Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Something for all of our families

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | July 24, 2007 6:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Media, Politics, Politics
Tags: Abercrombie & Fitch, Barney's New York, Chicago Tribune, Daryl Herrschaft, gay assimilation, gay consumers, gay marriage, H&M, HRC, John Mackey, LGBT Center, Robbin Burr, Walmart, Whole Foods

Gay consumerism reaches a whole new level with the opening of a Whole Foods Market in the glittering new $20 million Chicago LGBT Center. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune (echoed by articles in the Advocate/ Out and Queerty) gushed about the excitement of "the first retailer of its size to anchor a gay community center in the US."

Whole Foods is a notorious union-busting chain, whose CEO, John Mackey, a free-market capitalist in green-face, is fond of comparing unions to herpes or parasites. Whole Foods is also known for opening stores near smaller, community-based or cooperative health food stores, often forcing the smaller stores out of business (the Starbucks model). And perhaps no other business could be more responsible than Whole Foods for the corporatization of organic agriculture, by which a few mega-farms dominate the marketplace, and the availability of bananas, tomatoes or raspberries at all times of the year becomes more important than locally grown, sustainable farming.

While the wine-sampling machine in the new Whole Foods may become an illicit favorite of queer youth, it seems important to question whether Whole Foods will help to make the Center "a safe space and a catalyst" for all queers who might seek out its services, as former Executive Director Robbin Burr declared to CBS (for now, let's leave aside the fact that the Center just opened a few months ago, and already has a former director).

Who, exactly, is made safe by Whole Foods? Certainly not Chicago's most marginalized queers who might seek out space in the Center (if allowed inside by security) -- homeless queers, queers on disability, queers of color, queens, transpeople and queer youth without enough money to buy prepared food at eight dollars a pound. What about Whole Foods workers denied the right to unionize, and routinely fired for ridiculous "infractions" like giving a botched latte to a fellow worker for free? Oh -- and what about farmworkers in Chile, Mexico, and other destinations warm enough to provide year-round gourmet produce?

But wait -- I'm forgetting that, as Daryl Herrschaft, director of the workplace project (!) for the Human Rights Campaign, states in the Chicago Tribune, "Gay consumers are more likely to be brand-loyal than their heterosexual counterparts." That must be why the HRC store partners with sweatshops around the world to provide its customers with Nike-swoosh equals signs and gay marriage snow globes.

What's next? Will LGBT centers nationwide race to provide the best shopping opportunities for their consumers? How about a rainbow Abercrombie store? A pink-triangle Gucci boutique? Or, something for all of our families... a gay-for-pay
Wal-Mart/Barney's New York/H & M superstore?

Ah, the possibilities of corporate/community partnership are just endless!

Mattilda blogs at

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I too wondered how Whole Foods made us a better community. While I understand the reasonings behind partnering with corporate America to bring the LGBTQ community into the mainstream, there's some parts of the mainstream that all of America could do without - not just the LGBTQ community! The (pardon the pun) wholesale embrace of corporate America is what has pulled our country into decline to start with... Is that a path we want to follow?

I'm ashamed to admit, I didn't know all this about Whole Foods. Thanks for speaking up! And I plan to spread the word.

Bil, exactly -- we could all do without "the wholesale embrace of corporate America."

And Brynn, I'm so glad the post was informative!

Wait, there's a wine sampling machine there? Oh, man, I've never been inside a Whole Foods before, so I wouldn't know.

Now can anyone explain why an LGBT center needs a grocery store?

While I don't disagree with you that Whole Foods could be better corporate citizens, it is better than many alternatives. To address several points brought up:

1. The Center on Halsted actually has a good reputation in serving the communities you site "homeless queers, queers on disability, queers of color, queens, transpeople and queer youth ".

2. Robbin Burr, the now former Executive Director, was hired to see the organization through the $20 million capital campaign and building construction. She was very successful and decided that was her contribution and it was time to move on. Her successor, Modesto Tico Valle, has worked at the Center for years and is extremely well respected. To infer that something untoward led to her leaving, is unfounded and incorrect.

3. The Center on Halsted did not need a grocery store per se. But the rent they will receive from the Whole Foods will help cover the costs of operating a $20 million, state-of-the-art LGBT center, among the best in the country.

4. Most importantly to me, the Whole Foods create safety for those entering the Center because there is an entrance to the center through the Whole Foods. This allows anyone who feels uncomfortable or unsafe entering the Center through the main entrance for because it may identify them as LGBT can enter through the Whole Foods anonymously. This is the safety element she was referring to in that quote. I think this is great.

I definitely support the right of Whole Foods employees to unionize and believe Whole Food is wrong to engage in union-busting practices. However, given the corporate alternatives, I believe it is a net positive.

**I do not work for nor have any relationship to the Center on Halsted. I live three blocks from the new Center and believe it is a great addition to community.**

My strip for yesterday focused on local foods as compared with food from China. In the strip commentary I talked about my experiences with Whole Foods which have been positive.

It is interesting to know that Forbes rated Whole Foods as the FIFTH best company for employee satisfaction - four notches under Google.

Alex, yes, believe it or not, a wine tasting machine! The Chicago Tribune article reports that -- I've never seen one in a Whole Foods before (Chicago or elsewhere), but you know the gays like to drink!

Tilden, thanks so much for these thoughtful comments... First of all, I can say that regardless of any Center policies towards homeless queers, queers on disability, queers of color, queens, transpeople or queer youth, Whole Foods, which serves predominantly upper and upper-middle class white professionals, is certainly not welcoming to anyone without the money to spend on its products. I have no doubt that this Whole Foods in particular, like all that I've been to, will employ private security to remove anyone who they consider “undesirable.”

As for Robbin Burr, I still do find it slightly peculiar that as “Executive Director," she would leave before the Center opens...

As for the larger issue of a multinational, for-profit chain store as a primary tenant in a queer community center, I find this preposterous under any circumstances whatsoever. How can the Center even pretend to engage in any social justice politic whatsoever under these circumstances? If anything, the Center should be offering alternatives to the consumerism rampant in queer communities, instead of selling "community" to the highest bidder. Furthermore, I find it particularly upsetting to think that, because Whole Foods might offer cover to any closeted queer who might be able to enter such premises unnoticed (that is, anyone who can blend in an upper-middle class white environment), that this somehow offers "safety" for marginalized, dissident or defiant queers (again, homeless queers, queers on disability, queers of color, queens, transpeople or queer youth) who actually need a place to congregate. In fact, I think this mindset fosters violence against the very queers most likely to feel threatened.

And Storm, your comic is hilarious, but I will say that I would certainly be suspicious of anything said by a magazine dedicated to the capitalist elite (“home page for the world's business leaders,” declares the masthead of their website).

Steve Ralls | July 25, 2007 9:14 AM

I actually happen to know Robbin Burr, and worked alongside her when she was a gay marketing manager at American Airlines. Robbin is a terrific person, a passionate advocate for the community and did exactly what she was hired to do at the Center: raise the money to get the Center built and its doors opened. It's not easy raising $20 million for a local LGBT project, and I hope Robbin is now enjoying a well-deserved vacation somewhere tropical and warm. Criticism of her is unjustified; by all measures, her time with the Center was a success.

As for Whole Foods, I agree and disagree. Yes, they could be better corporate citizens. But, they are consistently ranked as one of the best (and most LGBT-friendly) corporations to work for. And while their CEO is a big Republican contributor, gives a good chunk of its political donations to the GOP, too, while Barnes & Noble gives the overwhemling majority of its cash to Democrats. But, my fellow LGBT'ers, where are most of you ordering your books and CDs from these days?

No corporation is perfect, and the LGBT community has placed too much emphasis on the capitalistic side of equality, but singling out Whole Foods, when there are so many worse players out there, doesn't seem quite fair. Their rent will help keep the Center's doors open, which, in turn, will help serve Chicago's LGBT community.

I don't know anyone at Google, but I have asked the question of Whole Foods employees and everyone one of them is tickled pink to be there. There is this one guy in produce that is an total advocate of WH (plus he is remarkable helpful with recipes). I have never heard anything bad, personally, about employee treatment at WH.

The folks working at Wal Mart tell a very different story.

The other "organic" grocery stores in town have HORRID reputations of being slave pits. The Fresh Market in Winston Sale, NC is about the worst grocery store in the county to work at. Horrible management, high employee turnover and a lousy reputation.

Could Whole Foods be a better corporate citizen? Yep. Are there bad Whole Foods stores somewhere? I wouldn't doubt it. But on a whole (no pun at all) I think they are doing a better job at treating employees and delivering better food than most grocers.

My day job is in advertising and I have had the pleasure of meeting some of the biggest scumbags in corporate America. Just because a company is "local" doesn't mean it is good for the employees or the customers. Same goes for national brands and chains.

There is a local coffee shop I used to go into that is locally owned but the owner is a total jackass. Every time I would go in (I never go anymore), the owner would always greet me with a Nazi "Heil Hitler" salute because I am a liberal.

If that was a joke, I never got the punchline.

If I go into Starbucks, no one there cares that I am White and my wife is Black. No one shouts out I am sell out to my race. I'll pay 50 cents more for that kind of service.

As a side note, I got my Harry Potter book at Barnes and Noble.

I do have to say that "smearing" Robbin Burr (whom I don't know) is stretching things; we have no idea why she left other than the reason presented and no reason to think otherwise. Let's not cast aspersions where none might be useful or wise...

But isn't Whole Foods CEO the guy that just got busted impersonating a corporate fan on Yahoo message boards? He was talking down the competitor (that Whole Foods is now buying) to lower their stock price and complimenting himself on things like a new haircut, management ability and sexual virility?

And PLEASE don't tell me Amazon/Borders is Republican. I hate Barnes & Nobles. *sigh* Oh well, I like the independent book sellers best if I'm going in a shop anyhow. :)

Yep, the Whole Foods CEO got caught chatting down the competition so they could make an easy acquisition. Sadly, this goes on more than you think - like all the time. However, this is typically handled by the internal PR department, at some wi-fi coffee shop far away from work. Why the CEO was involved I am unsure. Stunts like that point to ego, I believe.

Several of you seem quite excited about Robbin Burr, so I will trust your word(s) :)

To make things simple, I think queer community centers should actually be building community, and not sponsoring major corporations -- to me that seems unnecessarily corrupt and offensive (not to say that there aren't all sorts of other corrupt and offensive goings-on at most queer community centers).

Steve, while it is often a well-meaning gesture to say that there are "bigger enemies," there are ALWAYS bigger enemies (or “worst players," as you say) -- I believe (and this pertains to Storm's points as well) that a politicized viewpoint should hold EVERYONE accountable for violence they might enact.

And I'm with Bil about where to shop for books -- independent bookstores -- if you don't have those in your area, order from one online (or order directly from independent publishers). You can always browse at the chain stores, then order elsewhere…

Just to support the notion of independent buying online. For DVDs I shop at DVDEmpire. They started out in 1997 and are still going strong - not bad for a family owned business. I must have purchased over 500 DVDs from them and I have never had a problem with an order. I just received Eragon from them.