Elite Fifth Avenue Retailers Face Flak for Anti-Gay Ties

Boycott Amway is the critical piece in Fred Karger’s battle with Doug DeVos, a major contributor to the National Organization for Marriage. BOYCOTTAMWAY.COM

Boycott Amway is the critical piece in Fred Karger’s battle with Doug DeVos, a major contributor to the National Organization for Marriage. |BOYCOTTAMWAY.COM

BY ANDY HUMM | Many people of means have gotten behind the fight for marriage equality in recent years, but likely few of them realize that their purchases of the high-end cosmetics lines Laura Mercier and RéVive generate profits for the right-wing DeVos family. The family’s business is helmed by Doug DeVos, who donated half a million dollars to the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the leader in the battle to deny same-sex couples the right to marry — or even obtain lesser relationship recognition.

A group called Rights Equal Rights, led by former political consultant and out gay 2012 Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger, is calling on department stores including Bergdorf Goodman, owned by Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue to stop carrying the DeVos-owned products. The group is also leading a broader campaign to boycott Amway, the privately-held worldwide direct selling giant that made founder Richard DeVos, Sr.’s fortune. Amway, still owned by the DeVos family, just opened its first retail store at Citifield, home of the Mets in Queens.

Owners of Amway, high-end cosmetics affiliates gave $500,000 to National Organization for Marriage

Karger said his group is contemplating pickets of the new Amway site as well as the Fifth Avenue department stores after attempts to meet with executives and discuss the problematic profits have failed. He has already gotten thousands of signatures on his “Boycott Amway” campaign, including from out lesbian actress Jane Lynch, pro-gay NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, and organizations such as the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, and Equality Pennsylvania.

“We will be doing an advertising campaign to include a video commercial specifically designed to target Laura Mercier and RéVive cosmetic brands,” Karger wrote in an email, “and a Spanish language radio ad to be Amway-specific for the Latin market in the US and around the world.”

The DeVos family has long donated to right-wing causes, with its patriarch having served as president of the Council for National Policy (CNP), an umbrella group of social conservative activists founded by fundamentalist leader Tim LaHaye in 1981. Members of the Council have included Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, George W. Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Iran Contra figure Oliver North. The group was ready to form a third party in 2008 if the Republicans nominated pro-choice Rudy Giuliani as their presidential nominee.

But it is the DeVos family’s massive donation to NOM that got Karger going on Amway and affiliated companies.

“NOM has led and funded the battle to stop gay marriage in this country and around the world,” Karger wrote in a letter to Stephen I. Sadove, CEO of Saks, asking him to meet to discuss dropping the offending cosmetics lines. “NOM is only as successful as the money it raises.”

Saks’ director of customer service, Andrea Robins, responded to Karger by defending Gurwitch Products, which markets Laura Mercier and RéVive, writing that the company “several years ago made it a policy to expressly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment practices, even when not mandated by law.” Gurwitch is another business unit of the DeVos-controlled company that also owns Amway.

Robins noted that the donation by Doug DeVos was “made by a private (family) foundation.”

“While we certainly do not agree with all these views, we respect the rights of all citizens to express them,” she wrote.

Robins also defended Saks’ record, writing that it “celebrates diversity” and “is mindful of the importance of human rights.” For the past decade, she noted, the company has provided domestic partner benefits and has also “taken a strong position” in support of its LGBT Associates workplace affinity group. Saks, however, refuses to fill out questionnaires on its employment practices and so has a zero rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s buyers’ guide to companies.

Julia Bentley of Saks’ Investor Relations/ Communications department told Gay City News, “It has been our policy not to participate in third-party surveys in the past, but we are currently re-evaluating that policy. We are in the process of setting up a time to speak with HRC about the survey and to inform them of our policies and practices that prove that we support our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender associates and the community at large.”

Karger pushed back hard against the Saks response.

“I am not at all impressed with the line in your letter that Saks ‘supports’ its LGBT associates,” he wrote back to Robins. “Like most luxury retailers you presumably have thousands of LGBT associates, yet Saks is carrying two cosmetic lines that are owned by the homophobic DeVos family.”

Karger warned that Rights Equal Rights would step up its campaign targeting the company’s sales of the cosmetics lines.

“Since the meeting that I proposed with Mr. Sadove was turned down, you leave us no other choice but to proceed with plans to pressure Saks, Inc. to STOP selling the DeVos-owned cosmetic lines Laura Mercier and RéVive,” he wrote.

Bentley, in comments to Gay City News, largely echoed what Robins wrote to Karger, defending the record on LGBT issues of both Saks and Gurwitch.

“Penalizing the employees of that company by not purchasing those products is not, in our opinion, an appropriate response for Saks,” she argued.

The Neiman Marcus Group, owners of Bergdorf’s, was similarly unwilling to consider curtailing the business it does with the cosmetics lines, using much the same language as Saks did in its response to Karger.

Karger is not blowing smoke when it comes to his willingness to expose corporations and other institutions that aid anti-gay causes and to his success in getting them to stop. He has been relentless in uncovering the extent of the Mormon Church’s “massive involvement” — through its members and in direct financial contributions — in fighting same-sex marriage. His group details the results of its investigation into “Mormongate” on its website at righsequalrights.com/mormongate.

As director of Californians Against Hate in 2009, Karger led a two-week boycott of Ken Garff Automotive, which has 53 dealerships in six states, after family matriarch Katharine Garff donated $100,000 to the previous year’s campaign to enact Proposition 8. Working with Utah philanthropist and gay activist Bruce Bastian, Karger negotiated a settlement with the company’s chairman, Robert Garff, in which it adopted a non-discrimination policy and donated $100,000 to LGBT groups in Utah. And Karger was successful in getting Bolthouse Farms, now owned by Campbell Soup, to offset a $100,000 donation to the Yes on Prop 8 campaign with a $110,000 donation to LGBT causes.

When Doug Manchester, owner of the Grand Hyatt in San Diego, made a $125,000 donation to the Prop 8 campaign, Californians Against Hate teamed up with unions upset over Manchester’s labor practices on a boycott that cost him more than a million dollars a month throughout much of 2009. Manchester sold the hotel two and a half years later.