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Well into the 1990s, the energetic, septuagenarian gay organizer Morris Kight vehemently opposed any suggestion that the Coors beer boycott, first launched in the late 1950s by unionized brewery workers and later taken up by Chicano, Black, and LGBT activists, was over. For nearly four decades, Kight and other activists had joined in a coalition to oppose the Colorado-based Coors Brewing Company, alleging anti-unionism and employment discrimination against people of color, gay men, and lesbians. The boycott also targeted the Coors family’s deep-pocketed support for right-wing, conservative politics.
In 1997, Kight and fellow boycott supporters worried that the Coors Brewing Company was successfully buying off gay and lesbian organizations in an effort to end the boycott. Since the late 1980s, the company’s marketing and community relations teams had sought to mollify many of its critics through philanthropic support. Between 1988 and 1990 alone, Coors and its distributors donated to almost twenty AIDS walks, benefit concerts, or organizations.
Coors supplemented these outreach efforts with public gestures towards equality and significant changes to its employment practices. In 1992, the company helped fight a proposed amendment to the Colorado state constitution that prohibited any locality from recognizing gay men and lesbians as members of a protected class. And in the summer of 1995, Coors announced that its Board of Directors had voted to provide employees’ same-sex partners with insurance and other spousal benefits.
Yet many on the gay and lesbian left saw the company’s efforts as disingenuous distractions. Kight and fellow boycott committee members focused especially on exposing how wealthy business owners like the Coors family influenced both conservative politics and everyday forms of oppression against gay men and lesbians. “Follow the money,” they insisted.
To them, the real problem was not the Coors company, but the Coors family, and its new venture, an openly conservative spinoff of the Adolph Coors Foundation (ACF) called the Castle Rock Foundation. Created in 1993 with a $36.6 million bequest from the ACF, Castle Rock sought to promote free enterprise, “ensure a limited role for government,” promote “personal responsibility,” and “uphold traditional Judeo-Christian values.” Coors family members sat on Castle Rock’s Board of Trustees.
Because of this, the revived boycott committee urged fellow gay men and lesbians to join—or stay faithful to—a boycott effort that had made the Coors name synonymous with right wing politics. Yet some younger, white gay activists aligned themselves with wealthy, moderate gay rights organizations and a more centrist Democratic Party. They welcomed Coors’s new corporate social responsibility—even though company profits were also funding Castle Rock.
This split among LGBT activists tells us much about a boycott that has technically never ended. And it offers important lessons for today’s consumer activists as they take on companies like Chick-fil-A, SoulCycle, and other corporations affiliated with former President Donald Trump.
Ironically, it was the attempt to end the Coors boycott that revived it. On May 5, 1997, resolution 97-1740, passed unanimously by the City Council of West Hollywood, acknowledged “the efforts that the Coors Brewing Company has made in its policies and relations with the lesbian and gay community.” Offered by David Fisher, a local entrepreneur and member of the West Hollywood Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board (LGAB), council members recognized Coors’s steps toward becoming a “socially responsible company,” called on the West Hollywood community to join them in their commendation, and resolved to start a dialogue with the company.
Boycotters, many of whom lived in gay-friendly West Hollywood, were flabbergasted. They reconvened their boycott committee and vowed to expose what they saw as the company’s “slick and heavily- funded public relations campaign to convince the gay community that its virulent homophobia is a thing of the past and that we should buy its beer.” They organized protests of Coors-sponsored events, wrote letters to offending gay and lesbian organizations, honored gay bars not selling Coors and shamed those that did, publishing regular opinion and investigative pieces in gay and lesbian publications.
Under pressure, West Hollywood’s LGAB and City Council began to reconsider its praise of Coors. In April 1998, the LGAB voted five to four to rescind the original commendation. Two months later, the full City Council met to debate, listen to the public, and vote to either revise or rescind the resolution.
On the night of June 1, nineteen speakers came to the podium to speak to the mayor and City Council on the subject of Coors. All of them, many of whom had been turned out by the boycott committee, pushed for full rescission of the resolution. In addition, each speaker ruminated on the meaning of the boycott to West Hollywood and gay men and lesbians, expressed disappointment and pain at the original commendation, and lambasted the City Council—especially its gay members—for their pro-Coors leanings.
After twenty minutes of debate, the beleaguered City Council members voted to rescind the original resolution, and the members of the boycott committee left the room, victorious.
These actions re-ignited the boycott across the nation. From 1997 to 1999, boycotters bestowed ironic commendations, such as the “Coors Hoors Award” (also called the “Coors Whore Award” or “Golden Shower Award”) on community organizations that had, in their estimation, betrayed their responsibilities to LGBT people in exchange for financial support from Coors. Among the recipients were the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD) and Atlanta Pride.
Yet by their focus on publicly shaming gay and lesbian organizations, the boycott committee deflected attention away from Coors itself. And they inflamed intracommunity tensions, casting GLAAD and pride celebration organizers as sellouts, rather than allies in the broader fight against homophobia and the far right.
As people in Los Angeles debated the future and relevance of the Coors boycott, they also presented distinct visions of successful consumer politics. Local leaders insisted that the Coors boycott had already succeeded, since the company now publicly recognized the rights of gay men and lesbians in the workplace and in the wider community. Gay consumers should now, they argued, use their power to reward good corporate behavior.
But men like Kight continued to see consumer politics and the boycott as primarily, and broadly, punitive. Boycotting the company was a weapon against the Coors family, its foundations, and its political commitments–as well as anyone who accepted their money.
There was little room for compromise in these debates. Furthermore, the company, though beleaguered by decades of boycotts from not just gay, but Black, Chicano, and union coalitions, benefited from this infighting, responding with a consistent message of philanthropic support and alliance. The brewery thus continued to aggressively court gays and lesbians, supporting their events into the 2000’s and earning consumers’ trust. Intracommunity disagreements, combined with Coors’s targeted outreach, splintered the coalition that made the boycott successful in the first place.
Yet older gay activists were not alone in their loyalty to the Coors boycott, or in their strategic errors. Buoyed by a small book by Russ Bellant, The Coors Connection (1988), left wing radicals also kept watch on the Coors family’s conservative philanthropy in the 1990s. Environmental groups from the radical Earth First! to the more established Sierra Club blasted the company for its toxic leaks, wastewater dumping, and a beer spill that killed thousands of fish in Colorado’s Clear Creek. In Colorado and New Mexico, Chicano organizers revived their own “Chale Con Coors” committees.
However, the anti-Coors movement was no longer a coalition-driven, nationwide, effort: weakened by fragmentation, it limped along with increasingly less tangible goals, other than fighting the rise of homophobia and racism. In 2004, for example, gay activists again called for a boycott when Pete Coors ran for Senate from Colorado and endorsed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage—even though the Coors company very publicly reaffirmed its support for gay rights. In 2013, Puerto Rican activists in New York City announced a boycott of MillerCoors (the company’s name after a 2007 merger), charging that it had been “disrespectful” of Puerto Rican culture by naming Coors Light the “cerveza oficial” of the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade and emblazoning the island’s flag on its silver bullet cans. Calls to boycott Coors again re-emerged in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 election to the presidency.
Since the late 1980s, the Coors boycott, in communities and as a national coalition, has been hobbled by internal divisions, inconsistent goal setting, and Coors’s preemption, co-optation, and rebranding. Yet it goes on. Many of the men and women who proudly donned boycott buttons and walked picket lines still refuse to purchase or drink Coors beer or let it into their homes. Coors has not changed, they reason, and neither will they.
As importantly, the imperfect Coors boycott became a template for new consumer boycotts that proliferate in the twenty-first century. Using the internet and social media, grassroots protestors register political dissent by publicly pledging themselves to consumer activism. After 2014, boycotting Chick-fil-A became a way for those on the left to express support for gay rights, while conservatives eat there to troll the libs. In 2019, when billionaire Stephen Ross, the majority stakeholder of Equinox and SoulCycle fitness studios, was identified as a key fund-raiser for President Donald Trump’s reelection bid, many Americans canceled their gym memberships. The craft store Hobby Lobby, the outdoor retail giant L. L. Bean, Yuengling Brewing, and Nathan’s Hot Dogs have been boycotted from the left, while Target, Nike, and Dick’s Sporting Goods have been targeted by pro-gun, family values conservatives.
None of these consumer movements seem to have moved these companies to change. So what are the lessons that might have been learned from the long history of the Coors boycott?
First, a boycott must be careful and coordinated.When labor organizer Dave Sickler took the reins of the AFL-CIO’s campaign against Coors in 1977, he vowed to run a boycott of the “scalpel.” Thanks to the careful work of Chicano, Teamster, and gay organizers, the evolution of the boycott in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrated the importance of such careful planning. By identifying allies; tapping into activist and organizing networks; and crafting multifaceted, clear appeals, Coors boycotters built a tenacious and expansive movement.
Second, broad-based alliances and coalitions are important, but activating them is vital. The anti-Coors movement learned that building viable, functional coalitions, not simply lists of proximate organizations, was hard work. It required intentional outreach, reciprocal commitments and, importantly, insistence that the fight against Coors was everybody’s struggle. When done well, this work can amplify a boycott call, reach a broader audience, hit a targeted corporation from multiple angles, and keep constituencies accountable to one another.
Third, setting the terms of victory is essential: a boycott struggle cannot continue indefinitely without clear goals.Many of the internal divisions that plagued the anti-Coors movement were the product of coalition members’ different ideas about what would be required to end it. From the start, and some imagined the boycott ending once the company met certain benchmarks in hiring or philanthropy. Other boycotters cared little about the company’s rebranding and saw the only appropriate resolution for Coors’s past behavior as the demise of the company.
Divergent goals such as these weakened the effort and repeatedly pitted allies against one another. This has more serious consequences as a boycott movement seeks to engage a broader public. To take a more contemporary example that exemplifies this problem: Do anti-Chick-fil-A activists hope to punish CEO Dan Cathy for his politics and political activities? Or do they hope that restaurant or franchise owners will change their own policies to embrace LGBT employees?
Fourth, far more pressing than internal disunity are the preemption and co-optation of a boycott movement by its target. The biggest challenge that the anti-Coors movement faced, particularly by the 1980s, was the company itself. Aggressive anti-boycott activities, efforts to segment the boycott coalition and take advantage of internal fractures, and strategic uses of corporate philanthropy deftly weakened the original boycott coalition of labor, queer and racial justice activists.
Distracting concessions continue to be a favorite tactic against consumer activists. For example, some journalists and boycotters declared the campaign against Equinox and SoulCycle a success because both businesses launched high-profile philanthropic efforts to mollify their critics. Yet the primary targets of the boycott—Ross and his firm, Related Companies—went largely unscathed. And Ross continued to raise millions for Trump.
Finally, sustaining a boycott relies on flexibility and creativity: a sense of joy must accompany stubbornness, anger, and political principles to motivate participants to keep fighting.As the Coors boycott matured and diversified, it outgrew the “don’t buy lists” and traditional picketing of its early iterations. Over the course of forty decades of boycotting, activists’ tactics ranged from conducting targeted protests and carrying homemade signs, to the use of loud bullhorns, commemorative plaques for “Coors Whores,” bright yellow bumper stickers, aerial advertising, and sidewalk gatherings to pour Coors beer into the gutter.
Consumer activism has to be fed by passion. This is an important reason why, despite its other flaws, the Coors boycott still exists almost half a century after it began. Above all else, the Coors boycotters were bound together by anger, bitterness, and shared visions of liberation and solidarity. But they also had fun.
The history of the Coors boycott shows us that consumer activism is not a “hangover from another era,” as one publication argued in 1998. It is a living, breathing, useful tool for understanding the activisms of the present. Boycotts invite debate, spark conversations about consumer citizenship. They help forge solidarity across space and time. They have an expressive, community-building impact, communicating personal and shared values–even when they fall short of solving the problem that put them in motion in the first place.
Allyson P. Brantley is Assistant Professor of History & Director of Honors and Interdisciplinary Initiatives at the University of La Verne.
This essay has been adapted from Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism (University of North Carolina Press, 2021)