By Paula Martinac
How boycotts work – and why they sometimes don’t
Within the past week, I’ve received a flurry of mass e-mail messages, encouraging GLBT people to take part in a nationwide boycott on Oct. 8 and “drop out” of the U.S. economy for one day. This action, as stated on the boycott’s official website (www.boycottforequality.org), is designed to show the country’s corporate and political powers that we are vital members of society “with significant economic presence.”
“Boycott for Equality” was inspired by notable boycotts of the past, especially those organized by Gandhi in India and black civil-rights leaders in this country – precedents that demonstrated the power of the proverbial purse. But unfortunately, boycotts tend to be unsuccessful when they’re broad, vague, and not clearly thought out – as is the case, I fear, with this one.
The Oct. 8 boycott is being organized by a gay male couple who got angry about the president’s decision to support the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment. Their proposed retaliation has three main elements: on that day, GLBT people and their allies should not go to work, make any purchases, or use their cell phones. It seems simple enough on the face of it, and for some of us, a very easy action to be part of.
Consider my own household. If I take off that Friday, it’s likely that my openly gay boss, who owns a gay media company, won’t mind; it’s always a slow day for me anyway. My partner, a professor, doesn’t teach classes on Friday, and there are plenty of days when neither of us needs to buy a single thing or use a cell phone. Instant boycott! Indeed, if all other GLBT people were just like us – out at work and middle-class – this boycott might be a slam dunk.
But there’s a big hurdle when you ask all gay people to “drop out” out of the economy – especially a weak economy in which it’s hard to find a job if you lose yours. Many gay people can’t be out at work because the Employment Non-Discrimination Act still hasn’t passed Congress, and maybe they’re employed by companies without discrimination policies, by public schools as teachers and coaches, or by religious-run institutions. For these folks, “Boycott for Equality” offers a way to “drop out” but not come out: “The beauty of the boycott is you don’t have to tell anyone why.” In other words, just don’t give a reason why you’re taking the day off; you could even call in sick! The organizers call this a “silent protest.”
But what sort of protest is it when no one knows what – or even if – you’re protesting? Besides that, if the organizers do their job, they will capture media attention in advance – after all, one of the most important ingredients of an effective boycott is publicity. So if you can’t be out at work on Oct. 7 because you fear losing your job, is it really safe to stay home on Oct. 8, a day of (hopefully) well-publicized gay protest?
Another question the boycott raises is, what exactly are we proving when we opt out of capitalism in general? Aren’t we also punishing gay-supportive companies that have been more forward-thinking about gay rights than our own government has? How do we reconcile that with the fact that our national gay organizations have always encouraged us to reward gay-friendly businesses with our patronage?
In contrast, most successful boycotts of the past have been highly focused. Southern buses were segregated, so black people found alternate ways to get to work. The British government imposed a salt tax on the Indian people, so they refused to buy salt and harvested their own from the ocean. California grape pickers were poorly paid, so they urged supportive consumers to stop buying grapes. The Coors family funded antigay groups, so gay people refused to drink Coors beer and gay bars stopped stocking it. Furthermore, all of these actions took longer than a day.
Broad, sweeping boycotts, however, have historically been less effective. To protest British colonial rule, Gandhi at first tried a large-scale approach, in which Indians were not only encouraged to stop buying all British products, but also to quit their government jobs, take their children out of British-run schools, and refuse to pay taxes – a tall order. The campaign dragged on for 10 years before Gandhi narrowed his movement’s focus to the salt tax, creating a successful action with widespread support in India and abroad.
I don’t want to discourage any form of nonviolent GLBT activism, and if you believe in the Oct. 8 boycott and are able to take part, you should. But instead of doing home-improvement projects that day, as the organizers suggest, consider inviting friends over to brainstorm some focused, economic-based actions that could more effectively drive the message of gay people’s second-class citizenship home.