Walmart's red-bricked headquarters in Bentonville is an inscrutable place for good reason. The world's largest and most successful retailer has trade secrets to keep.
One discreet bit of data — among the estimated 5,000 home office associates, 600 are gay. For the past seven years, some of these lesbian, gay, transsexual, transvestite, transgendered and bisexual professionals have quietly worked to affect political and social change within Walmart.
Their internal corporate resource group, Walmart PRIDE (Promoting, Respect, Inclusion, Diversity & Equity), organized eight years ago, finally came out publicly at the Northwest Arkansas Center for Equality's annual gala, Nov. 16 in Fayetteville.
A dozen members were on hand to receive the center's community partner award. In his keynote address, Greg Warren, who joined Walmart three years ago as vice president of marketing, said he was shocked to learn the company did not provide same-sex benefits.
"So I made it a mission," he said. "But making change at Walmart is like dripping water on stone."
To convince company leaders, PRIDE members produced a documentary in which gay associates told their coming out stories. "Lots of people don't realize you have to come out on daily basis," said one. "It's not easy."
"It made me queasy, nauseous," said another.
"We can't divide ourselves into comfortable portions," another gay male associate said. "We can't be gay at home, then straight at work."
Warren, who is also featured, told the crowd that the video is being shown to associates around the world. "We want to encourage them to bring their authentic selves to work," he said.
In his closing remarks, Warren quoted founder Sam Walton: " 'I've always been driven to buck the system, to innovate, to take things beyond where they've been.' "
"So I believe it is Sam's charge for us to dream bigger, to make tomorrow's actions much larger, more innovative more challenging — and much better."
Walmart claims diversity has been at the core of its culture since Sam Walton opened his first discount center in Arkansas in 1962. For minorities and especially elders, the claim may be true, although complaints about glass ceilings and low wages remain ubiquitous.
But in the early days of Walmart, being gay meant working in the closet. Rumors circulated that if you came out, you faced being fired. Ten years ago, when queried about bias at company headquarters, one lesbian said she kept a photo of a fake husband on her desk to dispel suspicions. A transsexual said she presented as male to hide her true identity. Another woman reported that after coming out, she was written up, then terminated for what she said was a minor infraction.
Fears eased in 2003, after Walmart set diversity goals and expanded its workplace nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation. Two years later, corporate associates were encouraged to organize cultural and ethnic resource groups — support groups to enhance professional development and to foster a sense of community. Hispanics, Asians, blacks, women, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders formed affinity groups. Meanwhile, a few dozen gay associates quietly organized Walmart PRIDE.
"Our company has an inclusive environment where they do feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work," said Sharon Orlopp, Walmart's chief diversity officer.
She said Walmart PRIDE has recently expanded beyond Northwest Arkansas, to include colleagues at the company's e-commerce headquarters in San Bruno, Calif., home to Walmart.com.
"Associates there, as well as in our Tulsa market, recently held a 'Coming Out' day," she said. "And when we opened a Walmart Express in a Chicago neighborhood which is predominately gay, our PRIDE group had involvement with selecting product assortment."
In 2007, Walmart courted the so-called "Lavender Marketplace" by paying $25,000 to join the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. It also co-sponsored an annual convention of "Out & Equal," a group that promotes equality in the workplace.
But the company quickly caught flack. The national right-wing Christian American Family Association called for a nationwide Black Friday boycott. AFA accused the retailer of yielding to a "radical homosexual agenda." Walmart responded by withdrawing from the chamber. It issued a statement saying it would no longer contribute to "highly controversial issues, or give preference to gay or lesbian suppliers."
Three years later, Walmart got flack from the other side, when the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as well as the Human Rights Campaign called for a boycott, telling LGBTQ shoppers to avoid Walmart stores.
Still, Walmart has made some strides towards equality within the company. Last year, Walmart extended its non-discrimination policy to include gender expression and gender identity. Most recently the policy, which also protects transsexual associates, was revised to include intersexed individuals. This summer, Walmart PRIDE launched an "Allies for Inclusion" program at one of its meetings, where Sam's Club president and CEO Rosalind Brewer took the stage in support.
But Deena Fidas, deputy director of the Workplace Project at the Human Rights Campaign based in Washington, D.C., said it's time for Walmart to step up. A majority of Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partnership benefits. Walmart does not.
"We applaud Walmart for implementing basic workplace protections for their LGBT employees," she said. "But they should not have to go through undue legal burden of traveling to another state to acquire same-sex partner benefits. Walmart needs to move towards parity."
Diversity officer Orlopp said the issue of benefits comes up every year.
"We offer same-sex partner benefits in states where it is required," she said. "But for us the whole thing is about talent. We want to make sure we have the absolute best talent at Walmart and that all associates can bring their authentic selves to work."
At the 2010 shareholders meeting in Fayetteville, CEO Mike Duke rolled out the concept "Next Generation Walmart," proclaiming, "If we work together, we'll lower the cost of living for everyone. We'll give the world an opportunity to see what it's like to save and have a better life."
Yet when it comes to a better life, Walmart trails far behind Microsoft, Starbucks and Google, which have all come forward in support of marriage equality.
In 1996 only 28 companies offered health benefits for domestic partners. According to the Human Rights Campaign 2013 Corporate Equality Index, 62 percent of the Fortune 500 companies now offer health care benefits for same-sex partners, as well as things like adoption assistance, bereavement and paid family leave. While more than two hundred companies scored 100 percent on the CEI, Walmart scored only 60.
"Walmart is out of the mainstream compared to companies like Target, Costco and Walgreens," Fidas said. "And with such a low score, the retailer cannot authentically tap into the LGBT consumer market, with an estimated buying power of $790 billion U.S. dollars."
Fidas said LGBT consumers look to HRC's Corporate Equality Index to guide decisions on where to spend their money.
Sam Walton once said: "Each Walmart store should reflect the values of its customers and support the vision they hold for their community."
The Williams Institute, a UCLA-based think-tank devoted to LGBT research, estimates that 4 percent of Americans, or nine million people, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. So given that measure, of 2.2 million Walmart associates worldwide, 88,000 potentially identify as lesbian, gay, transgendered or bisexual.
Laura Berry, spokesperson for the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, based in Washington, D.C., said her organization works with corporations to support the inclusion of LGBT suppliers.
"Walmart worked with NGLCC as a corporate partner in 2007," Berry wrote in an e-mail, "but the relationship was not renewed. However, we have more than 130 corporate partners, and we encourage all corporations to engage LGBT-certified businesses in their supply chains."
Walmart's refusal to fully support LGBT workplace equality was illuminated when it sought to open its first store in New York City in 2010. Gay rights activists joined small business owners and labor leaders in proclaiming the expansion of Walmart stores to be the expansion of antiquated employment policies.*
At the Bentonville headquarters, PRIDE members meet monthly. Support groups open with the classic "Walmart Cheer" but are closed to media. In recent years gay celebrities, filmmakers, experts and activists have been flown in, including Judy Shepherd, mother of slain gay youth Matthew Shepherd; Dr. William Bean, a Fortune 500 LGBT consultant, and Lisa Sherman, executive vice president and general manager of Logo, Viacom Media Network's LGBT channel.
The Human Rights Campaign reports that the Walmart Foundation has resumed making donations to gay organizations, including SAGE, an advocacy group for LGBT elders, Out & Equal, and the LGBT Bar Association. But several years ago, CEO Mike Duke inadvertently revealed his position on LGBT civil rights, after it was leaked that he had signed a petition in 2009 in support of an anti-gay adoption ballot measure in Arkansas. It passed by popular vote, but was later repealed by the state Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
But PRIDE co-chair Bruce Gillispie believes that being gay at Walmart has never been an issue. The senior product development director, who has been out since 1988, said, "I haven't experienced the angst, drama or turmoil around questioning whether I can be out at Walmart."
Gillispie said Walmart PRIDE has recently started to reach out to store associates via its LGBT thread on the company's internal social network, "WalmartOne"
"And the reports I am getting from associates across the country are overwhelmingly positive," he said.
Gillispie concedes that other companies are leading the way on LGBT workplace equality.
"But for us it's more about fulfilling an obligation that we have to our associates and to the culture of the company around respect for the individual. We're charged with making company leaders understand our culture, so they can make the right decisions, set the right course," he said.
Walmart PRIDE is starting to swell, not only at the Walmart.com operation, but at Walmart subsidiary Asda's United Kingdom headquarters. Now members and allies can spot one another by a special lapel pin: the Walmart yellow spark over a rainbow.
"We are seeing this pin all around the world," said Gillispie. "People are starting to collect the pin."
But Jason Rogers, vice president of the Northwest Arkansas Center for Equality, said the rainbow pins are misleading.
"When I first saw the PRIDE pins, it actually shocked me," he said. "I could not believe Walmart would approve their starburst to be used that way. At first I was very snaps to Walmart. But at the same time it does not guarantee protection."
Members of the Northwest Arkansas Center for Equality will continue to celebrate the increments of Walmart's gay liberation. At the close of the annual gala, Jason Rogers pitched a concept to the slightly drunken crowd.
"What about a new slogan?" he asked excitedly. "How about 'Save Money, Live Better and Be Fabulous!' "
The suggestion drew a smattering of giggles — and some nervous applause. Clearly, fabulous has not quite yet arrived.
*This story has been updated. A previous version erroneously said that Walmart operates six stores in New York City. There are no Walmart stores in New York City.
Jacqueline Froelich is a news producer with KUAF Public Radio 91.3FM in Fayetteville as well as a station-based NPR correspondent.