LGBTQ Rights Matter to Asian Carmakers—When They're in the U.S.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. has courted the American LGBTQ community for years, backing a film series in 2019 that featured Shangela—a breakout star of the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race—and sponsoring the Outfest Fusion QTBIPOC Film Festival for queer artists of color. In April the company unveiled a 60-second commercial, Chosen Family, made by a gay-owned production company with a cast including drag queens and a male couple expecting a baby with a pregnant woman.
A longtime sponsor of Glaad’s annual media awards, Hyundai received a perfect score in this year’s Human Rights Campaign Foundation ranking of the best places for LGBTQ people to work. The company is “proud to partner with organizations that fight for LGBTQ rights every day,” said Angela Zepeda, chief marketing officer for Hyundai Motor America, in an April statement.
But while Hyundai may be out and proud in the U.S., at home in Korea—where discrimination against gay and transgender people is widespread—there’s little sign of forthright allyship or support for diversity from the automaker. It doesn’t promote slick, uplifting commercials starring Korean LGBTQ performers and doesn’t offer high-profile sponsorships for Korean LGBTQ organizations.
Hyundai sits out the fight back home, says Lee Dong-geol, general director of Korea Gay Men’s Human Rights Group Chingusai. “One would think if they believe in acknowledging and working with the LGBTQ community, they would do the same at home, but they know it won’t help them at all,” he says. “Everyone keeps silent.” When asked about its policy for LGBTQ employees, a Hyundai spokesperson said it guarantees the same benefits and opportunities to all employees as required by law. However, South Korea doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages or partnerships.
With Pride Month celebrations taking place across the U.S. in June, many companies are trumpeting their commitment to diversity and equality. That’s good business: LGBTQ consumers account for about 8% of the country’s total disposable income, or $1 trillion, according to a 2019 report by research firm Kearney.
Hyundai isn’t the only Asian automaker that’s worked hard in America to woo those consumers and make its workplace more inclusive for LGBTQ employees. The U.S. subsidiaries of Toyota Motor Corp. and Subaru Corp. also received perfect scores as employers in HRC’s 2021 Corporate Equality Index, which measures which companies are taking concrete steps to implement policies to ensure LGBTQ equality. Neither Ford Motor Co. nor General Motors Co. managed that feat.
Toyota, which in 2018 started hanging a rainbow flag in front of its U.S. headquarters in Plano, Texas, during Pride Month, backs the Trevor Project, an organization that focuses on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth. In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Toyota North America donated more than $300,000 to gay and trans organizations, acknowledging that members of the community were particularly at risk. Nissan Motor Co. is sponsoring Pride events in Baltimore, Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Washington.
“Japanese companies overseas are trying to abide by the local rules, not Japanese ones, in marketing to LGBTQ+ consumers and supporting LGBTQ+ employees,” says Masami Tamagawa, a professor of Japanese at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and author of Japanese LGBT Diasporas. Their behavior, he says, is summed up by a Japanese expression: “When entering a town, go with the town.”
But like Hyundai in Korea, Japanese automakers aren’t as supportive of a pro-equality agenda at home, says Gon Matsunaka, founder of Pride House Tokyo, Japan’s first LGBTQ center, and president of a group that publishes Japan’s Pride Index of employers. “Japan’s automakers aren’t doing much when it comes to promoting LGBTQ awareness and rights outside of their companies,” he says. “In American indexes they’re receiving top points for their LGBTQ efforts, but in their own backyard, Japan, there’s much less being done.”
Subaru America, for example, was a pioneer in marketing to the American LGBTQ community, using gay-friendly advertising long before most other brands. The company first offered domestic-partner benefits to employees in 2000, earlier than many rivals, and in 2009 it won Glaad’s award for outstanding corporate responsibility. Subaru sponsors PFLAG, which represents LGBTQ people, family members, and allies; Dining Out for Life, an annual fundraiser for people living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and Canada; and other groups supporting the community.
The company has moved much more slowly in Japan. Responding to questions about its policies, a spokesperson pointed to just one initiative: a training session last December for managers to deepen their understanding of LGBTQ issues and learn how to handle cases of harassment. There might soon be some more: “This year, we are considering opening a consultation window for employees and revising our work regulations,” Subaru said in an emailed statement.
For now, the automakers’ LGBTQ employees in Asia miss out on the support their U.S. counterparts enjoy, but there are signs of progress, albeit slow. Toyota, which in 2002 introduced domestic-partner benefits for same-sex couples in the U.S., last year implemented a similar policy in Japan. Honda Motor Co. did, too. Nissan, which made the policy change in 2019 in Japan, mandates that employees at all its units worldwide be respected regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, according to its 2020 Sustainability Report.
Toyota is installing gender-neutral bathrooms at its headquarters near the city of Nagoya in central Japan and in some of its other offices. Last year the company launched an LGBTQ ally registration network for its Japanese workforce, wherein workers can register their support for their LGBTQ colleagues. “We aim to create a workplace in which we can properly understand and accept LGBTQ individuals,” says a Toyota spokeswoman.
Companies haven’t gotten lots of help from the governments of Japan or Korea. Conservative Japanese lawmakers in May blocked a bill that would have labeled anti-LGBTQ discrimination unacceptable. And Korean President Moon Jae-in has not actively supported proposals to protect equal rights for LGBTQ people.
Still, businesses will likely find pro-equality efforts easier to promote as support among the population grows. A Pew Research Center survey last year found 79% of Koreans age 18 to 29 said homosexuality should be accepted by society, vs. only 23% of those 50 and older; in Japan, 92% of young people supported acceptance, and even 56% of those 50 and older did. Matsunaka, the Tokyo-based activist, says he’s been hearing from more automakers that want to be included in his Pride Index. “It’s a global industry that needs to rely increasingly on markets overseas,” he says, “and that’s bringing about a certain amount of change.”
Read more: Japan Heads Into ‘Diversity’ Olympics Without Promised LGBTQ Law
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