Once upon a time, it was hard to get companies to support LGBT organizations. They worried they would lose their non-gay customers if they were open about wanting gay ones.

So we got smart: We showed how much discretionary income same-gender couples without kids had. Never mind that it was less than opposite-gender couple without kids, it was still a good argument.

Not only did it give the marketing teams cover, it had the added benefit of being true: We were a valuable target market. “The color of diversity,” we would say, “is green.”

As some of the big companies came out as supporters, their employees came out as LGBT. Then their friends and family members started coming out as LGBT-supportive. Visibility was shifting every landscape. Next thing you know, 20 years later, we not only have friends in high places, we have our own people there —running companies, winning election to Congress and hosting major TV news shows.

King & Spalding controversy shows danger of basing our movement on marketing

Of course, we still have very few rights and some people who don’t pass get beat up and our campaign signs occasionally get defaced and we’re still fundraising fodder for the right wing…but it’s different now. We have multi-million dollar organizations working to secure those rights, and with the funding support of major international companies, we’re getting closer.

We envision a day when openly LGBT people will have equality on the law books and in daily life. We’ll be all of who we already are, openly and unafraid. And we’ll get married in any state and have a fair chance of becoming president. Of the country, not just the neighborhood association.

I can see it, can’t you? It’s so clear. It’s so…murky. Because last week we got thrown into the deep end of the pond, and while we were pulled out at the last minute, I’m still wiping the mud from my eyes.

For years, the Atlanta-based law firm King & Spalding walked the diversity walk, donating funds to organizations who work to make our dream a reality, touting its inclusion accomplishments on its website, generously sponsoring dinners and workshops.

And then, whiplash! We learned that for $500,000, King & Spalding had agreed to work against the very thing it claims to stand for. The law firm decided to represent the U.S. House of Representatives to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that bans recognition of gay marriages.

Gay rights activists were outraged, and the controversy evaporated as quickly as it arose. The day before activists planned to protest near King & Spalding’s Atlanta headquarters, the firm announced it was dropping the case, and the attorney who agreed to take it said he was leaving King & Spalding to defend DOMA as part of another law firm.

Why would King & Spalding ever agree to defend DOMA? Perhaps they read the tea leaves and like so many felt a need to shift right. Or, were they just doing what we taught them — way back when “doing the right thing” wasn’t enough of an argument — and they were simply going for the money? And did they drop the case because they realized it was morally wrong, or because they realized they might lose more money than they would make?

The drama of the fall out, the conflict between those who genuinely felt they were “on the side of the law” and the shades of gray in accepting corporate green are enough to capture this filmmaker’s imagination — but even the best Hollywood ending of a DOMA defeat wouldn’t undo the damage along the way.

What can we learn from this on our journey to inclusion, as we sometimes grasp victories like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and other times slog through the mud of DOMA?

If we keep using economics to recruit support for our equality, do we set ourselves up for more controversies like King & Spalding, which may not have such happy endings?

Do we reject all corporate money because equality is sometimes sold to the highest or most recent bidder? Maybe we should only accept sponsors who support very specific components of full equality. Or, perhaps we might just take the money and run, because it’s that much less for the anti-fairness groups…

In a previous career, I too once touted the economic benefits of marketing to the LGBT community, personally viewing it as a way of our gaining visibility and eventually equality. Today, I wonder: Did I play a part in teaching the King & Spaldings of the world to focus on the money as the primary reason for supporting equality?

Even so, I can’t imagine how they thought — even for a moment — we could simultaneously be partners and opponents in the same fight for freedom.


Cindy L. Abel is an Atlanta-based filmmaker, currently directing “Breaking Through,” in which LGBT elected officials share their stories of living open, fulfilled lives.