The Sticker War
What is it that reluctant organizations really fear about LGBTQ+ allyship?
The Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce has a statewide initiative called the Welcoming and Inclusive campaign. Participants purchase 4X4” square double-facing vinyl static cling decals from the Chamber for $5.00 each and display them in prominent locations at their offices or facilities. The decals have the letters “W” and “I” and the words “Welcoming and Inclusive” in white block letters on a rainbow-striped background. The letter “I” is styled to resemble an open door. The bottom caption reads “A Project of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce” in gray block text on a white background stripe.
*A side note for those who may not know: the six colors of the modern Rainbow Pride flag (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple) represent life, healing, sunlight, nature, art, and the human spirit.
The W&I decals are not an endorsement or criticism of any political official or candidate, any specific piece of legislation, or any religious belief or creed. They are not an indication that a business who displays a W&I decal is owned or operated by queer or transgender individuals. There’s no policy review, training, or qualifying test required. W&I decals are simply a year-round, visible public indicator that this establishment’s facilities, services, and products are equally available to people of all identities, and that all identities are equally welcome.
My city’s first participant was a business insurance carrier that had been headquartered here for over a century, with operations in eight states and millions in annual profits. I was familiar with the firm, but I had no idea they were Wisconsin LGBT Chamber members until I researched them. I called them up, asked them to display a W&I decal, and they said yes. As far as I’m aware they’ve received zero pushback either then or since.
The next business I asked was a popular mom-and-pop café and coffee shop downtown. They had a handful of employees and had been in business for less than two years. I explained the program to the owners and told them I’d buy the decal if they would display it. They immediately agreed. Within days of installing the decal at the café, it seemed like everybody and their dog knew and had Opinions™ about it.
The majority of reactions were positive, but some folks were also not shy about voicing their dissent. The owners got calls, emails, and in-person visits from people who felt the decal was unnecessary, divisive, or contradicted their personal religious or moral beliefs. One person even followed the owner into the shop’s kitchen, which is off-limits to customers, to keep yelling at her about it. The backlash upset the café owners so much they took the decal down. A significant outpouring of support, encouragement, and education convinced them to put it back up.
From then on, they took the position of “Everyone is welcome here and will be served equally, just as they were before. As the owner of this business, I have decided to display the decal, and that decision is final.” The grumbling soon stopped. The handful of folks for whom the decal was a deal breaker found other places to be and other things to do. Four years later, the W&I decal is still right there on the front door, and the café is still a well-supported local landmark.
As of this writing, about a dozen local businesses and agencies participate in the Welcoming and Inclusive program. They include the public library, a sexual assault prevention and survivor advocacy center, all three local U.S. Bank branches, a law office, a daycare, a hair salon, a screen printing and graphic design shop, a modular building component company’s corporate office, and a family photography studio. The majority are small, independently owned businesses. Several, including the bank and the public library, joined on their own initiative after seeing the momentum build. And yet, the sexual assault prevention organization is the only nonprofit organization. The library is the only public service agency.
Every other one I’ve asked has told me some version of “no.”
The majority who refused simply never replied to my emails or returned my phone calls. A few told me an effective “no” by saying they needed to think about it, and then going silent. Two nonprofit agency leaders said their Board of Directors would not authorize any official statements from the organization that took sides on political matters. Nobody I spoke with told me outright that they didn’t want to participate. They all mentioned various barriers as to why they couldn’t. Most of those barriers were related to the organization’s internal culture.
There are two well-known youth mentorship nonprofit organizations that have regional branches in my city. At the national level, both organizations have published explicit statements of commitment to supporting queer and transgender individuals and have recognized Pride Month on their websites and social media. Both have partnered with LGBTQ+ advocacy groups to build their ability to create and foster inclusive and affirming practices and spaces for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions. They have each published recommendations on how others can become more informed and effective allies. One of the agencies recently featured LGBTQ+ youth and adults in articles promoting their programming.
At the local level, neither branch responded to repeated requests to participate in the W&I decal initiative. One of them continues to hold fundraising events at a local venue that made international news over an incident involving transphobic comments made by patrons at their establishment. There is clearly a disconnect between the national and local offices in terms of mission alignment and public communications.
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My county has a single agency that serves as a combined chamber of commerce and economic development association. During a conversation I had with their founding (and now former) Executive Director, she spoke about her desire to introduce more diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts into the agency and the wider community. I told her that participation from such a high-profile lead agency would build significant local momentum for inclusive professional spaces and business practices. It seemed as though our goals and values were in alignment, right up until she told me flat out there was no way she could ask her Board and Executive Committee to participate in the W&I decal program. I asked her why not. She said that the request itself would upset the Board members, and that if her agency were to display a decal at their offices, they would immediately lose members, donors, program sponsors, and partnership opportunities. About a year and a half later, she resigned and relocated out of state.
This agency’s new Executive Director came to the position directly from a five-year tenure as Deputy District Director for a local Congressperson. That Congressperson has publicly stated that homosexuality is a “lifestyle” that “should not be allowed to flourish,” that acknowledging different sexual orientations in schools was part of an “agenda” to convince students to become gay, that same-sex couples should not be legally allowed to marry or have the right to family and medical leave, and who opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) because he felt it gives “preference” to LGBT employees. Those statements were made prior to her joining his staff and have never been recanted. She chose to work for him anyway.
The agency she now leads has never publicly recognized Pride Month. A search of their website shows a mission statement that includes “pursuing opportunities that improve economic vibrancy, strengthen community identity, and invest in the next generation,” but zero mention of LGBTQ+ people, organizations, issues, or advocacy as part of those efforts. The Board and Executive Committee members represent our county’s largest manufacturing, healthcare, and educational facilities as well as several branches of local government. One of the Board Members, who was also recently elected as County Executive, has shared multiple racist and transmisogynist memes on his personal social media accounts earlier this year.
Another organization with local ties has adopted “caring, honesty, respect and responsibility” as its core values. At the national level, this organization has devoted considerable effort to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which it promotes as part of fulfilling its purpose of “strengthening community for all.” On the main organization’s website, there are direct mentions of the history and importance of Pride month, information about issues impacting the LGBTQ+ community, suggested action steps for informed allyship, and links to trusted LGBTQ+ advocacy and education resources. There is also a pledge of ongoing commitment to becoming an “anti-racist, multicultural organization” that “ensure[s] that people of all dimensions of diversity feel welcome and included” and a graphic depicting the difference between equality and equity.
The local branch of this organization takes great pride in their Diversity Statement, which was last amended in 2019 to include this language:
“Together, we ensure that everyone across age, ability, cultural background, ethnicity, faith, gender expression, gender identity, ideology, income, language, national origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation has the access to resources to reach their full potential.”
The newly-revised statement was unveiled during Welcoming Week, an annual event created by the nonprofit organization Welcoming America to “bring together neighbors of all backgrounds to build strong connections and affirm the importance of welcoming and inclusive places in achieving collective prosperity.”
While the national organization said it “firmly asserts that Black Lives Matter,” in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the local branch wrote a blog post repeating its Diversity Statement language. While the national organization stated its intent to “create brave spaces for the safe exchange of diverse ideas and perspectives,” the local branch lumped this year’s Pride Month, Indigenous History Month, and Juneteenth commemoration into a single “Acceptance Month” and emphasized the importance of a “tolerant attitude toward all.”
I approached the local branch several times over the past couple of years about participating in the W&I decal initiative. I explained to their Executive Director how this program was compatible with the organization’s mission, core values, and DEI efforts, and why visible, tangible LGBTQ+ affirmation was worthy of specific and deliberate effort in our city. I was told I would hear back within a specific time frame, but there was no reply. Months later, when I asked them to reconsider participation, I was told they hadn’t refused, despite there being no communication and no decals installed.
I reached out recently to the Associate Executive Director, who told me there was a concern that participating in the W&I initiative could lead to requests to display other decals that may conflict with their mission and values or pose aesthetic concerns. Local leadership felt that “our Diversity Statement being prominent in the lobby conveys the ‘For All’ message without the sticker war that is feared.” Given that this same location removed the LGBTQ+ History display from its lobby last June after receiving complaints, I don’t think a “sticker war” is the true concern here.
What Are They Really Afraid Of?
Several of the same organizations who declined to display W&I decals (or other lasting, tangible indicators of allyship) participated in the annual Pride celebration in our city’s largest public park this weekend. They’re clearly not afraid to capitalize on events that organizers work year-round on if it means an opportunity to promote themselves for a day. The problem, of course, is that the need for visible and vocal support for LGBTQ+ employees, clients, students, residents, and visitors doesn’t stop on July 1 when the party theme shifts from the Rainbows and Glitter Holiday to the Fireworks and Cookouts Holiday. This kind of temporary, performative allyship does nothing to ensure that the organization’s facilities, services, products, or culture are actually welcoming, inclusive, or even safe for queer or transgender people. It just means that our trust is expendable so long as our money stays green and our presence remains a convenient shield against any complaints that they don’t “Say Gay” often or loudly enough.
For the organizations, agencies, and businesses who use silence on LGBTQIA+ issues as a form of misdirected neutrality, I expect most of their hesitation boils down to a fear of “what will the neighbors think?”
(What will they think we’re endorsing with this? Which side will they think we’re on? What social and financial risks would a displaying a decal pose for us? What are we really being asked to do? There isn’t a way to make everyone happy, so maybe neutrality on this is our best bet. If silence is insufficient, let’s make sure whatever we do say is vague, bland, and anodyne enough to count as a response without taking a firm stance in any direction.)
Well, I am your neighbor, and this is what I think.
I think that sexual orientation and gender are aspects of identity, and that identity and behavior are separate concepts. I think the notion that anyone has the power or right to approve of someone else’s identity is absurd, and that using “respectability” as a prerequisite for equal human rights is dangerous. I think reducing a person down to an owner of genitals and a performer of sexual acts for any reason is dehumanizing. I think doing so simply because that person is queer or performs their gender in an unexpected way is obscene.
I know for a fact that plenty of our elected officials are terrified at the mere thought of a cultural shift toward a more welcoming and inclusive community, even though the leaders of our four higher learning institutions, our hospital system, our fifteen largest employers, and multiple religious and spiritual orders signed a document pledging to work together to achieve it and asking for their official support. The social and financial risks of displaying a W&I decal or other forms of long-term, visible LGBTQ+ allyship are being disproportionately carried by small businesses and sole proprietors. It’s past time for the larger corporations whose leaders claim to support “diversity” to start using their greater social capital and more secure financial resources to lessen that burden.
I think some larger local agencies claim to be invested in creating economic, educational, and social opportunities to attract and retain workforce talent, but what they really do is spend a considerable amount of time, money, and influence on maintaining a predictable, comfortable-for-them status quo. The bulk of local job creation efforts is focused on quantity over equity. Simply having more people of different races, ethnicities, religions, genders, orientations, and abilities present in a place does not mean they’re welcome, included, or will be treated equitably. It does nothing to shift our city’s lingering reputation for regressive social politics and hostility toward new people, ideas, and experiences. A young person who grew up in a community where their safety and dignity were worth less than a ceremonial piece of paper or a window decal that doesn’t even have adhesive is going to leave that place as soon as they can. They’re not ever coming back if they can help it, and they’re going to tell every friend, classmate, coworker and TikTok or Instagram follower they have to stay away.
The Myth of Silent Neutrality
I think some folks would like to think of silence as conflict avoidance. Avoidance doesn’t resolve problems. It allows them to fester while hoping they’ll become someone else’s responsibility. Avoidance in this situation allows the conflict surrounding anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination to be framed as not only our responsibility, but also our own fault. We’re too loud, too visible, we’re “rubbing people’s noses in it” or “shoving it down their throats.” We bring it upon ourselves, and therefore, maybe we deserve it. When others fail to speak or act on our behalf to help counter that perception, silence becomes tacit agreement, or at least an indication to us that we aren’t worth the effort. To those who hate and want to harm us, silence is encouragement. There is not even the slightest pushback or social consequences for continuing and possibly escalating that harm.
At that point, silence becomes complicity.
Displaying a W&I decal is by far not the only way for a business or organization to show that LGBTQ+ individuals are welcome in their establishment. Some might even say they’re merely a token if not accompanied by any further efforts to create inclusive practices, language, and internal culture. At minimum, these decals are a year-round visibility effort, which still carries a more meaningful impact than the typical 30-day corporate rainbow-washing campaign or merchandising gimmick.
I believe that businesses and organizations should not be compelled to express any statement that conflicts with their mission, values, or core beliefs. I know that some want to be good allies but hesitate to act because they need more guidance on what efforts are most beneficial or welcome.
I also know that some choose equivocation or silence on LGBTQ+ equality simply because they want to avoid facing judgement in the court of public opinion, even as queer and transgender people face escalating assaults on our freedom and personal safety. For those organizations, I’m afraid it’s too late. In the balances of “Both Sides,” they have been weighed, measured, and found wanting.