By Matthew Lavietes
NEW YORK, Feb 6 (Openly) - From discriminatory adoption laws to denial of transgender healthcare, a rising number of U.S. corporate giants are joining forces to protest about a slew of anti-LGBT+ state legislation.
American Airlines, hotel giant Marriott International and footwear maker Nike were among 36 firms that spoke out this week against a law allowing adoption agencies to turn away LGBT+ couples on religious grounds, passed in Tennessee in January.
"We ask that lawmakers not pursue any further legislation that would target or exclude LGBTQ people," the companies, which also included Amazon, Dell Technologies and Nashville International Airport, said in an open letter.
"Policies that signal that the state is not welcoming to everyone put our collective economic success at risk," it said, adding visitors spent more than $22 billion in 2018.
A spokesman for Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a devout Christian, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. He has previously said the law protected religious liberty.
A growing number of companies see diversity as good for business, with surveys showing that LGBT+ inclusive workplaces perform better financially, attract customers who care about equality, and find it easier to attract and retain talent.
Yet almost half of gay and trans people in the United States are not out at work, according to U.S. LGBT+ lobby group, Human Rights Campaign. And in 30 out of 50 U.S. states, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is not outlawed.
The Equality Act - which would provide this protection nationwide - is awaiting a vote in the Republican-led Senate where it is likely to face opposition.
Dozens of state level anti-LGBT+ bills are in the pipeline, including a ban on trans athletes in Washington state competing according to their gender identity, and for doctors who treat trans children in South Carolina to lose their licences.
Todd Sears, who promotes LGBT+ inclusive business practices, said state lawmakers had been emboldened since 2017 by high-profile conservatives like Trump and his evangelical vice president Mike Pence, who has long fought gay rights.
"The states are just taking their cues and seeing their opportunities to make the LGBT community 'the other'," Sears, head of Out Leadership, which connects firms promoting LGBT+ equality, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
On the other hand, many businesses - conscious of both their bottom line and their image - have chosen to step up support for LGBT+ rights, after a decade of gains under President Barack Obama that included legalizing gay marriage nationwide in 2015.
One of the most vocal pro-LGBT+ groups - and a signatory to Wednesday's letter - is the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance (SFPA), founded in 2018 by Danone North America, Mars Inc, Nestle USA and Unilever.
The SPFA also backed a call on Virginia lawmakers last month for an anti-discrimination law to protect LGBT+ people in employment, housing, credit and public spaces.
"It's the new normal," said Jonathan Lovitz, senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, which promotes diversity in business. "LGBT inclusion is non-negotiable among corporations ... that want to succeed."
The most dramatic example of businesses backing LGBT+ rights was over North Carolina's 2016 "bathroom bill", which forced trans people in state-run buildings to use bathrooms that matched the sex on their birth certificates.
The southern state was hit by economic boycotts estimated to cost billions of dollars. The National Basketball Association, rock star Bruce Springsteen and PayPal and Deutsche Bank all pulled events or jobs from North Carolina in protest.
The law was repealed after a three-year legal battle.
Sears said that businesses did not have to go as far as boycotting states to promote LGBT+ rights.
"A governor would take a meeting from any one of the top 25 companies in his or her state and listen to the concerns of the CEOs," said the former investment banker.
"By leaving that state, they risk giving up a seat at the table to change the environment."
(Reporting by Matthew Lavietes; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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