In a telling demonstration of how concern about the treatment of LGBT communities worldwide has risen to the fore in US domestic politics, the comptrollers of the City and the State of New York have injected themselves –– in their roles as major institutional investors –– into the issue on two fronts.
On June 27, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli and City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer wrote to 20 leading US-based multinational corporations seeking information about the steps they are taking to ensure workplace fairness for their LGBT employees in nations where their rights, status, and safety are otherwise increasingly under attack.
On the same day, DiNapoli and Stringer wrote to Mail.RU, a Russian company that owns the majority stake in VKontakte (online at VK.com), a social networking platform that is host to several thousand neo-Nazi and anti-gay “communities,” some of which advocate violence and have uploaded content that is either explicitly violent or presents footage in which harassment and violence against LGBT people is only thinly veiled.
The pension funds controlled by the two comptrollers have substantial investments in the 20 American companies to which they wrote and, to a lesser degree, in Mail.RU.
According to a release from the comptrollers and a copy of the letter sent to the 20 US corporations, they were selected based on having significant overseas operations and records of “strong equal opportunity employment policies” in their US activities. The letter notes that recipients received a perfect 100 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index and have endorsed the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would bar job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
According to the grassroots activist group Queer Nation, its members worked in recent months to “mak[e] the case” to DiNapoli and Stringer to put pressure on Mail.RU and VK.com and to raise the issue of internationalizing LGBT nondiscrimination protections among leading American corporations. The group of 20 companies the letter went out to was suggested by the group, it said.
“We are appreciative of Tom DiNapoli and Scott Stringer for their action,” Ken Kidd, a member of Queer Nation, said in a release issued after the comptrollers announced their actions. “Their voices are invaluable in the struggle to win anti-discrimination protections for all employees globally and in halting violence against LGBT people.”
Michael Ighodaro, an activist who worked with Queer Nation on lobbying the comptrollers, said, “As a Nigerian gay man living in New York City, I am happy that the comptrollers are taking this step to ensure city funds are invested in companies that implement pro-LGBT policies globally — especially in Africa.”
Eric Sumberg, a Stringer spokesman, acknowledged the role the activists played in the comptrollers’ decision to move forward, saying, “Both the City and State Comptroller’s Offices had informative meetings with Queer Nation over the past few months.”
The release from DiNapoli and Stringer stated, “Anti-gay legislation in Russia and certain countries in Africa compels companies that have championed LGBT rights here in the US to ensure their policies are upheld wherever they do business.”
DiNapoli, in the release, said, “The momentum of the LGBT civil rights movement here in the US is inspiring, but LGBT men and women face a rising tide of discrimination and violence in some parts of the world. These companies have a strong track record upholding LGBT equality domestically and we want to ensure their employees are protected from discrimination no matter where in the world they’re located.”
For his part, Stringer said. “We want our portfolio companies to protect our investment for the long haul, and that means ensuring that their strong non-discrimination policies are enforced consistently across the globe. On this issue, I am confident that companies will find that taking a stand for what is right is also a way to protect the bottom line.”
Even as they voiced optimism that companies behaving well in the US would also do so abroad, the comptrollers’ letter also contained a warning: “Historically, US companies have suffered reputational damage when they are perceived as being complicit in or turning a blind eye to serious human rights abuses in their international operations.”
The companies contacted by DiNapoli and Stringer –– in which they have $13 billion dollars worth of investments –– are Accenture, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Coca-Cola, Corning, Dow Chemical, General Electric, GlaxoSmithKline, Goldman Sachs, IBM, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase, Marriott, McDonald’s, Morgan Stanley, Pepsico, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, 3M, and Yum! Brands.
In managing the massive pension funds for current and retired city and state employees, Stringer and DiNapoli are among the nation’s largest institutional investors. The pension funds, however, hold a relatively modest stake in Mail.RU –– a total of $9.2 million.
In their letter to that company’s Moscow-based chief financial officer, Matthew Hammond, the comptrollers noted that VK.com hosts “sites advocating and depicting violence against members of the Russian gay community.” They pointed to media reports that members of a group that styles itself “Occupy Pedophilia” lure gay men and teenagers to apartments in cities across Russia where they are assaulted and tortured. Videos of such assaults as well as ones where men are held under duress before the screen goes black and screams are heard have been posted to VK.com. In some cases, victims are seen being forced to drink urine, and the bruising and cuts seen on some of the gay men make clear the violence they suffered even when their actual assault is not shown.
According to Queer Nation, as of June 27, there were 679 Occupy Pedophilia “communities” on VK.com, up by 13 from June 3, despite statements from Mail.RU dating back months that they would work to curb the hate-related and violent content on the social media platform. Videos posted by those communities currently number 3,954, up from 3,933 in early June.
Queer Nation reports that there are an additional 1,593 neo-Nazi communities present on VK.com, affiliated with the so-called 14/ 88 movement. The digits 14 refer to the 14 Words coined by American neo-Nazi David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The digits 88 refer to the eighth letter of the English alphabet –– H – and are shorthand for Heil Hitler.
In their letter to Hammond, DiNapoli and Stringer state that criticism of VK.com’s “association with the abhorrent behavior described above has been increasing in momentum over the past several months and creates the risk of serious reputational harm to Mail RU Group Limited as a 52 percent interest holder of VK.com. As fiduciaries we are concerned about the potential for a negative impact on [city and state pension fund] investments in your company.”
The comptrollers are asking for a report on what plans Mail.RU has to investigate the existence of hate and violence on VK.com and to take appropriate steps to end it.
Ighodaro, in his statement issued by Queer Nation, suggested the pension funds could go further in battling homophobia and anti-LGBT violence around the world.
“I believe the city should divest from any company that has directly or indirectly advocated for the passage of anti-gay laws in Uganda or Nigeria,” he said. “Those investments should be redirected to socially responsible companies within those countries. Making sure New Yorkers’ money is not being used to perpetuate homophobia or violence abroad is the right thing to do.”
Mail.RU’s Hammond, contacted by Gay City News shortly before 11 p.m. Moscow time, had not responded three hours later when this story was posted.