesterday actually, that corporations who advertise to the LGBT market do deserve a pat on the back. As the CEO of a US-based website, it’s become increasingly apparent over the years that the only people who still have a lot of money to spend on advertising are corporations, and publications like this one wouldn’t exist if those corporations weren’t willing to advertise with LGBT media or target the LGBT market. However, companies see huge returns targeting gay men but are still really reluctant to advertise to gay women — and this is something that I’ve heard from all gay media ladies — which is why this publication still relies almost entirely on our readers to support us. So I’d be interested in seeing a breakdown of where, exactly, the advertising is being placed — if it’s on women’s media or media targeted at people of color or trans people, which historically struggle desperately to stay afloat and often see our voices muted because we can’t get the funds necessary to be heard, then I would indeed give those companies a few cookies. (Not Wal-Mart, though, and you will NEVER see a Wal-Mart ad on this website!) I’m a socialist at heart, but I have employees to feed and I live in a capitalist country and therefore have to succeed on those terms whether I want to or not. When corporations advertise with us, they do enhance the community by enhancing our ability to pay our team and therefore make all this happen. We are very grateful and happy when we get those ad deals and very supportive of those initiatives, and I do factor in LGBT-targeted-marketing to my personal shopping decisions. Also though I genuinely love ob tampons

      So, there’s that.

      • We all know that gay men, being men, have access to greater wealth (and power and influence) than gay women, who have two strikes against them, as it were. And the more “strikes” one has—trans*, color, disability—the less money one is likely to have. That’s what intersectionality is all about. So, anyone attempting to determine why capitalist pigs are less willing to advertise to these demographics has to acknowledge that fact. I acknowledge it.

        At the same time, though, I wonder if you have (inadvertently?) hit upon another factor that has contributed to the reluctance of large, evil corporations to target gay women in their advertising when you note that you are “a socialist at heart.” The stereotypical portrait of “the” lesbian that has persisted for the past several decades—and marketing professionals, though they have, over time, become more sophisticated in their use of empirical data, still rely heavily on stereotypes—is of someone who opposes capitalism on principle; refuses to buy products made from animals, tested on animals or manufactured under unfair labor conditions; who doesn’t use beauty products; doesn’t shop at chains stores (e.g., Walmart); eats locally grown, organic, unprocessed food; has a small wardrobe of cheap, drab clothing; lives on a commune; and prefers various meditative practices to commercial entertainments such as television, film, recorded music, and so forth. This caricature persists—however unconsciously and however irrationally—in the collective unconscious, as it were, and contributes, I suspect, to the aforementioned reluctance of large, evil corporations to advertise to lesbians. This contrasts sharply with the stereotypical portrait of “the” gay man as someone who does nothing but shop for clothing, skin products, hair products, and other consumer goods on account of his insatiable vanity: in other words, as an advertiser’s ideal victim.

        Just in case it isn’t clear, I myself have been called a socialist more times than I can remember.

  5. “Any index that includes Wal-Mart and suggests it’s a good place to work for anyone, LGBT employees included, is immediately called into question.” Enough said.

  6. I’m so glad for this article, pointing out the bare standards is important. Progress is always good, but saying its super progressive when it isn’t much is more problematic

  7. I remember when I was just coming out and I found the CEI and thought I had found the solution to half my problems. I even asked my family to only shop from “green” stores for my birthday presents that year. I was so young!!! Now I know to look beyond the surface and that just because a group says it’s working for the LGBTQIA community doesn’t necessarily mean it’s working for me and my friends. I didn’t even know the word “intersectionality” back then much less what it meant or why it’s important. I’ve learned so much since then and a lot of it here on Autostraddle and at A-Camp. :)

    Thank you Ali for a great article and thank you “person1” for your insight.

  8. Hey guys, this is my first comment here.
    Firstly, I enjoyed reading this article because it was funny and well written, like almost all articles on Autostraddle. I didn’t like how critical it was though. person1’s comment was great, this is an index on a very specific thing and HRC has always been an organization with a very specific purpose. Why should they worry about intersectionality? They’re the most successful organization at advancing and advocating for gay rights and their success is probably related to their limited focus.

    Last thing, its not surprising at all to me that corporate America is getting on the bandwagon faster that the bureaucratic public sector. Corporations certainly have a myriad of sins but they are capable of being much more dynamic in their policies and actions compared to government agencies which get bogged down in politics. Corporations want profits, and when being anti gay threatens their profits you can bet your ass they’ll get in line pretty quick.

    • The HRC should worry about intersectionality because discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity is not the only type of oppression that queer and/or trans* folks face at work. For instance, if a Latina trans* woman’s employer discriminates against her because she’s Latina, or because she’s a woman, she is a trans* person facing discrimination in the workplace. It’s critical to look at things holistically, because the point is for queer and/or trans* folks–for everyone–to be treated fairly in the workplace.

      Organizations that don’t take that into account typically end up serving the interests of folks who experience oppression on only one axis. For the HRC, that’s white, cisgender (I’ll believe they’ve fixed their cissexist ways when I see it), men (add other axes of oppression ad infinitum) who are also gay. Those folks deserve fair treatment the same as everyone else, of course. But the HRC is not advocating effectively for fair treatment of queer and trans* folks as a whole when they focus narrowly on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, because things are more complicated and nuanced than that.

    • I think the biggest problem is that HRC has mislead many, many people in terms of what their “one goal” is. I only found out recently how problematic HRC is because they have done an excellent job drumming up the PR for being the most important and centralized organization for LGBTQ* individuals, INCLUDING our intersecting identities. They should worry about intersectionality because they’ve done a damn good job claiming to speak for those of us who do believe in it.

  9. I had a couple of colleagues talking about this today and I was very good about holding my tongue because *politics*. I will vent in angry frustration later, BUT even though I despise the HRC, make a game of avoiding their calls after one $5 donation as a baby queer in college, and have long discussions about problematic uber-orgs such as and like the HRC, I sometimes like to find the silver lining in these things.

    As person1 said above, it’s not an intersectional guide. The CEI is not the end all and be all of research to be done on these companies, but it is a good place to look when trying to find facts about these companies. More time to do research on the way they treat lower level employees, where they ship their products to and from, how they ship those products, and the other types of business dealings they do.

  10. Corporations like to show statistics on their workforce education programs for PR and legal reasons. The 20 minute training sessions are usually mandatory so they can show that 100% of their workforce has taken “sexual harassment prevention training”, “ethics training”, and “workplace non-discrimination training”. Sadly, it does very little to change the corporate culture, but it sounds good on paper.

    While the policies are needed and are a step in the right direction, they can present a picture that’s not entirely accurate.

  11. “Frankly, corporations would be crazy not to extend these benefits to as many employees as possible.”

    That seems obvious now, but 10+ years ago, when HRC started the CEI, the specific pieces of equality the index sought to measure were pretty much unheard of. The CEI was a good starting place to talk about the terrible business practice of discrimination , and once some companies came on board it was a useful tool to “shame” others into getting with the program (if only so their talented employees weren’t poached away to more equality-minded competitors).

    For all the many faults of HRC (which Ali does an excellent job discussing here), the CEI has served a pretty good purpose over time. Clearly, if it is now declaring Walmart an ‘equal’ place to work, that purpose has likely run its course without some serious criteria changes.

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