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Molson Coors Pride raises eyebrows

Ottawa Pride allies with controversial brewery

"IT COMES DOWN TO SUPPORT." Darren Fisher of the Pride Committee says Molson Coors offered more than Labatt for this year's sponsorship. Credit: (Shawn Scallen)

The cash-strapped Pride Committee has thrown over long-time queer-friendly partner and sponsor, Labatt Breweries, in favour of Molson Coors, whose US counterpart has a checkered human rights and queer community history.

“At every major Pride, there’s Labatt and there’s Molson,” says Darren Fisher, vice-president of the Pride Committee. “It was between the two. It comes down to the support offered and the energy behind the support. We want to build a partnership, but we’re not in a financial position to go on history alone. Nobody’s in a position to turn away money based on a minority shareholder.”

Fisher says that the Pride committee contacted both Labatt and Molson Coors. Labatt was disappointed with last year’s beer sales at Pride and offered a package that was mainly made up of in-kind support, included less cash and tied into events that Pride is not part of. Molson Coors replied with an in-kind sponsorship offer and $5,000 in cash.

“Labatt was supportive,” says Fisher. “They came through with something, but the offer just wasn’t on par with Molson.”

That’s not a good enough reason, says last year’s Pride executive director.

“Labatt offered them [the Pride Committee] $3,000 in cash and all of the in-kind sponsorships that they had,” charges Robin Duetta, who organized this year’s July Bankfest, which included Labatt Blue as a major sponsor. “I think that turning your back on a partner of all those years for $2,000 is ridiculous. And if it was only $2,000, why didn’t they give Labatt a chance to come back from that?”

Coors has been trying to recover from a tarnished public image for decades.

Molson Coors is the moniker of the company resulting from the merger between Molson Inc and Adolph Coors Company in early February. The merged company claims to be the fifth-largest brewery in the world, producing 51 million barrels and net sales of US$6 billion.

Molson has a clean history with the queer community, while the Colorado-based Coors brewing dynasty has a history of founding and funding American think tanks that are ultra-conservative, anti-gay and anti-union.

Coors had a security firm conduct polygraph tests on their employees in the 1970s and 1980s. The Commercial Closet quoted Coors spokesperson Kevin Caulfield in an August 27, 2002, article as saying that sexuality questions were never asked, calling it an “absolutely false” myth.

Myth or not, infuriated special interest groups, including unions, gay groups and other organizations boycotted Coors in 1978. Future San Francisco city councillor Harvey Milk had already started a smaller boycott. Coors responded to the larger boycott of 1978 with an anti-discrimination policy based on sexual orientation. This policy became part of Coors’ continued attempts to win over the queer community.

Such efforts have included founding a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered employee group in 1993, and becoming the first major brewery to offer same-sex benefits in 1995. Coors ran a print ad in 2002 touting all these and other new gay-friendly policies. Since 1997, Coors has run an aggressive, gay-specific ad campaign aimed at wooing queer drinkers, including producing a satire of the famous 1930 Grant Wood painting, “American Gothic,” depicting attractive, buff gay men. Another ad in 2001 included openly gay Olympic swimmer Bruce Hayes.

However, the very conservative Coors family has not helped the company’s attempts at building a gay-friendly image. In the 2004 US election, when Peter Coors was running for a senate nomination, he opposed gay

marriage and ran in support of a federal amendment restricting marriage to straights. In response, Coors, the company, went so far as to publish a 2004 ad entitled “Straight Talk,” a public relations statement disagreeing with Peter Coors’ personal politics.

“They’ve been in this position for years,” says Michael Wilke, founder and executive director of The Commercial Closet. “There is a difference between what the Coors family members are doing versus what the corporation is doing. The corporation has gone out of its way to separate itself from the family members who carry the family name, who indeed are conservative.

“Coors has a famous reputation because of the long-standing old notion of the boycott,” says Wilke, “but when you compare them to their peers in that category, their peers are not doing nearly as well. To keep things in perspective, the other two major brewers, Miller and Anheuser-Busch, don’t have most of these things.”

Fisher says that since the Coors company became public, the Coors family has relinquished the reins of the business.

“The family has their own private politics,” he says. “As far as I know, it hasn’t been an issue for any companies in the United States dealing with Coors. They’re still sponsoring a lot of stuff, various GLBT things, especially AIDS and HIV.

“It’s short-sighted to include the family politics with the organizational politics,” says Fisher. “If an organization is benefitting the community and putting forward an example such as affirmative action in the US, where it’s not very common, they may actually wind up making the family politics obsolete.”

But Jerry Sloan, cofounder of Project Tocsin, a California-based watchdog of the US religious right, balks at the idea of separating the family from the business.

“That’s been the spin that they’ve made and that’s been the spin that our community has bought,” says Sloan with a knowing laugh. “That the family and the company are separate. And they’re not! Peter Coors, who’s head of everything at the Coors family, leaves the Coors boardroom, drives across town to the Castle Rock Foundation and gives all this money to the New Congress Foundation and the Heritage Foundation and all these rightwing organizations that are opposed to gay rights, women’s rights and so on.”

However, Wilke says that the boycott that started in 1978 has ended. “Some people aren’t even sure whether it’s still on or not,” he says. “In some people’s minds, it still is. It depends on who you ask.”

“The boycott has been going 30 years and that’s quite a long time to sustain something,” says Sloan. “Here in the US, in Sacramento, when the Coors boycott was broken, I screamed and hollered at the main bar that broke the boycott. We had meetings with Coors people and all that sort of thing. San Francisco, bless their hearts, has sustained the boycott all these years.”

Sloan points out that, in the 1970s and 1980s, Coors also got into horrible trouble with the Hispanic and African communities in the US.

“They said and did dumb things,” Sloan said. “The Hispanic and African organizations had enough sense that they got together, went to Coors and said, ‘We’ll forgive you, but you’ve got to do something for us.’ Between the two communities, they got almost a billion out of Coors.

“And we have just sold out like cheap whores,” he says of gay institutions, such as Ottawa Pride, accepting Coors’ support of $5,000.

Labatt management says the decision came as a surprise.

“This year, a new board came in and we put together what we felt was a very reasonable proposal,” says Jeff Milbury, Labatt Blue’s territory manager for Ottawa’s core.

“We’ve put thousands of dollars into Pride over the years and are very disappointed with their decision, there’s absolutely no question,” adds Milbury. “We were looking forward to working with them this year.

“We still sponsor the community,” adds Milbury. “We did a parking lot party. We’ve been involved with Miss Ottawa Continental, various sports teams and also the Lookout, Centretown Pub, Pink, Edge, The Buzz. We look forward to working with the community on an on-going basis.”

Fisher offers no apology for the committee’s decision. “We have no reason to turn Molson Coors down. As long they sponsor and they help forward our community, then I think it’s a positive thing for business.”

Duetta recalls first working with Labatt Blue a few years ago.

“I recall being approached by the highest levels of Labatt in the province saying, ‘We’re not just interested in this event; we want the gay community to know that we support them and we want to make contacts with all aspects of it,'” says Duetta. “And they did – from the businesses, their strategic relationships with the retailers, down to the volleyball teams and the Ottawa Knights.

“Nobody else wants to put their logo beside someone with his ass hanging out of a pair of leather chaps,” says Duetta. “I don’t see those other companies knocking on the doors of the transsexuals to offer them financial support for the events they’re doing.

“That’s where that support meant more than almost anything. They accepted us, warts and all. I’m furious that that relationship that I and dozens of other people worked very hard at is finished.”