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DON’T WHINE, ORGANIZE!

The Coors Boycott. Gay Liberation. Betrayal.

The Gay Liberation movement became an essential element in building a multifaceted coalition that facilitated the boycott—cementing an alliance between the gay community and progressive unions and unionists that continues today.
 
DON KILHEFNER · JUNE 23, 2022

The Coors Boycott represents the most successful boycott in gay and lesbian history.  In addition, the Gay Liberation movement became an essential element in building a multifaceted coalition that facilitated the boycott—cementing an alliance between the gay community and progressive unions and unionists that continues today.  The boycott eventually brought the extreme right-wing, extremely-wealthy Coors family, anchored in Golden, Colorado, to its racist, union-busting, anti-woman, and viciously antigay and lesbian knees.  Well, probably more accurately, caused Coors to bend its knees a bit to coopt boycotters.

A history of the Coors family stated, “The history of the Adolph Coors Company is the story of the American dream.”  In practice, that “American dream” was narrowly conceived as white, wealthy, politically powerful, hetero male, entitled, extremely-conservative, narrowly-Christian, and ultra-right-wing Republican where workers and minorities would know their place and were never uppity, gay people did not exist, and workers were always grateful for leftovers.
 
Dr. Allyson Brantley, a Yale-trained historian and assistant professor of history at the University of La Verne, recently produced what is the definitive history of the pivotal Coors Boycott.
Brewing a Boycott is superbly researched, easy and compelling to read, all points of view well-represented, and far-reaching and astute in its understanding of American political and labor history with its social change methodologies.  A boycott is the most difficult organizing task to pull off successfully.
 
Dr. Brantley gets an “A+” from me, one who knows this boycott well from the inside out.
Dr. Allyson Brantley, author of Brewing a Boycott

Brewing a Boycott is an account that will inspire younger progressive activists in the “do’s” and “do not’s” of effective coalition building with an important subtext—real social change is possible but it takes persistence and perseverance over time.  Social and political revolutions are not microwaveable.  Older progressives will have undoubtedly participated in the boycott and probably still do not drink Coors beer or other Coors products.  LGBTQ people, who are aware of their history, certainly do not.
 

Why the Coors Boycott?
 

The Coors Boycott can be reduced to three core issues:
  • deceitful union-busting practiced by the Coors family at the Coors Brewing Company in Golden,
  • discrimination against racial minorities (chicanos, blacks, first nation people) and others (women, gays, and lesbians) in hiring practices, ownership of Coors distributorships and delivery truck drivers.  Polygraph tests were given to new job seekers to weed out union sympathizers and gay people, and
  • the Coors family using its beer-wealth to fund extreme right-wing political ideologists and organizations.
In addition, for gay and lesbian people, there was a fourth issue.  The Adolph Coors Foundation funded a wide-range of archconservative organizations and individuals dedicated to destroying any progress gays and lesbians had ever made.  It was an initial $1 million Coors Foundation donation, and continuing millions in funding, for example, that helped to create the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., an ultra-right-wing think tank.  It was the Heritage Foundation that led the fight to prevent gay and lesbian people from serving in the U.S. military and to weed out, with dishonorable discharges, those already in.  
 
Joe Coors, a family patriarch in the 1960’s and 1970’s, articulated the hate clearly when he bellowed in the Los Angeles Times, gay people “are an abomination in the eyes of God!” [“abomination” = something regarded with disgust, hate, and loathing]
 
The Coors Boycott, from its beginnings in 1957, continued through peaks and valleys of organizing right into the 21st century.  Boycott allies gradually fell by the wayside over the decades for reasons of Coors coopting them, tactical differences, or simple boycott fatigue.   The boycott has never been officially terminated in the gay community—forgotten sometimes, perhaps, but, terminated, not yet.
 
It will take a younger LGBTQ generation to carry that militant, activist torch forward; the Neo-Homophile generation (1990-present) now in power, has failed the Gay Liberation revolution that went before them and turned LGBTQ young people into bait for the jaws of Rainbow Capitalism.
 

One Boycott in Four Acts
Act I (1957-1973)
Coors Co-opts the Union

 
When Prohibition ended in 1933, the United Brewery Workers union in 1934-35 began a national effort to unionize breweries, with Coors Brewing Co. a prime target.  Coors, seeing the handwriting on the wall, “invited” the union into their brewery, acting in a benevolent and paternalistic way to their workers, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 
 
During this period, Coors hired the most rabid, unscrupulous, deceitful union-buster available—attorney Erwin “Bud” Lerten of Beverly Hills to handle contract negotiation with UBW Local 366.
 
In 1957, UBW Local 366 went on strike for higher wages and started the first Coors Boycott, a time-tested, grassroots strategy of using consumers as a counterweight to Coors’ wealth. 
 
Coors attacked the strikers by threatening their jobs by making strike-breakers permanent employees, a strategy pioneered by Coors that became a standard union-busting tactic in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The strikers and Coors reached an agreement that saved the jobs of union members, but the contract clearly, one-sidedly, benefited Coors.  
 
With the union at Coors Brewing Company silenced, the focus of the boycott during the remainder of Act I turned to the ownership of Coors lucrative distributorships, usually local, wealthy, white, anti-union families. 
 
Very importantly, the focus of the boycott in Act I also changed from a union-alone effort to unions plus largely Chicano-activated communities fighting for their civil rights. Chicanos Arriba, Coors Abajo.
 

Act II (1973-1977)
Everyone’s Fight

 
As part of the social and political revolution taking place in the U.S. at that time, between 1973 and 1977, the Coors Boycott took on a broadly-based, grassroots character. 
 
This was due to a very fruitful collaboration in San Francisco between progressive labor organizer Allan Baird of Teamsters Local 888 and Howard Wallace, an openly gay man who was an organizer of Bay Area Gay Liberation (BAGL) and worked in labor organizing.  The Coors Boycott coalition grew to include gay and lesbian activists, union organizers, Chicanos, Blacks, women and men, First Nation groups, the UFW, student activists, ecologists, Asian-American organizations among others.  The boycott was even actively endorsed by the Black Panthers  and the National Organization of Women.
Gay and lesbian people, and their allies, protesting Coors in a Gay Pride march.
It was reported that by 1974, the income of the Coors Brewing Co. fell by 30%, amazing, if true, and it could be.  I know the gay son of the owner of the Coors distributorship in San Francisco at the time.  He reported that row after row of Coors delivery trucks sat idle in the parking lot, going nowhere, during the boycott, and his father was in shock at his financial hemorrhaging.  Coors tried everything from bribes to violence to coopt Act II, but nothing really worked.
 
This success was due, in part, to the incredible support of the boycott in the gay and lesbian community.  In the aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, gay bars and disco palaces rapidly proliferated across the U.S., and in the western U.S. consumed extremely large quantities of Coors beer, a prime favorite before the boycott.  In Los Angeles, the Coors Boycott Committee, under the leadership of Gay Liberationist Morris Kight, insured that not a single gay or lesbian bar in L.A. sold Coors.  Likewise, in gay and lesbian establishments all along the West coast and inland to the Rockies that sold Coors beer, the boycott of Coors was virtually total—a stunning achievement.
 
I do not want to give the impression that only the gay and lesbian community fought valiantly against Coors.  That would be false.  But because of hetero supremacist ideology found in both the Old Left and New Left, the critical role of gay people in building the grassroots, broadly-based Act II Coors Boycott in the 1970’s gets downplayed or erased altogether.  “It will turn people off,” I often heard.  
 
Then the conservative Teamsters union, nationally and in the Bay  area, got nervous that it was being overshadowed by the lefties’ coalition centered in San Francisco (OMG, that involved Teamsters working with Commie perverts).  Unions seized sole control of the Coors Boycott again.  Many in the Act II boycott coalition felt betrayed and angry; Act II anti-Coors activities continued but the boycott, like time, marched on.
 

Act III (1977-1978)
Coors Destroys the Union and Cripples the Boycott

 
The action then returned to Golden where the UBW Local 366 called a strike that lasted 21 months, refusing a Coors /Lerten contract that would have turned Coors workers into 20th century worker-serfs. 
 
This time, a well-thought-out plan for an Act III Coors Boycott was utilized as a critically-important consumer adjunct to the strike in Golden, adopting the model used United Farm Workers in California, with a primary focus of the boycott being California, Texas, and Colorado and secondarily the other states selling Coors. 
 
Sad story short, the boycott plan was immensely successful, building on the coalition created by the Coors Boycott Act II.  The Act III coalition became national in scope and garnered attention by the national media.  It looked like Coors would finally suffer a consumer boycott victory.  Then Coors/Lerten pulled the rug out from under the boycott and strikers.
 
During the strike, Coors had been carefully replacing strikers with anti-union scabs dependent on Coors for their livelihood.  Coors maneuvered adroitly to call a workers vote on union representation and, according to Coors’ plan, with scabs voting, the workers voted to oust and decertify the union.  The union hall in Golden was closed and all its furniture sold.  Many union strikers, after 21 months on the picket line and now jobless, fell into despair and hopelessness.
 
Never ever turn your back on Coors.  They, as an extreme-right-wing conglomerate, will use wealth, soulless consultants, political power, deception, lies, manipulation, secrecy, bribes, violence, your ego—whatever it takes—to get what they want.  At one-point, key members of the L. A. Coors Boycott Committee were offered $25,000 Coors inducements to call off the boycott which were met with disgust.
 
During the late 1970’s and 1980’s, Coors gradually let the air out of the boycott balloon, by pretending to meet boycotters demands.  With much publicity, a Coors theater of pretend was launched. A few, carefully-vetted Chicanos received Coors distributorships, a few, picture-perfect women and blacks were photographed driving Coors delivery trucks, and a handful of gays/lesbians were hired in the brewery—see, Coors claimed, the terrible things those boycotters were saying about Coors were not true. 
 
In 1987, incongruously, Coors tried to call an end to the Coors Boycott, however, the boycotters in the gay community never did.
 

Act IV
L.A. Gay Establishment Betrays Coors Boycott

 
One morning in 1997, I awoke in L.A. in incomprehensible shock to see lightpole banners everywhere, proclaiming that the Coors Brewing Co. was sponsoring that year’s annual “Outfest: The LGBTQ Film Festival,” a gay community institution in L.A.  The banners sent the illusory message to gay and lesbian people that the boycott must have ended, otherwise Outfest would never have accepted Coors’ sponsorship, just as Coors had schemed. 
 
It's important to recognize that the gay community in L.A. and nationally that came out of the AIDS pandemic in the late 1990’s was very different from the community that went into that catastrophe in the early 1980’s. The events discussed here are historically important because the Coors Boycott betrayal represented a visible political marker in the transition from the Gay Liberation period in L.A. gay history (1969-circa1990) to the current Neo-Homophile period (circa 1990-present) characterized by assimilation, conventional electoral politics with all that implies, a winner and loser mentality, and the dehumanizing values of Rainbow Capitalism (see my essay “Understanding L.A. Gay History”).  This transition was also occurring concomitantly all over the U.S. to the detriment of gay community unity, the welfare of gay people, and a robust gay-centered political, cultural, and spiritual life.   
 
Kight and I tracked down gay and lesbian establishment leaders, particularly West Hollywood City Council members who approved Coors’ use of the poles and banners and who by that act had become pro-Coors collaborators. We reminded them that the Coors Boycott was still operational in the gay community and they were aiding, abetting, and giving approval to one of gay people’s primary enemies.  Coors was using its customary playbook for coopting any opposition to its plans, and gay community establishment leaders were duped and conned, looking like political fools.
 
Having been told by WeHo City Hall insiders that then WeHo Councilman Steve Martin was likely to have played a role in the Coors sellout, Kight and I went to dialogue with Martin, who screamed at us angrily, and somewhat incoherently, and refused to talk, the only person who refused to dialogue with us regarding this betrayal.
 
WeHo Councilman Paul Koretz, now a L.A. City Councilman and running for L.A. City Controller, after showing us his Bobby Kennedy photo collection on his office wall, promised to be one of the three out of five votes needed to endorse the Coors Boycott.  Five hours later he betrayed his promise and voted to defeat the boycott resolution, becoming a pro-Coors collaborator.
 
Also, ultraconservative David Fisher, then chairman of the WeHo Gay and Lesbian Advisory Board, and his allies on the Board, did everything possible to prevent the body from passing a recommendation to support the Coors Boycott.  It was only later, when veteran activist Ivy Bottini became chairwoman of the advisory board, that such a recommendation was made to the WeHo City Council which approved it, belatedly.
 
While West Hollywood has a superficial patina of liberalism (neoliberalism, really), with a few notable exceptions, the important decisions are shaped by a more conservative, wealthy, white power structure, that often lives elsewhere, and that power reality has always been true there.   
 
How best to understand this betrayal by the gay and lesbian establishment is the relevant question?  In the mid-1990’s, Coors had bought breweries in West Virginia and Canada directed towards marketing Coors beer as a national and international brand instead of just a western regional product.  It feared that the very effective gay community boycott that Coors had not been able to defeat would likewise expand into a national and international gay boycott, hindering its profitability.  Somehow, according to Coors’ agenda, California, particularly Los Angeles, needed to be silenced, as well as San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Diego.

[On a personal note, this was an extremely poignant moment for me personally.   By this time, Morris Kight had suffered strokes with noticeable impairments. Knowing his limitations, Kight asked me to take on leadership of the Coors Boycott Committee for the 1997 effort.  Since 1969, for nearly 30 years, Kight and I had saddled-up and rode into innumerable battles together as Gay Liberation warriors reactively fighting against Hetero Supremacy and proactively taking a central role in organizing a L.A. gay community based on the well-being of LGBTQ people.  This would be the last time we would do so.  Kight died in 2003.]

As usual, to accomplish this cooptation of the Los Angeles gay establishment, the Coors’ playbook depended on money, the theater of pretend, and lies.  Mary Cheney, daughter of Dick and sister to Liz, and a lesbian, was hired by Coors to spin the web of deceit.
 
Cheney went around the country, particularly California, handing out Coors money—chump change—to small AIDS organizations and gay establishment institutions, touting Coors kindness and generosity. 
 
It saddens me to report, as its co-founder with Kight, that pro-Coors collaborators in leadership at the LA LGBT Center took $34,000 of Coors money for a pool party fundraiser.  
 
Outfest took $20,000.  Kight and I met with the then president and then executive director of Outfest who were like wide-eyed kids listening to our Tales of Coors horror stories.  They professed they were hearing this information for the first time, they had been deceived by the pro-Coors collaborators, and promised to never take Coors money again, a promise kept—a prime example of gay people being largely unaware of their own history so they are easily taken advantage of.  
 
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) pocketed $15,000 of Coors greenbacks, indirectly but knowingly, to fund its annual banquet in New York City.  Ironic, was it not?  The L.A. Coors Boycott Committee tried to persuade GLADD, at one of their Board meetings, to not take the Coors money for obvious reasons.  GLAAD refused. In an act of preplanned guerilla theater, I presented to the GLAAD Executive Director, a beautiful, framed “Coors Whore Award,” showing an image of a Golden Coors Cockroach pissing on a rainbow flag, created by artist Tom Mertz.  When the beaming Executive Director read the award, it was literally dropped like a hot potato and the Board members fled the room in pandemonium.  The Coors Boycott Committee in attendance, however, stayed calm and focused.
 
The publishers of L.A.’s Frontiers, then the largest gay newspaper in Southern California, and IN, a popular, weekly entertainment newspaper, accepted Coors money, printing full-page, colored ads with smiling, hot men posed drinking Coors beer as well as lesbians on a date with glasses of Coors beer in front of them.  
 
And so, it went—acting like all money was good money, even if it came from one of gay peoples’ primary enemies.  What does that tell you about Neo-Homophile political consciousness and its care for LGBTQ community welfare?
Side A of leaflet, image design by Deni Ponty, Art Center, College of Design.  Handed-out at Outfest opening night, all film showings, and in the L.A. gay community, 1997-1998.  Side B is found at the end of this essay.

The theater of pretend consisted of hiring a handful of gay and lesbian people at the brewery in Golden and parading them around as examples that Coors had heard the complaints of the gay community, and, as a good corporate citizen, Coors no longer discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation.  When numerous sources, including the national news media, inquired as to how many gay and lesbian people worked at the brewery, Coors refused to answer.  

Many of the gay and lesbian pro-Coors collaborators would deceptively hide behind the cover of the Human Rights Campaign gave them by listing Coors as "gay-friendly."  Don't lose your sense of humor.  All a corporation largely needs to do is fill out a HRC questionnaire adroitly enough and they become "gay-friendly."  Would you believe the results of such a questionnaire if the Coors name was on it?
 
The biggest lie of all came regarding the Coors Foundation’s funding of anti-gay organizations and individuals.  Again, Coors said that we have heard the voice of the gay community on this issue and from now on the Coors Foundation would only fund philanthropic, nonprofit organizations in Colorado.  If it had not been for the truly-incredible, beyond-amazing investigative reporting by gay journalist Bruce Mirkin, that lie would have gone undiscovered.  In fact, Coors had secretly-created a second foundation, the Castle Rock Foundation, which continued the Coors practice of funding those groups and individuals that pedaled Hetero Supremacy in all its variations.  Lamentedly, investigative journalism has disappeared from the LGBTQ community today.
           Full page, colored ads in gay community print publications in 1997-1998 by which Coors tried to make the community believe the Coors Boycott was over and deceive gay people that Coors was an ally when Coors was in fact one of LGBTQ’s major enemies.
Stuart Timmons and I debated Cheney and Fisher, chair of the WeHo Gay and Lesbian Advisory Board, twice, before the ACLU and also before the Stonewall Democratic Club, the largest such club west of the Mississippi, which also initiated an in-depth investigation of the charges of betrayal launched by the Coors Boycott Committee.
 
At one point in the debate, Cheney would say, “The Coors family is no longer associated with the day-to-day running of the Coors Brewing Co.”  Then I would reply, “That’s a lie Mary and you know it is.  Peter Coors is the CEO and of the nine members of the Executive Committee supervising its operation, eight have the last name Coors and the ninth is the Coors family’s minister.”   After the debate and after reporting the results of its thorough investigation, the Stonewall Democratic Club voted that the Coors Boycott must continue. Belatedly, so did the WeHo City Council.
Full page, colored ads by Coors lying to the lesbian community.  Coors, in fact, was a major enemy of the LGBTQ community and funded lesbian-bashing. 
In the late 1990’s, the L.A. gay and lesbian establishment argued, falsely, that Coors had changed, gay people were no longer interested in the boycott, and it was time to move on.  At that time, the Christopher St. West organization, that produces the annual Pride celebration in L.A., hired a professional pollster to design a questionnaire to be used at the gates of the Pride Festival in West Hollywood attended by tens of thousands of LGBTQ people.  Attendees were asked if they knew about the Coors Boycott.  If they said no, they were let pass.  If they said yes, they were asked if the boycott should continue.  Nearly 70% responded that the Coors Boycott must continue.  So much for “we need to move on,” usually a disingenuous ploy by those caught with their hand in the cookie jar.
 
It's stupid to fund your own oppression.  The Coors Boycott has not officially ended for the LGBTQ community.  For young LGBTQ people, who do not know this history, I suggest you find out about the boycott.  Brewing a Boycott is an excellent place to begin.   Request that your local or college library order the book.  Union halls and libraries should have several copies on hand.  Fact-check vigorously anything Coors tries to make you believe.  I suggest further that you consider not buying Coors beer and other Coors products.
 
In truth, I have moved on during the past twenty-five years to proactively organize other gay-centered projects, but I always keep one of my sixteen eyes open peripherally on Coors’ shenanigans.  It is more difficult in 2022 to find Coors fingerprints and footprints because of the corporate fog caused by mergers and acquisitions, but it can be unraveled.  There are clues.  In 2016 and 2020, Coors family members came under fire for their active support and heavy financing of Donald Trump’s campaigns.
Side B of the Coors Boycott leaflet written by Don Kilhefner and handed out at the Outfest opening, every film showing, and widely in the L.A. gay community in 1997-1998.
The Coors Boycott was tremendously important to the political and consumer evolution of the LGBTQ community, particularly in the western U.S.  As I mentioned earlier, the Coors Boycott represents the most successful boycott in LGBTQ history.  The boycott also marks the first time the Gay Liberation movement allied itself successfully with a major national coalition involving labor unions and consumer activists as an equal and also provided leadership thereto.  The boycott further served as a giant, sophisticated consciousness-raising tool within the gay and lesbian community at the time, facilitating a deeper understanding of the manipulation and deception of gay people by many corporations and a keen awareness that we must watch corporations and others intelligently to see whether their lips and feet move in the same direction or opposite directions.  Recently, LGBTQ employees at Disney confronted that duplicity exquisitely, smelling like Queer Liberationists not Queer Collaborators.
 
LGBTQ people, you have a radical, militant history you can be proud of.  LGBTQ younger people, given the increasingly difficult political reality for our people that appears to be waiting for us around the bend, you are needed now more than ever—our future depends on you.   
 
The legacy of your Mattachine and Gay liberation ancestors has given you a strong foundation to stand on.  Use the genius and methods of your generation.  You are not alone.  Your Gay Liberation elders still living support and encourage you, beloved ones.  


Don Kilhefner, Ph.D., a pioneer Gay Liberationist, has been a gay community organizer continuously for over 52 years in Los Angeles and nationally.  He is co-founder (with Morris Kight) of the LA LGBT Center, the world’s largest, co-founder (with Harry Hay) of the international Radical Faeries movement, and facilitator of intergenerational dialogues, among other gay community contributions. donkilhefner@sbcglobal.net.
 

Don’t Whine, Organize!

Gay Liberation pioneer Perry Brass and August Bernadicou of the "The LGBTQ History Project" advocating action at New York City's Gay Pride celebration on Sunday, June 26, 2022.
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