Ahead of the Tennessee House of Representatives vote on SB228/HB3, which effectively bans transgender student athletes from competing in sports on teams that affirm their gender identity, both local and national businesses continued to donate money or support Gov. Bill Lee and other GOP legislators who advocate for the bill. For many of those companies, giving to a party that supports anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is in direct conflict with public personas and company policy.

Prior to the Tennessee Senate passing the bill 27-6 on March 1, Amazon donated $10,000 to Lee’s campaign in November 2020. In February, Amazon announced a new $200 million fulfillment center in Alcoa, Tennessee, and Lee congratulated the company on its latest opening. It’s the third Amazon fulfillment center in Tennessee in under a year. 

Amazon also donated $8,000 to Lt. Gov. Randy McNally. McNally has been lukewarm toward the anti-transgender bill, but according to the Tennessean, his concerns are more about federal oversight and state funding being cut. He says trangender athletes could hurt middle school and high school athletics for girls. McNally voted yes on the bill. The bill will still go before the House for a final vote before passing, if approved.

Amazon logo.

In 2017, Amazon posted an article on their website about participation in Pride parades around the world, showing photos of Pride parade floats in the U.S., Italy and Japan. The website states the company flew a pride flag at headquarters and helped a couple get engaged at a parade. Amazon is still selling Nashville Pride shirts online for $14.

 In a statement to Tennessee Lookout, an Amazon spokesperson said, “Amazon has a long history of supporting equality and we’re opposed to laws that discriminate or encourage discrimination.”

However, in 2020 the state of New York sued Amazon over its lack of COVID-19 safety precautions for workers. The New York Attorney General said the company displayed “flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements.” In December last year, the Guardian reported that the National Labor Relations Board found Amazon illegally fired a protesting employee who is Black. Last week, online news site Vox published an expose about racism and disrespect toward Black employees at Amazon, and on March 1 Monday, Bloomberg reporter Ian Kullgren tweeted that a Nashville employee was fired for engaging in “labor activity” like discussing wages.

Despite lawsuits and federal complaints, Amazon was given a perfect “Corporate Equality Index” score by the Human Rights Campaign, or HRC, for the past three years. The CEI score reflects a company’s treatment of LGBTQ workers instead of overall company practices, making it a helpful—but not all-encompassing—tool. Still, an HRC spokesperson said the new bill is bad for Gov. Lee and for Tennessee. 

“This legislation will not only cost Tennessee taxpayers thousands in court, it could cost the state millions in revenue from lost business,” Kate Oakley, HRC state legislative director and senior counsel, said. “Neither Gov. Lee nor any of the [bill’s] proponents can name an instance of transgender athletes trying to game the system because no examples exist… Gov. Lee should focus on passing relief to help Tennesseans. Anti-transgender legislation is not just putting Gov. Lee on the wrong side of history, it’s a bad business decision for the state.”

HRC would not say whether they would reconsider Amazon’s rating with their organization. 

Other McNally donors include Walgreens, which gave $500 and General Motors Company PAC, which donated $7,500 between 2020 and 2021. Pfizer Inc. PAC donated $1,500 and Publix donated $2,500. Publix operates about two dozen stores in the state and just opened a new location in East Nashville, but the HRC gives them a low Corporate Equality score for a lack of non-discrimination policies and spousal benefits. GM said in an email statement donations were paused in January following the Capitol insurrection, and that “General Motors’ commitment to the LGBTQ community is at the core” of their policies. GM is a member of TechNet, a bipartisan network of tech company CEOs. TechNet sent a letter on Feb. 8 to Rep. Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville, chair of the House K-12 Subcommittee, encouraging Tennessee lawmakers to vote against the bill.

Walgreens, Pfizer and Publix did not respond to requests for comment.

Other Lee donors include the Tennessee Titans, whose co-owner Kenneth Adams IV gave a combined total of $8,400 to Lee’s campaign in December last year. In 2017, both the NBA and NFL threatened to stop holding sports events in Texas if the anti-transgender bathroom bill passed. 

“If a proposal that is discriminatory or inconsistent with our values were to become law there, that would certainly be a factor considered when thinking about awarding future events,” a NFL spokesman said in a news article at the time. 

Multiple Titans press representatives did not respond to requests for comment on Lee’s anti-transgender bill. 

  This legislation will not only cost Tennessee taxpayers thousands in court, it could cost the state millions in revenue from lost business.   – Kate Oakley, Human Rights Campaign legislative director and senior counsel

Southwest Airlines’ PAC also joined the Titans, Amazon and others in donating thousands to Lee’s campaign. The Southwest Airlines Freedom Fund donated an aggregate $4,500, with $2,000 donated to the governor’s campaign in December of last year, although they may not be giving to him in the future, according to a statement given to the Lookout. 

Southwest’s PAC also donated $2,500 to McNally and $2,500 to Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton in November 2019.

“We are reviewing our PAC giving criteria. We do not foresee giving any PAC contributions in the next couple of months as we conduct our internal review,” a Southwest spokesperson said via email. 

The spokesperson said the review was part of a normal internal process and not prompted by any particular legislation. Southwest has previously participated in LGBTQ events including Pride Parades, film festivals and other events around the U.S. A page on their website is called “gay friendly travel.”

Sexton also received $5,000 from Amazon in October 2019 and $2,500 from General Motors in December 2019. 

In 2017, a similar “bathroom bill’’ cost the state of North Carolina nearly $4 billion in lost business. Losses included abandoned plans for a Paypal facility, a canceled Ringo Starr concert and an NCAA boycott. 

In addition to multi-million dollar businesses, Nashville icons like country singer Luke Bryan donated thousands to Lee’s campaign. Two donations totaling $5,800 were made in January. Bryan is currently up for ACM Entertainer of the Year; ACM did not comment about whether Bryan’s support of Lee would affect his standing with the organization. 

Bryan has rescheduled most of the shows on his “Proud to Be Right Here,” tour, but will return as an American Idol judge alongside Katy Perry and Lionel Richie in May. According to his website, Bryan was chosen for the Country Radio Broadcasters 2021 Artist Humanitarian Award for charitable donations. Bryan has previously participated in ESPN college football events, saying he loves “the excitement as college football season begins.” If SB228/HB3 passes, it could affect Tennessee student athletes in middle school and high school who may have gone on to play college football or join cheerleading teams but will no longer be allowed to. Bryan’s press team did not respond to requests for comment.

Even if companies aren’t known for being staunch LGBTQ+ advocates, they still have to follow federal guidelines for non-discriminatory practices. But many take it a step further and make being LGBTQ-friendly a part of their public persona. These donations are in direct opposition to those PR campaigns, according to one PR expert who says they need to “put their money where their mouth is.”

“They’re clearly ashamed of where they’re putting their money,” says Rachel Martin, a California-based PR business owner who has led campaigns for multiple Tennessee country singers and businesses. “They’re putting on a different mask. That is hypocrisy. That is doing a huge disservice to the LBGTQ community.”

Martin says the best way for people to hold corporations accountable to their public personas will be either social media efforts from large groups or from a single, significant person or brand. Martin recalls the way Taylor Swift spoke out against Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn during the 2018 midterms, causing a massive uptick in voter registration. Martin says she orders from Amazon Prime frequently but will now consider taking her business elsewhere, and that most consumers probably aren’t aware which companies give money to anti-LGBTQ+ legislators. She says she’s going to take a look at donations her favorite companies make moving forward and encourages others to do the same.

State Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

SB228/HB3 was filed by Tennessee lawmakers including Rep. Joey Hensley, who in 2019 was accused of inappropriately prescribing drugs to family members. The Tennessee Department of Health charged Hensley before the Board of Medical Examiners. In 2017, details of one of Hensley’s divorces was made public when it was found that as a doctor, Hensley had a relationship with a nurse who was also his second cousin.

Previous reporting by the Lookout found that SB228/HB3 will cost Tennessee taxpayers thousands of dollars in legal costs if passed. Lee has said that allowing transgender athletes to play sports on teams whose gender they identify with will destory competitive events despite not being able to cite a single case in which there was a problem. Lee put $5 million in his proposed $41.8 billion spending plan for fiscal 2022 to cover expenses for outside counsel and court settlements and is seeking $2 million more for this year’s budget. 

(A transgender woman hold a transgender pride flag at a rally for LGBTQ rights in New York. Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images.)