Oil Giant's Policy Fuels Gays' Protest

If Houston's gays and lesbians have their way, a rally at a tiny downtown park could have a big impact at the pump for petroleum giant ExxonMobil.

At 4 p.m. on January 28 activists will gather at Brazos and Pease, near Cullen Center, to protest inconsistencies in the corporation's policy on benefits for same-sex domestic partners.

Prior to the December merger of Mobil and Exxon, gay and lesbian Mobil employees and their partners enjoyed full benefits just like their heterosexual co-workers. Exxon workers did not. The marriage of the companies has created a two-tiered approach to the benefit issue for mates of gays and lesbians.

Mobil workers who were signed up for the benefit packages will continue to get them. Same-sex partners for everybody else -- Exxon workers, new employees of the merged corporations or Mobil workers who had not enrolled earlier -- are left out in the cold without benefits.

Dan DiDonato, one of three organizers of the rally, says the demonstration will launch a national boycott against ExxonMobil. "We want to make our message very clear, that this is a step in the wrong direction."

On the national front, the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay and lesbian rights advocacy group, got ExxonMobil bounced from two indexes of gay-friendly companies. Moreover, the Gay Financial Network removed the firm from its list of 50 top companies.

Houston's Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus passed a resolution condemning the company's policy. And rally organizers are asking ExxonMobil customers to cut up their credit cards.

The calls for boycotts and protests come at a time of bumper-crop earnings for the energy giant. ExxonMobil profits were up 29 percent for the fourth quarter of last year. Prices at the pump are rising even higher, leading analysts to predict strong revenues for the company.

However, the action on the gay and lesbian front has prompted plenty of controversy. ExxonMobil spokesman Tom Cirigliano says the corporation's Irving headquarters has received about 2,000 letters that are roughly split on the issue. Many of the writers who commend the decision belong to organizations from the religious right, he says.

Cirigliano says that ExxonMobil is "guided by the laws in the 200 countries in which we operate." He cites Holland as an example of a country in which domestic-partner benefits are required by law. Exxon's Dutch gay and lesbian employees enjoy the same benefits as their straight brethren. "If it's a legally covered spousal relationship, it's covered," he says.

However, that doesn't extend to employees in the United States, where same-sex marriages are not legally recognized. As for activists who argue that it's only equitable and right for the policy to be extended to American workers, Cirigliano replies that "right is in the eye of the beholder."

The spokesman is quick to point out that the policy leaves many of its gay and lesbian employees in a benefits Siberia. But Cirigliano says the company is not discriminating.

"This decision is not a political statement," he says. "We chose not to take sides on this issue. It is simply a business decision designed to efficiently, fairly and effectively apply our benefits program. We didn't take away any of our Mobil domestic partners' benefits."

At the Exxon shareholders meeting last year, gay and lesbian stockholders forced a vote on the policy. Cirigliano says 94 percent of the stockholders opposed extending benefits to the domestic partners.

"These are the owners of our company who voted," he says.

Rally organizer DiDonato isn't surprised by the vote or the corporate benefits policy. "They always come out against us."

He says that he and others in the Houston gay and lesbian community want to send ExxonMobil a wake-up call with what he refers to as the Equality Rally.

While DiDonato concedes that the rally is "just a little annoyance to a big corporation," he believes the boycott could catch the attention of profit-hungry executives.

"We are asking people to cut up their credit cards and send them to our post office box and to also go to community-friendly oil companies to make their purchases," he says. "We then want them to send their receipts to ExxonMobil so that the company can see that this business could have gone to them."


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