Brands Asked Idaho Lawmakers to Value Diversity. They Didn’t Listen

It's now the first U.S. state to ban transgender women from sports

The ACLU and Lambda Legal are bringing legal action against Idaho over two new anti-transgender laws. - Credit by Getty Images
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Tuesday marked the annual Transgender Day of Visibility, with LGBTQ advocates as well as several brands set to post celebratory messages of support to the trans community.

But as the unofficial holiday kicked off, news reports added a somber tone to the day. The night before, Idaho Gov. Brad Little had enacted two controversial laws: one banning transgender girls and women from participating in sports (House Bill 500), and another prohibiting trans people born in Idaho from changing the gender on their birth certificates (House Bill 509). The former made Idaho the first U.S. state to outright ban transgender participation in athletics.

Four Idaho-based companies had tried in vain to discourage the state legislature from passing the bills. In a March 2 letter to the state Senate’s State Affairs Committee, four brands with operations in Idaho—Chobani, Clif Bar, HP and Micron—urged lawmakers to vote against the bills.

“As businesses, we’re committed to the principles of diversity and inclusion, and we are very proud to call Idaho home,” they wrote. The letter went on to describe the state’s “strong and growing economy” and the “welcoming, big-hearted spirit of its people.”

“This is a well-earned reputation, and these bills targeting transgender Idahoans puts that reputation at risk and goes against creating a workforce that welcomes all,” said the letter. “Passage of these bills could hurt our ability to attract and retain top talent to Idaho, and it could damage Idaho’s ability to attract new businesses and create jobs.”

The companies asked senators to “support all of Idaho’s diverse communities and reject these measures.” Instead, state legislators voted to pass the laws—and Gov. Little enacted them on Monday.

At the time that the joint letter was sent, few realized the devastating impact the coronavirus pandemic would have on the U.S. economy at large. It’s obvious now that the crisis is likely to impact state economies at a level far beyond that of a discriminatory state law.

But the brands had reason for concern: When North Carolina passed an anti-transgender “bathroom bill” called HB2 in 2016, the state lost an estimated $3.76 billion the following year. (A lawsuit brought against the state was settled in 2019 to allow people using bathrooms in public buildings to choose the facility that conforms to their gender identity.)

Anti-LGBTQ laws tend to have a ripple effect from an economic standpoint. Companies concerned about their ability to attract and retain talent pull operations from the state. City and state governments ban travel to the state in order to pressure local leaders. Celebrities cancel appearances, musicians cancel tour dates, and even sports leagues pull major events. All of this happened to North Carolina after HB2; while Idaho’s losses would likely be considerably lower, the fear of economic backlash is hardly mere paranoia.

Even amid a pandemic that’s redirecting almost all resources, brands and influencers are still speaking out against the Idaho anti-trans laws. Soccer star and Nike brand ambassador Ali Krieger had urged the governor to veto the law, slamming Idaho for being “focused on attacking transgender youth” during a major international crisis.

In response to a request for further comment on Idaho banning transgender girls from athletics, a Nike spokesperson said the brand has “been a strong supporter of the LGBTQ community around the world, and we support all athletes, from everyday runners to elite competitors, trying to break down barriers to realize their potential.”

While HP declined to comment on the potential economic impact to Idaho, a spokesperson told Adweek that “HP is deeply committed to the principles of diversity, inclusion and acceptance, and we will continue to embrace these values across everything we do.”

The state, for its part, is bracing for a showdown in the courts. Ritchie Eppink, legal director at the ACLU of Idaho, confirmed that the human rights group is “planning legal action to challenge HB 500, the hateful anti-trans legislation about student athletics,” and that Lambda Legal had already started legal proceedings against the state in relation to the birth certificate law banning gender changes.

“Industry giants including Amazon, Airbnb, Apple, AT&T, Google, Microsoft and Nike have all publicly opposed these bills, noting the negative economic impact they will have,” said Eppnik, referring to a Human Rights Campaign and Freedom for All Americans letter co-signed by over three dozen companies in opposition to anti-LGBTQ state laws. That letter, updated March 26th, isn’t just in response to Idaho but to similar laws sweeping the nation.

Nearly 100 explicitly anti-transgender state laws have been introduced so far in 2020 across a majority of U.S. states (27, to be exact), according to a legislative tracker operated by the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Federation. In Tennessee, for example, numerous proposed laws would do things like charge mental health providers with child abuse for providing therapy to transgender children, ban trans kids from participating in sports, and add private facilities like restrooms to indecent exposure laws so that trans people could be arrested and charged with a crime for using the bathroom that conforms to their gender identity.

In response to anti-LGBTQ laws in the state legislature, the Tennessee Equality Project launched Tennessee Open to All, a free program for “small businesses that pledge not to discriminate against their employees or customers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” Companies that have sworn to that pledge include Mindbody, Lyft, Best Western and Bank of Nashville.

@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.