Corporate America’s Response to Homophobia Abroad

Coke Zero Live on the WaterfrontWhen a company facilitates public expressions of homophobia – even inadvertently – what response is it obligated to take?

That question has confronted the Coca-Cola Company since late April, when a concert it co-sponsored in Jamaica became an outlet for homophobic rantings by Sizzla, one of Jamaica’s most prominent reggae musicians. Sizzla’s history of anti-gay lyrics is well-documented and well-known; his performance in Montego Bay, in keeping with that tradition, included the performance of a song that calls for the murder of gay people.

Coca-Cola, of course, has a commendable score of 100 on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index over many years, and no one has charged Coke with discriminating against its LGBT employees in Jamaica or elsewhere. But that, of course, isn’t the issue.

What happened in Jamaica was, on one level, a stunning display of professional error. In the largest sense, the local Coca-Cola bottling company that signed up to sponsor the waterfront event clearly failed to do any due diligence on Sizzla. Nor apparently did the company include, in its sponsorship agreement, any clause outlining its expectations regarding the performances it underwrote. Heads may or may not roll over these basic professional failures, but surely the waterfront fiasco could have been avoided had the company put in place even the most rudimentary professional safeguards against these mistakes.

But on another level, the event in Jamaica raises the question of whether corporate America really is living the values that a Corporate Equality Index score of 100 should suggest. Anyone who lives and works on that island should be mindful of the violently homophobic lyrics for which some Jamaican musical “artists” are known, both on the island and abroad. How anyone at Coke’s bottling company in Jamaica – either in marketing or in management – could have failed to connect the dots as to what might happen at such an event is a legitimate question to ask. And surely higher-ups in Atlanta should recognize that a Corporate Equality Index score of 100 is demeaned, pure and simple, when the values that score purports to represent aren’t safeguarded and advanced abroad.

A Coca-Cola representative has told us that the company has suspended further concert promotions in Jamaica until it can take the steps needed to ensure that future events are not mired in similar controversy. We take the company at its word and await its public response and action with regard to the already-three-month-old event. We hope a well-publicized statement of Coca-Cola’s position (ideally in broad-based marketing efforts) is forthcoming, and that clear, written guidelines will emerge to put the Coca-Cola company on record in Jamaica as standing for equality and against hate.

But we also hope this episode will serve as a wake-up call for all U.S. corporations that do business abroad. American companies are rightly seen overseas as representing American principles and values. And those of us who care about creating a fairer, more just world are now watching to see whether the companies that recruit us, and market to us, and stand with us at home are willing to put their values on the public line with respect to LGBT fairness and equal treatment abroad.

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