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Are US corporations more responsive to gender-based discrimination than elected representatives?
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Modern office Corporate business glass building

The United States has seen an uptick in legislation that is detrimental to a wide range of gender-marginalized individuals.  

In March 2022, Florida passed a controversial piece of legislation banning the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues from early education (K–3). Ten additional states have introduced or passed similar legislation. While 64 percent of Americans say they favor protecting transgender persons from discrimination, in 2022, legislation that is explicitly anti-trans was introduced in almost every state. Their focus includes oppositions to gender-neutral restrooms, support for restrictions in women’s youth sports, children’s healthcare restrictions, and LGBTQ+ education bans, all topics and legislation that became more integrated into conservative platforms and talking points during recent election cycles. In June 2022, although at least 62 percent of Americans claimed to support abortion in all or most cases, the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional protection of abortion.  

At the time of writing, 29 states have imposed some kind of abortion restrictions. While these legislative shifts limit abortion access for all pregnant people, abortions are accessed most frequently by cisgender women of color who already have children and who live at or below the poverty level.  

While state and federal legislators are working hard to introduce and pass this legislation, several powerful for-profit corporations in the United States are increasingly taking both internal actions and public stances against anti-abortion, anti-trans, and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, policy, and practice, often as part their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. These corporations appear to be responding to the opinions and demands of specific publics, including potential consumers, employees, and stakeholders. This “corporate activism” seems more representative of majority public opinion, at least in terms of the above statistics, and more beneficial to gender-marginalized communities than the behavior of elected representatives.  

Given the historically anti-capitalist positioning of many anthropologists, we may be quick to dismiss corporate responsiveness to marginalized groups as empty efforts at profit maximization through branding, reputation management, or performative allyship via progressive-sounding public statements and actions. While profit may be at the heart of these kinds of corporate political behaviors, and it is arguably healthy to maintain skepticism toward such interventions, this does not make the actions taken, or their impacts, inherently negative. They have power to shape public opinion and discourse and tangibly impact legislation. As Marina Welker, Damani J. Partridge, and Rebecca Hardin note, anthropologists have the tools to analyze how corporations can be used “experimentally as the ground for various kinds of political and economic projects.” As such, we might consider the ways that the words and actions of for-profit corporations in support of or on behalf of gender-marginalized groups might tangibly counteract discriminatory legislation. In a country that favors neoliberal policies and where business may often trump politics in terms of power and influence, we can position ourselves critically toward privatization and the seemingly ever-increasing power of corporate political actors, while also taking seriously the potential positive impacts of corporate actions in response to problematic legislation. 

Recent public stances taken by for-profit corporations, particularly when accompanied by economic action, have shown that corporate activism can significantly impact the passage and enforcement of gender-marginalizing legislation. One example is the rise and fall of North Carolina House Bill 2 (HB-2) in 2016–2017, a piece of legislation that sought to overturn local anti-discrimination policies in North Carolina protecting transgender, queer, genderfluid, and gender nonconforming persons. HB-2 mandated that use of all public gender-segregated restrooms and locker rooms in North Carolina must correspond to the sex that one was assigned at birth. In March 2016, HB-2 was passed and then signed into law by then-Governor Pat McCrory. In response, a coalition of nonprofit (e.g., The National Collegiate Athletic Association) and for-profit (e.g., PayPal) organizations threatened to pull events and projects out of North Carolina, moves projected to cost the state economy at least $3.76 billion over several years. In March 2017, HB-2 was repealed.  

Corporate activism can significantly impact the passage and enforcement of gender-marginalizing legislation.

Another example is the recent action by the Walt Disney Company, which ranks among the largest media conglomerates in the world, and has far-reaching sociocultural influence inside and outside the United States. While it  boasts a notably problematic history of perpetuating various forms of marginalization and discrimination through its animated films, public statements, and private actions, including egregious labor violations, over the past three decades, the Walt Disney Company has made numerous public and internal commitments to DEI and has increasingly been seen as a supporter and ally of the LGBTQ+ community. In addition to publicly hosting LGBTQ+ friendly events in their theme parks as early as 1991, in 1995 the Walt Disney Company began to shift internal policies to make the company more equitable and inclusive, such as through extending healthcare benefits to same-sex partners of employees. 

Since 1971, the Walt Disney Company has maintained one of its main theme parks in Florida. In 2022 and 2023, the Walt Disney Company has acted in opposition to several pieces of anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation introduced and passed by the Florida legislature, including Senate Bill 300 (SB 300), which banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, and House Bill 1557 (HB-1557), often publicly referenced as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which banned public school teachers in grades K–3 from holding classroom instruction about gender or sexual identity. Disney, via its past and present CEOs, Bob Chapek and Robert Iger, did not explicitly speak out about either piece of legislation prior to their passage.  

Yet, while the Walt Disney Company received positive accolades for publicly committing to offer abortion travel benefits to employees beginning in June 2022, in anticipation of state-level abortion bans like those imposed by SB 300, their complete silence around HB-1557 prior to its passage was particularly notable to the LGBTQ+ community, leading to public outcry from nonprofits, employees, and members of the general public, given the Walt Disney Company’s image as an LGBTQ+ ally.  

After HB-1557 was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis, the Walt Disney Company, via Chapek, issued a series of external public statements and internal employee memos, claiming that they had in fact opposed HB-1557 behind the scenes and tried to stop the bill’s passage or at least change its language. In response to public pressure, the Walt Disney Company not only issued increasingly critical public statements about HB-1557, but also paused campaign donations for HB-1557 supporters, who were largely members of Governor DeSantis’s Republican Party. In response to anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ legislative efforts, the Walt Disney Company has also made large financial contributions to LGBTQ+ advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign and signed public letters of support to advocate for additional legislation to bolster LGBTQ+ rights.  

But while the Walt Disney Company’s public statements and actions have been largely viewed favorably by consumers and organizations who support LGBTQ+ rights, the corporation’s activism has not yet led to the repeal of HB-1557. Instead, the Walt Disney Company’s theme park and offices appear to be receiving political backlash. Less than two months after taking a public stand against HB-1557, Governor DeSantis revoked the special district status held by the Walt Disney Company’s Florida theme park, which has already caused a number of problems for the company, including invalidating previously approved development contracts and stripping the company’s control over imposing public health measures, like COVID restrictions, in the future.  

The Walt Disney Company, via its new CEO Bob Iger, has pushed back just as forcefully, mirroring many of the actions taken by corporations that eventually led to the repeal of the North Carolina “bathroom bill” (HB-2) in 2017. For instance, during the spring of 2023, the Walt Disney Company has not only continued to make statements against HB-1557, but also sued DeSantis for what they see as a targeted political attack and pulled out of a one-billion-dollar development that will cost Florida an estimated 2,000 jobs. The company has also hinted that they are questioning whether they will make additional investments in Florida over time, which could total a loss of up to 17 billion dollars’ worth of investment in the state over the next decade.  

Without strong coalitions of corporate and other forms of support, as happened with the opposition to HB-2 in North Carolina, it remains to be seen if corporations will have the same power to influence legislation to support gender-marginalized communities. But with a massive uptick in the proposal of discriminatory legislation across the United States in 2023, Disney’s ongoing actions to oppose legislation like HB-1557, and understanding what motivates the corporation to act, present a useful case study to follow.  

In the twenty-first century, corporations continue to wield much control over political power as neoliberal policies and privatization create the conditions for outsized influence in elections, governance, and legislative decision-making. While this skewed power dynamic is clearly problematic, corporate power in the United States has continued to expand in the recent past given the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which created new understandings of corporate personhood that have, in turn, resulted in unlimited corporate campaign contributions framed as an extension of the right to free speech.  

While corporate persons cannot vote, they can legally offer opinions and stances to political actors through numerous channels, including words and campaign contributions. They can also take actions internally that have political resonance, creating greater equality and equity for gender-marginalized employees and cultivating inclusive practices.  

Many companies invest in DEI because they believe it will increase profits. The public stances that companies take on controversial legislation, the money that they donate to candidates that advance that legislation, and the actions they take internally become relevant to their present and future workforce, as well as to brand management for current and future consumers.  

While neoliberal policies, privatization, and the outsized influence of wealthy and corporate persons in elections, governance, and legislative decision-making remain problematic worldwide, corporations can also respond to specific publics and take political actions that seem more beneficial to gender-marginalized communities than elected officials. In this environment, anthropologists can use their toolkits to better understand and leverage companies’ DEI commitments to turn back the tide of discriminatory legislation. 

Gwen Burnyeat and Missy Maceyko are former Association for Political and Legal Anthropology section contributing editors. The section’s current contributing editor team are Taras Fedirko and Whitney Russell.   


Melissa “Missy” Maceyko

Melissa “Missy” Maceyko (she/her/hers) is a faculty member in the Anthropology Department at California State University, Long Beach, and a senior DEI consultant and researcher at Willing Observers LLC. In addition to her academic research on democracy, social movement building, gender, language materiality, and political advertising, she conducts applied research in organizations, using cultural assessments and anthropological tools to create more impactful DEI strategies and metrics.

Cite as

Maceyko, Melissa “Missy". 2023. “Corporate Activism against Anti-Abortion and Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation .” Anthropology News website, August 10, 2023.