Wal-Mart Provides Benefits to Same-Sex Partners, but Not Because It Likes Gay People

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Aug. 27 2013 1:34 PM

Wal-Mart Provides Benefits to Same-Sex Partners, but Not Because It Likes Gay People

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A Wal-Mart in Chicago

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Major LGBT news from the private sector today: Wal-Mart, America’s largest private employer, will soon extend insurance benefits to its employees’ domestic partners, including gay couples.

But don’t worry—Wal-Mart’s newfound magnanimity isn’t due to a sudden appreciation for gay rights. According to a memo sent to employees by Sally Welborn, the company’s senior vice president of benefits, and leaked to Joe.My.God., the move is “a business decision, not a moral or political decision.” Welborn claims that following the Supreme Court’s invalidation of DOMA, “states are developing different definitions of marriage, domestic partner, civil union, etc. By developing a single definition for all Walmart associates in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, we are able to ensure consistency for associates across our markets.” (Translation: Anthony Kennedy made us do it.)

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We shouldn’t undervalue Wal-Mart’s decision, inevitable as it may be in light of DOMA’s demise: The move will undoubtedly bring significant new benefits to thousands of gay couples across the country. Still, Welborn’s emphatically apolitical reasoning is a little strange. Most American companies seize on their gay friendly policies to attract the LGBT crowd, even engaging in a little pro-gay activism and marketing to corner the LGBT market share.

Welborn, however, frames the new policy as a necessary concession to a changing society, noting that “many companies, including most of our competitors” already provide domestic partner coverage. Walmart, she suggests, had no choice but follow suit. Then comes this strange plea for lukewarm, workplace-appropriate tolerance:

Your behavior matters. The words you use also matter. We are counting on you to be thoughtful, supportive and understanding of multiple viewpoints. Your visibility can make a big difference to how associates feel.

It’s unclear whether Welborn is asking anti-gay employees to tolerate gay ones, or vice versa. But it doesn’t really matter either way. The United States’ largest employer has just made the lives of thousands of same-sex couples much easier. Whether they did it begrudgingly or beneficently, it’s something to be thankful for. 

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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