When Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce, made her debut via a photo shoot and in-depth cover story in Vanity Fair Monday, the response online was swift and overwhelmingly positive. A wide range of celebrities and public figures expressed their support, including Barack Obama, who tweeted, “It takes courage to share your story.” Ms. Jenner’s new Twitter account, @caitlynjenner, went live Monday afternoon and became the fastest ever to reach 1 million followers, beating @POTUS’s previous record by about half an hour.
Media outlets from ESPN to the magazine Women’s Health offered up their praise, as did transgender advocates including actress Laverne Cox and representatives for GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).
Of all the public goodwill that has gone Jenner’s way over the past 24 hours, however, virtually none of it has come from one of the largest, often most vocal segments of America’s social media landscape: corporations. There was no photo of an Oreo with pink filling posted as tribute, no hearty congratulations from brands Jenner endorsed as a celebrated Olympic gold medalist in the 1970s and '80s. In the hours after Jenner's announcement, an account for Pizza Hut UK tweeted that she was “welcome at anytime” in the company’s restaurants, but the post was quickly deleted. Wheaties, which featured Jenner on its box in 1977, released a statement saying, “We stand by Bruce,” but declined to comment further.
That reticence stands in stark contrast to the widespread corporate support for LGBT rights in recent years. In March, hundreds of companies stood in opposition to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) amid worries that it condoned discrimination against the gay community. Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL, signed an endorsement deal with Visa soon after. On the same day as Jenner’s announcement, Maytag touted the beginning of Pride Month, a month-long celebration of the LGBT community, in June:
There’s impetus from within and without to take such stands. Over half of Americans now support gay marriage, including 8 in 10 people under the age of 35, according to Gallup. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), 9 in 10 US companies include sexual orientation in their antidiscrimination policies. “Companies have to stick up for their employees because that’s who makes their business run,” says Jay York, a social media strategist with Tampa, Fla.–based EMSI Public Relations, in a phone interview.
The connection with Jenner, on the other hand, is less straightforward, and companies have reason to tread lightly aside from whatever positions they hold on transgender issues, Mr. York notes. For one, companies who suddenly weigh in on news stories that they have no obvious connection to risk coming off as opportunistic. “Tweeting at Caitlyn Jenner to come eat at a Pizza Hut,” doesn’t add any value to the conversation, he says.
Second, “companies are seeking to avoid providing a platform for trolls and hate speech,” he notes. Despite strides, public opinion on transgender issues is far less settled than on gay rights. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 22 percent of Americans reported knowing or working with a transgendered person last year – a big jump from the year before, but still a relatively small minority. Jenner’s Vanity Fair photos, then, marked the first time that millions of people saw the full process of someone going through a gender transition.
“We talk about how liberal we are, but truthfully we are still uncomfortable with things that we aren’t used to,” says Scott Deming, a branding expert, in a phone interview. “Gay has become pretty common. This is pretty new.”
Many companies are making their support known, however, in their workplace policies. While warning that transgender acceptance still has a long, hard road ahead, HRW’s latest Corporate Equality Index reported 418 participating businesses with trans-inclusive health-care policies, and two-thirds of all Fortune 500 companies now include gender identity in their employment protection policies. In addition, “290 companies have adopted supportive gender transition guidelines, to ensure that employees experience a safe, respectful, successful transition in the workplace,” according to the survey.
But when it comes to Jenner, brands without a clear relation to the story may be better off sitting it out, York says. For now, anyway. “Companies that are pro-LGBT don't forget about that last letter,” York says, “But this is a topic about a human being, for human beings to discuss first, and sometimes businesses need to step away and allow them to do that.”