Straighten up and fly right

American Airlines refuses to let a threat from the religious right steer the company off its gay-friendly course

Leaders of the nation's most influential conservative religious groups didn't kick up much dust when they arrived in Fort Worth late last month for an unprecedented meeting with executives at American Airlines, including President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Crandall.

Some of America's top moral crusaders were on hand for the March 23 meeting, led by representatives of the Southern Baptists, Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America, Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, and Gary Bauer's Family Research Council.

These were the same people who a year earlier had generated headlines by announcing they opposed American's practice of marketing to gays and lesbians and sponsoring gay, lesbian, and AIDS-related organizations.

As part of the right-wing effort, which paralleled campaigns launched against the Walt Disney Co. and the television sitcom Ellen, the groups threatened American with boycotts and called upon their followers to bombard the airline with complaints that its policies imperiled the sanctity of the American family.

But in late March, the groups came to American's expansive cube-like headquarters along the Dallas-Tarrant county line on a more diplomatic mission, aimed at wooing the airline back into the homophobic fold. By all accounts, the meeting went well. Opinions were exchanged, and the religious conservatives quietly left town without attracting the attention of the press.

The quiet wouldn't last long.
Conservatives across the nation soon would hear that their yearlong campaign had paid off. Their leaders, they were told, had scored a major victory at American.

"American Airlines Pledges to Stop Promoting Homosexuality," said a news release issued by the Concerned Women for America a day after the meeting.

"No longer will air travelers on American Airlines fear that a portion of their fares is funding activities that may be in direct conflict with their religious beliefs," the release stated. "We are so pleased that American has decided to stop endorsing this deadly behavior."

The news release went on to claim that American had agreed to stop sponsoring "homosexual parties," cease targeting and promoting the homosexual travel market, and halt charitable contributions to gay and lesbian organizations, namely the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Teachers' Network.

Later that week, a representative from the Family Research Council went on the air and boastfully laid out the details of American's surrender during a broadcast of LaHaye's nationally syndicated radio talk show.

To conservatives, the news certainly seemed like an occasion to rejoice: A small battle in the war against homosexuality had been won inside one of the country's largest corporations.

The only problem is, there was no anti-gay victory at American Airlines. The truth is, Robert Crandall met the groups face to face and politely told them to bugger off.

Outside Texas, the nation's religious conservatives certainly have scored some victories in their moral crusade against gays and lesbians, whose lives they call "immoral, unhealthy, and destructive to individuals, families, and societies."

In February, Maine repealed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Last year, Chrysler Corp. and J.C. Penney pulled advertising from television network ABC when sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres became the first lesbian to come out on prime time.

In both cases, the conservative groups issued "action alerts" encouraging their supporters to send letters to legislators and to network representatives.

But while the religious right continues to flex its considerable political muscle, its threats and boycotts against major U.S. corporations are not bringing about the economic Armageddon its vocal leaders have been predicting.

Evidence of that came last fall, when Walt Disney Chairman Michael Eisner appeared on 60 Minutes and told the nation that Disney's profits were up despite the boycott launched in 1997 by the Southern Baptist Convention. The convention's members opposed the company's decision to give health benefits to domestic partners, to allow Ellen to come out (Disney owns ABC), and to allow "Gay Days" at its theme parks.

Still, Crandall's willingness to stand up to the religious right is something of a surprise, coming as it did in Dallas, a town not known for being particularly gay-friendly, in a state where gay sex is a crime and employers can fire workers because of their sexual orientation. Even more surprising is the quiet revolution under way at American. With little fanfare, the $18 billion behemoth has become a leader in workplace equality for homosexuals.

American is the first airline to prohibit discrimination of its employees based on sexual orientation and the first Fortune 100 company to create a sales team geared specifically for the gay and lesbian market--a hint that American's new-found open-mindedness might be driven by business as well as humanitarian motives.

American is also one of the few airlines with an officially sanctioned gay and lesbian employee group, which shares equal status with nine other employee groups, including one for Christians. Outside the corporation, American also has emerged as one of the most generous contributors to gay and lesbian organizations and has been a major fundraiser and sponsor for AIDS-related causes in the metroplex and across the nation.

For American, the long journey toward progressiveness began with two giant missteps five years ago--embarrassing gaffes involving gay and lesbian passengers who were mistreated by crewmembers. Rather than simply apologizing for the incidents, American began to implement changes that are setting corporate milestones locally and nationally.

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