Out of the brewing storm: as the openly gay son of William Coors, patriarch of the famously conservative family, Scott Coors may be the beer company's best weapon against a 24-year boycott. (Business).
During a visit to San Francisco night spot Midnight Sun in the late 1990s, Scott Coors stepped up to the bar and ordered a light version of the popular beer his family had brewed since before the turn of the century. Spitting with rage, the bartender retorted, "Over my dead body."
"I couldn't get my grandfather's beer at my favorite bar," recalls Coors, who chose not to identify himself to the bartender. "I stood there fuming at the injustice of it all."
The seeds of a powerful public relations campaign aimed at undercutting gay activists' long-standing boycott of Coors products were sown that night in the Castro. "I talked to [the bartender] about the issue, and it soon became clear he didn't know what he was talking about," says Coors. "It was a knee-jerk reaction to something he'd heard long ago. I saw it as an opportunity to change the attitudes of gay activists toward the company. I was sick and tired of the grossly inaccurate portrait being painted of my family, and the fact that it took place in my own community made it all the more painful."
Coors Brewing Co. could not have created a better spokesman in the cause of selling beer to gay consumers than Scott Coors, the tall, Stanford-educated only son of former company head William Coors and great-grandson of Adolph Coors Sr., who founded the company in 1873. But Scott, 34, finds himself in a no-man's-land between elements of his family and the gay and lesbian world, where many have approached the boycott, launched in 1977, with the fervor of a crusade. At the center of the drama is the close relationship between Coors and his father, who at age 85 remains chairman of two Coors family--created foundations that steadfastly pour several million dollars into antigay political causes every year.
Like Scott Coors, the brewing company is also stuck in the middle. While still family-owned, it's run by executives with no ties to the foundations. For many years, Coors management has reshaped company policy and made donations to demonstrate its friendliness to gay employees and consumers. But once profits leave the Coors company and reach the pockets of key Coors family members, the money often helps fund the fight against gay rights.
"Scott is in an excruciating position," says Dan Baum, author of Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty, a critically acclaimed biography of the family. "Of course he loves his family. But some family members have been funding conservatives who literally believe that homosexuals are an abomination in the eyes of God. As long as there is a Coors Foundation, there are going to be a lot of people inside and outside the gay community who believe that no person has any business touching a can of Coors. And Scott is going to bear the brunt of that anger."
Defending the family and its lucrative business is second nature to Scott Coors. During an interview with The Advocate at the sprawling Littleton, Colo., ranch-style home he shares with physician Dave Hurt, his partner of four years, Coors recalls confronting classmates who viewed the company negatively. "One kid in the fifth grade drew a picture of an evil-looking brewery with smoke pouring out of the stacks," he says, laughing. "I was like, `Our brewery is environmentally sound.'"
After graduating from Stanford in 1991, he worked at the Coors subsidiary MicroLithics, which made computer hardware for marine vessels, before joining the brewery team. "I came to appreciate how neat it was to be in the beer business," he says. "I never got any pressure to do it. My father always said to do whatever I want. There was just a heritage deep down in me that I knew I wanted to embrace."
That devotion to his family made it particularly momentous for Coors to come out to his father. On a visit home from Stanford in 1988, Coors revealed his secret. "My biggest fear in the whole world was that my father would think less of me," says Coors, who has two half sisters from his father's first marriage. "I chose the stupidest time to tell him. He was driving me down the freeway near home. I was just 21, and he must have been around 73. We started talking about family things. He's had a lot of tragedy in his life. He had one son who choked to death. So I'm the only son who can give him grandchildren.
"I was crying and blurted out, `I'm a failure to you, Dad. I'm gay,'" says Coors, his voice softening. "He didn't skip a beat. `Well, why are you crying? Ten percent of the world is gay." He never gave me any sense that I was any less of a human being. So it hurts me to no end to see him vilified. He is such a beautiful person." (William Coors declined several requests to be interviewed for this article, saying through a spokesperson that he grants interviews only about the company and its history.)
Despite his father's reassurance, for years Scott Coors steered clear of public involvement in gay rights battles. In 1992, Colorado voters passed Amendment 2, a ballot measure aimed at forever banning laws that would protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down the measure, but not before the state's gays and lesbians suffered through one of the ugliest campaigns in American political history. "I talked to my father about Amendment 2," Coors says. "And he said, `There is no way this is going to pass. And even if it does, there is no way the courts will uphold it.' He told me not to worry too much about it. We were both shocked when it passed. I like to think the world is a kinder, gentler place [than that]."
Father and son avoided the ferocious campaign to defeat the measure even though they were in a position to lend it their considerable financial and political clout. "At that point I was very young and I wasn't ready to be out in a very public way," he says. "I admit to being somewhat politically naive, and when the opposition said it wasn't about gay people, I guess I believed them."
Coors pleads that he is more comfortable focusing on his job than on politics, and it is easy to see why as he leads a one-on-one tour of the brewery, still located in its original building in Golden, outside Denver. Donning a hard hat, a publicist in tow, he strides confidently down the assembly line, where beer is poured into an endless stream of cans and bottles, and shows off the massive solid copper brewing kettles, polished to a brilliant shine. "Do you know the key ingredient for beer?." he asks at one point. "Water," he says, parroting the company's long-standing advertising campaign.
Coors is the company's director of product damage, so he is most animated about the fine points of packaging and distribution. Because the company, the nation's third-largest brewer, is located in the West, far from the bulk of its consumers in the East and Midwest, there is a far higher probability of damage to its products than to those of its leading competitors. (Anheuser-Busch and Miller, numbers 1 and 2 in the beer market respectively, are based in the Midwest.) Scott Coors is working to alleviate the problem with innovative methods of packaging and handling.
But it is in softening up the gay market where Coors is perhaps best positioned to bolster the company's sales, which in 2000 totaled a whopping $2.4 billion. He puts a friendly face on the company's long-standing argument that it is a separate entity from the foundations and that no company should be held responsible for what its stockholders do with their own money. In 1978 the Coors company became one of the first in the nation to ban antigay discrimination. Over the objections of conservative family members, in 1995 the company extended health benefits to employees' same-sex partners, something that it took until this year for competitor Miller to do. Anheuser-Busch is still studying the issue.
The Coors company contributes as much as $1 million annually to a laundry list of gay causes, including the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Human Rights Campaign, and its marketing to gay consumers (including ads in this magazine) has been aggressive. Its "Be Original" advertising campaign features openly gay former Olympic swimmer Bruce Hayes, while another riskier series features gay male couples in take-offs on classic paintings.
The fact remains, however, that much of the Coors family money that's poured into the coffers of antigay foundations comes from Coors Brewing profits. The family foundations--the Castle Rock Foundation and the Adolph Coors Foundation--remain crucial backers of a who's who of antigay politics. According to its 2000 annual report, Castle Rock donated $200,000 to the Heritage Foundation and $150,000 to the Free Congress Foundation, leading rightwing think tanks. The Denver Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which does not allow gay scouts or scout leaders, received nearly $150,000 last year alone. Coors Brewing chairman Pete Coors, Scott's cousin, serves on the council's board.
The foundation has no plans to address concerns that it supports groups that oppose equal rights for gays. "I've been here for a year, and the issue has never come up in a board meeting," says Sally Rippey, executive director of the Castle Rock Foundation. "I realize that this is a very, very sensitive subject, and the foundation's giving is a constant work in progress. But I know of no plans to alter our contributions."
But gay activists' antipathy to the family's politics goes far deeper than any single year's donations. "There was no organized conservative movement until Joe Coors [William's brother and the company's former vice chairman] came along in the 1960s with all that beer money," biographer Baum explains. "Until the Heritage Foundation came along, funded by Coors money, there was no address for the conservative movement, no place from which to launch moral crusades against homosexuality. The problem is not that the family created this movement but that it isn't honest enough to own up to it. And Scott is no better at acknowledging the consequences of his family's actions. There is a lot of denial."
Scott Coors is not the first offspring of prominent conservatives that the brewing company has enlisted to counter the boycott. In the 1990s, Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of now-vice president Dick Cheney, served as the company's liaison to gays and lesbians, and she touted its employment record in meetings with activists around the country.
"By focusing on the company's policies, the people they have hired to reach out to the gay community are dragging a red herring across our trail," says Morris Kight, who helped found the Coors boycott in 1977. "The company should be commended for doing the right thing. But the issue for us is that the money the family makes off beer is funneled into antigay causes. Everything else is a distraction. They have a right to contribute to any cause they want. We have a right not to purchase their products."
Even so, Coors's gay-directed public relations and advertising barrage seems to be paying dividends. As the family's political stances have receded from headlines and the corporate image improved, support for the boycott has softened. Stonewall, a gay bar on Christopher Street in New York City, designated a historic monument as the site of the Stonewall riots, has begun serving Coors.
And Scott Coors has won some important converts. His friend Tim Gill, the chairman of the gay-friendly Gill Foundation, believes the boycott has outlived its usefulness. "People forgave George Wallace for being racist, but they seem unwilling to forgive the Coors company for things that happened more than two decades ago," he says. "You can't hold a corporation accountable for something it doesn't control. Why punish something that's fundamentally good? It's nothing more than a recipe for eternal war."
Other than the input allowed by his father, who chairs the Castle Rock board of trustees, Scott Coors has little control over the foundations' giving patterns. There has been only one opening on the five-member board in the past 25 years, which was filled by staunch conservative Holly Coors, Scott's aunt. "Frankly, there are very few opportunities to be nominated other than when someone on the board dies," Coors says. "Obviously, I'm not looking forward to that happening."
Boycott supporters view Scott Coors as a kind of gay Trojan horse. Still others see his family reconciliation as beside the point. "Scott Coors is a very good-looking, well-spoken, charming fellow," says Kight. "But he has delivered nothing to help gay people in this situation. He keeps saying to me, `Let me talk to Papa about the foundations,' and then nothing happens. He seems to side entirely with his family."
Yet Scott Coors senses the pitfalls of mixing family and politics. By relying on a characteristically low-key form of moral persuasion, he believes he is slowly winning them over and that the foundations will eventually reflect his influence. "I don't function well in confrontational situations," he says. "If I can be an example of an openly gay person they respect and even love, their judgments to the contrary about gay people will be called into question. Getting in their faces and saying, `I disagree with this or that' would be counterproductive."
Coors says he has been embraced by his aunt Holly and by his cousin Jeffrey Coors, who sits on the Castle Rock board. His partner attends family events with him, no questions asked. "It has been rewarding to see the reactions from my family members, who do interpret the Bible differently than I do," Coors says. "They have gone from `This is not what we would choose as a lifestyle for Scott' to saying `I love you.' And not just `I love you' but `I love you for who you are.'"
Find more on the Coors beer boycott and links to related Internet sites at www.advocate.com
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Nov 6, 2001|
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