Exxon’s Rainbow Smokescreen

Exxon’s Rainbow Smokescreen

Photograph by Fred Lahache / Connected Archives

 

WORDS BY EMILY SANDERS

When June rolls around, oil giant ExxonMobil is quick to parade rainbow flags on social media. In a collaboration with EXXONKNEWS, The Frontline shows the reality its queer workers face year-round.

In 2015, for the first time ever, Trisha Beissel and more than 125 of her fellow ExxonMobil employees donned rainbow-colored company garb to represent the oil giant in Houston’s LGBT+ Pride Celebration. Beissel, who worked in Exxon’s IT department for 33 years before retiring in 2021, had spent decades fighting for visibility, benefits for her two daughters, and basic workplace protections as a lesbian working at the nation’s largest oil company. 

 

Recalling that day in downtown Houston surrounded by her LGBTQIA+ coworkers and allies, Beissel said she felt supported and cautiously optimistic. Around her, the group was buzzing with excitement: the U.S. Supreme Court had just affirmed the right of same-sex couples to get married the day prior. Following a long legacy of thwarting proposals for LGBTQIA+ protections in the workplace, Exxon had finally added gender identity and sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policies earlier that year.

 

“I was hopeful in 2015 because the world was more hopeful,” Beissel said. “All of that has gone to shit.”

 

Exxon claims to be an ally publicly, but internally, a history of faltering support from corporate leadership has bubbled up once again—and former employees are speaking out. In 2022, amid a surge of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation nationwide and burgeoning concerns that marriage equality could now be back under threat from a newly composed Supreme Court, ExxonMobil implemented a new company policy that banned the rainbow Pride flag and other “external position flags” from company flagpoles, citing the need to maintain “neutrality.” But to many, at this moment in time, the change was anything but neutral. The new flag policy sparked heated backlash from members of the Houston chapter of Exxon’s PRIDE employee resource group, who are now refusing to represent the company at the Houston LGBT+ Pride Celebration on June 25. 

 

In an email seen by Bloomberg, the Houston PRIDE chapter wrote that “it is difficult to reconcile how ExxonMobil recognizes the value of promoting our corporation as supportive of the LGBTQ+ community externally (e.g. advertisements, Pride parades, social media posts) but now believes it inappropriate to visibly show support for our LGBTQ+ employees at the workplace.”

“I was hopeful in 2015 because the world was more hopeful. All of that has gone to shit.”

Trisha Beissel
Former Exxon employee

Just as the oil giant claims to be part of climate solutions (at least when political forces demand as much) while in reality it continues to exacerbate the crisis, ExxonMobil puts forth a queer-friendly public persona in June while former employees say corporate leadership is failing to protect and advocate for its own queer workers year-round.

 

At the start of Pride month, the company updated its cover photos on Facebook and Twitter with portraits of smiling employees over a rainbow-colored background. As an alternative to the Pride flag or a rainbow flag sporting the ExxonMobil logo, which was flown at its Houston office last year, ExxonMobil has now updated its guidance to allow a rainbow flag with the PRIDE employee resource group logo on it, which was visible outside the Houston campus earlier this month. While some individuals who work for Exxon may still be attending the Houston parade on their own, employees have chosen not to represent the PRIDE ExxonMobil employee resource group this year.

 

Exxon is one of the largest employers in Texas, where state legislators are attempting to pass a slew of regressive and terrifying laws targeting LGBTQIA+ people and particularly youth. On Saturday, the Republican Party of Texas adopted a new platform that says that “homosexuality is an abnormal lifestyle choice” and that the party “oppose[s] all efforts to validate transgender identity.” In February, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law ordering child abuse investigations into parents of transgender children who receive gender-affirming healthcare. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has said he will make passing a version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which would prohibit classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation, a “top priority” in the next legislative session. 

 

While Exxon’s public advertisements in recent years have touted the company as an ally, its latest attempt to appear “neutral” in the face of policies that would endanger a vast community of LGBTQIA+ Texans begs the question of whether one of the country’s most powerful and lucrative companies was ever truly committed to protecting its employees at all.

Much like Exxon lied to the public about climate change and continues to greenwash its climate and environmental record, the company’s history on LGBTQIA+ issues—and interviews with former Exxon staffers—suggest that Exxon has rainbow-washed its image when it was convenient to do so and fought or resisted progress when the political winds blew differently. 

 

Conversations with more than half a dozen former Exxon employees yielded reports of a top-down company culture that varied by location and department but did not place a high priority on the rights and well-being of LGBTQIA+ employees. Former staffers expressed concerns about the extreme socially conservative views of leadership, saying they fed into a company culture of “petro-masculinity” geared toward white American or British “family men” with big cars and “traditional” values. Some reported hearing homophobic slurs and jokes in the workplace. Many said they felt an indifference from corporate leadership when it came to protections and inclusivity and that they experienced a general failure from the company’s top decision-makers to address the concerns of LGBTQIA+ employees and people of color on staff. (Exxon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

 

Exxon has gained a reputation over the years for being exceptionally regressive on LGBTQIA+ equality in the workplace, updating its policies only when it was forced to. As Beissel put it, “ExxonMobil was only going to do what they were required to do.” When Exxon merged with Mobil in 1999, the former company not only refused to extend Mobil’s policy providing benefits for same-sex partners to its own employees, but also rescinded benefits from those who had them. 

 

That policy didn’t change until 2013, and the new benefits did not apply to same-sex partners in states that had not yet recognized marriage equality, including Texas. That same year, Freedom to Work, a group advocating for LGBTQIA+ worker protections, sent fictional resumes to Exxon to determine whether the company was discriminating in its hiring process. The group said that Exxon attempted several times to contact a less-qualified fictional applicant for a job interview but failed to make any attempt to contact a more-qualified fictional applicant who identified as gay. Freedom to Work filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, which ruled in favor of Freedom to Work’s case and agreed to co-prosecute the suit before the Illinois Human Rights Commission. But that agency later decided that Freedom to Work did not have the legal standing necessary to bring the action.

 

Beissel, who called herself the “angry lesbian at the office,” said she was involved with an unofficial group of LGBTQIA+ employees since she began working at Exxon. But leadership was not quick to recognize the group even once members began pushing for official status. “Our charter sat on [former CEO] Lee Raymond’s desk for nine months waiting for his signature,” Beissel said.

Former Exxon employee Trisha Beissel has been speaking out about her experience as a lesbian working at the company’s Houston office. (Photograph Courtesy of Trisha Beissel)

In 2008, 20 years after Beissel started at Exxon, PRIDE was finally recognized as an employee resource group with an executive sponsor. But there was still significant work to be done. In 2012 and 2013, ExxonMobil received a score of negative 25 out of 100 in the Human Rights Coalition’s annual Corporate Equality Index—the lowest score of any company surveyed and the only one to ever dip into the negatives. Exxon’s shareholders spent years rejecting proposals for the company to specifically include sexual orientation and gender in its non-discrimination policies.

 

But in 2015, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that required federal contractors to implement protections against discrimination for LGBTQIA+ employees, so ExxonMobil, saying it “always updates its policies to comply with the laws where we work,” made the shift. Former employees said the company began a rush to progress, and, at least on the surface, things got markedly better. They reported finally feeling visible and supported at work; some who hadn’t felt comfortable coming out until that point took the opportunity to do so. Many employees who identified as allies of the LGBTQIA+ community joined PRIDE at that time, and the organization became a larger presence on Exxon’s Houston campus.

 

Rory Pearce, who worked in Exxon’s marketing and IT departments for 22 years, was a member of the Houston PRIDE chapter since it was recognized in 2008—the same year he came out at work. In 2015, he said, ExxonMobil began to put more resources into PRIDE, sending members to conferences to recruit and represent the company, as well as supporting office presentations on gender identity and sexual orientation in the following years. In October 2016, Pearce was sent to the Out and Equal Workplace Summit, a conference promoting “workplaces [that] are inclusive of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions,” which ExxonMobil sponsored for the first time the year prior. 

 

“We were taking it as an opportunity to talk about how much progress has been made and how Exxon is a more open and accepting company,” he said. “You don’t have to stay in the shadows any longer.”

 

That was the first year ExxonMobil employees marched in the Houston LGBT+ Pride Celebration, following the historic Supreme Court ruling that legalized marriage equality nationwide. As the New York Times wrote at the time, “That Exxon, long excoriated by gay rights advocates, would allow itself to be identified with a public expression of support for gay rights is perhaps even more surprising than the Supreme Court’s historic ruling.”

 

“A lot of people didn’t come out at Exxon because of the history,” Pearce said. “Having that support really did make us feel like the company was by our side.”

In 2012 and 2013, ExxonMobil received a score of negative 25 out of 100 in the Human Rights Coalition’s annual Corporate Equality Index—the lowest score of any company surveyed and the only one to ever dip into the negatives.

Now, Pearce, a new father of twins, said, “All of that is gone.” The change, former employees say, began midway through the presidency of Donald Trump as prominent conservatives in Texas and across the country felt empowered to fan the flames of anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment once again. In 2017, Texas Lt. Dan Patrick became the state’s top champion of a dangerous “bathroom bill” targeting transgender Texans. Linda DuCharme, at the time the president of ExxonMobil Global Services company (a division of ExxonMobil), signed onto a letter to Governor Abbott opposing the bill, but Darren Woods, ExxonMobil’s CEO, did not. Though the bill failed to pass, Patrick was re-elected to office the next year where he remains a staunch opponent of queer rights. 

 

In Houston, under the guise of sinking profits toward the end of 2019 and, then, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Exxon leadership began scaling back its support of employee resource groups, former employees said, drastically cutting budgets and prohibiting them from meeting during core business hours. Back then, many climate experts saw the pandemic as an opportunity to move away from oil and gas and build a better world. Exxon took a different approach—all the while beginning to abandon its LGBTQIA+ workers, former employees say.

 

Seeing the writing on the wall, Beissel, who had by then become president of Exxon’s Houston PRIDE, led a push in 2021 for company leadership to publicly support the Equality Act, a federal bill that would codify non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity across the country. Exxon has so far resisted doing so while more than 500 other corporations have signed in support.

 

“It felt like we had to fight tooth and nail every single step of the way,” Beissel said. “And, to me, that is not creating a very accepting environment.” Corporate leadership’s mantra, she said, was always, “Our core business is in oil and gas.”

 

In the final years of Beissel’s tenure, former members of Houston PRIDE said the group began calling for ExxonMobil employees to have the option to self-identify as LGBTQIA+, a step that could help track diversity, equity, and inclusion metrics and discrimination in the workplace. But Exxon still has no mechanism for employees to self identify in company records. Employees who recently left the company said they were particularly concerned about the lack of self-ID in Exxon’s ranking process, a procedure where staffers are routinely evaluated by their supervisors and ranked against their peers. The ranking, which directly determines whether an employee is eligible for pay raises and promotions, is then reviewed by a human resources professional to check for discrimination—but because Exxon employees don’t have a formal process by which to identify as LGBTQIA+, many felt excluded from such a determination.

Screenshot of ExxonMobil’s Twitter page during June 2022.

“How you’re perceived is responsible for how well you do in your rank,” said Pearce, who held roles as a supervisor. “It’s all about what other people think of you.” 

 

Fernando Carrio, who worked for more than six years in consulting and efficiency contracting at ExxonMobil’s Buenos Aires office, called the ranking process “subjective” and “demoralizing.” Carrio said he did not receive a promotion or pay increase during his time at Exxon and recalled being treated as a “rowdy problem child” when expressing concerns to his managers. 

 

“It’s a lot more common for LGBT employees to feel mental health issues at work because they would get excluded—they don’t have a sense of belonging,” Carrio said. “Working at Exxon took a toll on me.”

 

These signals from a major corporation like Exxon—whether refusing internal changes or something as seemingly trivial as banning a flag—have a heavy impact on the lives, families, and communities of the people who work there, not to mention the LGBTQIA+ community at large. Meanwhile, the company is fueling a global crisis that disproportionately affects queer people, too, especially the trans community.

 

“There are companies like Exxon [that] are trying to sweep their LGBTQ employees under the rug [that] have, at best, a spotty history of LGBTQ inclusion in their workplace and [that] decided to take one more step to help with the erasure of LGBTQ people from public life,” said Olivia Hunt, policy director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, an organization focused on the rights of transgender people.

 

Hunt added that people should be wary of “rainbow-washing” by corporations that put up a prismatic version of their logo in June and go back to business as usual in July. “They’re misleading the public as to what it’s like to work there and what their stance actually is,” Hunt said. 

 

(Rainbow-washing is when businesses express support for the LGBTQIA+ community in a performative manner that is not backed by actions as a way to maintain their social license to operate. Just as an algae ad doesn’t make Exxon a sustainable energy company, a rainbow Twitter profile doesn’t make the company a supportive workplace for LGBTQIA+ people.) 

 

After the news leaked that the U.S. Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the historic 1973 ruling that codified the right to abortion nationwide, corporate giants like Amazon and Apple promised to fly their employees out of Texas for abortion care if it became necessary. But in a political landscape where companies like Disney are now being punished for supporting LGBTQIA+ equality, ExxonMobil has stayed notably silent on issues that could put their most vulnerable workers at risk—from Texas’s abortion ban to the 2020 police murder of George Floyd (the company also banned the Black Lives Matter flag from company flagpoles this year).

“It’s a lot more common for LGBT employees to feel mental health issues at work because they would get excluded—they don’t have a sense of belonging. Working at Exxon took a toll on me.”

Fernando Carrio
Former Exxon employee

It’s not just a failure to speak up when it matters: Exxon has also neglected to use its record profits to help workers. The company is, instead, padding the pockets of executives and shareholders while administering mass layoffs and cutting employee salaries (in addition to funding the expansion of oil and gas projects that will lead to planetary catastrophe). According to a recent investigation from Popular Information, ExxonMobil was among the top 25 “rainbow-flag waving companies” to fund anti-LGBTQIA+ politicians since last year, spending more than half a million dollars in donations to officials who promoted legislation attacking the queer and trans community.

 

After Exxon imposed its flag policy change, DuCharme, the executive sponsor for PRIDE and a president at the company, addressed members of PRIDE over social media, saying she was “crushed that the recent news has hurt so many of you.”

 

“The trust you have placed in your colleagues and this company to accept you as you are and to allow you to be yourself has not been misplaced,” she wrote.

 

Beissel was one of many former and current employees to express their disapproval in the LinkedIn comments. “As a retired Houston PRIDE President at XOM [ExxonMobil], these words ring hollow to me,” she wrote in response. “Been there, waited on that.” 

 

“I am wholly ashamed of us and ashamed to say that I work for ExxonMobil,” Martin Obiozor, a current data adviser at Exxon, wrote in reply. “Actions speak louder than words… These recent actions make it clear that people like me are some kind of stain the company wishes it could erase.” (Obiozor and other current employees did not respond to requests for interviews.)

ExxonMobil puts forth a queer-friendly public persona in June while former employees say corporate leadership is failing to protect and advocate for its own queer workers year-round.

Whether it be false commitments to the climate or employees, greenwashing, or rainbow-washing, ExxonMobil has often relied on empty language to mask its true priorities and deflect from the harm it causes. The growing reactionary backlash to equality—and how ExxonMobil responds—will be yet another test of corporate leadership’s true character. 

 

Left to step into the breach created by hostile local governments that are attacking LGBTQIA+ rights, private companies should defend their most vulnerable. Exxon’s failure could foretell the danger of looking to free market forces to protect peoples’ rights when the state puts them in peril. 

 

In the meantime, said Hunt, LGBTQIA+ Americans won’t be shoved back into the closet. 

 

“We’re part of American society, and we’re not going away.”

 

This story was published in partnership with EXXONKNEWS.

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