Walmart’s remarkable gay rights journey

Dark clouds over Walmart.
Dark clouds over Walmart.
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
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It’s hard to overplay the cultural influence of Walmart, the ubiquitous global retail giant that also happens to be America’s largest private sector employer.

So, today’s decision by the company to publicly stake out a position urging Arkansas’s Republican governor to veto a bill that critics say will result in discrimination against gays and lesbians marks something of a turning point in a controversy playing out across a number of US states.

The statement also underscores Walmart’s own journey on issues related to gay rights. When Sam Walton started the company in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas, he imbued the chain with a certain small-town conservatism. For instance, it long drew ire for its reluctance to sell music with explicit lyrics.

That conservatism extended to issues of sexual orientation. According to the Arkansas Times:

In the early days of Walmart, being gay meant working in the closet. Rumors circulated that if you came out, you faced being fired. Ten years ago, when queried about bias at company headquarters, one lesbian said she kept a photo of a fake husband on her desk to dispel suspicions. A transsexual said she presented as male to hide her true identity. Another woman reported that after coming out, she was written up, then terminated for what she said was a minor infraction.

Of course, in the 1960s and 1970s that type of environment wasn’t uncommon in corporate America. But like the country as a whole, Walmart has made significant shifts in its position on gay rights issues over the past decade. The company first extended its anti-discrimination policy to gay and lesbian employees in 2003, but it took until 2013 for Walmart to extend employee benefits to domestic partners, even as its corporate peers—and numerous states —made benefits for domestic partners compulsory.

A Walmart spokesman said the company “has a long history of working with our associates to build a diverse and inclusive environment that respects all individuals.”

While Walmart has taken great strides in recent years, the retailing behemoth is far from a crusading pioneer on gay rights. The company’s lagging position makes today’s unambiguous statement from chief executive Doug McMillon all the more remarkable.

That Walmart stores blanket the country makes it an authority on catering to American tastes. No doubt the company calculated that this decision wouldn’t affect its relationship with Walmart customers, given how far the American public has come on gay rights. Nationwide, roughly 52% of Americans now support gay marriage. Even in America’s conservative south, Walmart’s historical heartland, according to the Pew Research Center, that support totals 44%.

A timeline of Walmart’s long-evolving stance on gay rights: