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The Uproar Over 'Anti-LGBT' Laws Is Well-Warranted — And Mostly For Show

Bruce Springsteen, pictured on Feb. 12, 2016, canceled a recent concert in North Carolina, citing the state's new law blocking anti-discrimination rules covering the LGBT community. (Owen Sweeney/AP)
Bruce Springsteen, pictured on Feb. 12, 2016, canceled a recent concert in North Carolina, citing the state's new law blocking anti-discrimination rules covering the LGBT community. (Owen Sweeney/AP)
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Baker and bathroom laws are popping up across the United States. The former seek to allow businesses to refuse to serve those who are LGBT, the typical example being the anti-gay baker who doesn’t want to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. The latter pretends there is no such thing as being transgender. Both laws are thinly disguised measures to discriminate and harass.

And they are prompting a thunderous backlash. One wonders, however, whether that backlash is more an effort to garner good PR than it is genuine, deep-seated offense at egregious public policy.

One wonders, however, whether that backlash is more an effort to garner good PR than it is genuine, deep-seated offense at egregious public policy.

How else to explain Canadian rock star Bryan Adams announcement that he was so upset by Mississippi’s new “religious tolerance” law he was cancelling an April 14 concert in Biloxi? Bully for him, you might think: He’s putting into action his ethical beliefs. Perhaps. Yet within the last four weeks, Adams had no problem performing in both Russia and Egypt -- each deeply and notoriously anti-gay.

Hypocrisy? You bet. And Bryan Adams isn’t alone.

Bruce Springsteen also canceled a planned concert because of a newly adopted baker and bathroom law in North Carolina. But Springsteen apparently has no problem performing in far less gay-friendly places such as Italy, Poland and Japan -- he’s held concerts in all many times over the last number of years.

Nor is the hypocrisy confined to musicians.

PayPal, for instance, was apparently so concerned by the North Carolina law that it said it would cancel plans to build a new operations center in Charlotte, a loss of $3.6 million and 400 jobs. Apple, Bank of America and more than 100 other companies signed onto a letter opposing the new law. Many cities, including Boston, have banned city-funded travel to North Carolina.

At the same time, though, PayPal is making great efforts to expand throughout the Middle East, where intolerance for LGBT rights is intense. Apple, of course, manufactures many of its products in the People’s Republic of China, also a country unfriendly to all human rights — including LGBT. Nor does Bank of America hesitate to set up shop in the more repressive areas of the world. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, but if you need to bank in that country, BofA — conveniently located on the 20th floor of Kingdom Tower in Riyadh — is happy to help. And Boston counts Ghana’s Sekondi-Takoradi as one of its sister cities; Ghana also has a well-deserved anti-gay reputation.

So what’s going on? Getting indignant over human rights helps burnish corporate and political patinas. They make for good press, too. (In Adams’s case, one suspects his hostility to Mississippi’s law was also a good career move; he’s received more media attention of late than he has for a long time.) But indignation had its limits. It’s easy for PayPal to write off North Carolina; it can just build in another state. But avoiding entire countries can be economically costly. If, say, Apple abandoned cheap Chinese manufacturing, profits would likely plummet.

It may be hypocrisy, but its pragmatic hypocrisy: The kind that works.

It’s questionable in any event whether boycotts or economic sanctions really are the best ways to change behavior. In many cases, close economic and cultural engagement with regimes hostile to human rights are more effective. That, after all, is the essence of the argument for normalizing relations with many backward regimes — most recently, Cuba.

Still, the hypocrisy argument — clean hands for one should mean clean hands for all — can go too far, becoming, really, just an excuse for inaction. Yes, there are double standards. But on occasion it can make sense to treat those in your backyard differently from those an ocean away.

Moreover, sometimes a well-timed boycott or economic sanction can have an impact — not necessarily for their monetary cost, but because they raise an issue’s profile. The backlash against North Carolina and Mississippi is a case in point: It actually seems to be having an effect. The governor of North Carolina just weakened one offensive portion of the state’s controversial law. Meanwhile, other states seem to be treading more carefully as they consider passing their own versions of baker and bathroom bills. None of this would be happening without the outcry from Adams, Springsteen and numerous corporations. It may be hypocrisy, but its pragmatic hypocrisy: the kind that works.

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Tom Keane Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tom Keane is a Boston-based writer.

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