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12/14/2013 10:47 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

HRC's Corporate Equality Index Shows Southern Companies Evolving On Gay Rights

Tim Boyle via Getty Images

In the early 90s, Southern restaurant chain Cracker Barrel drew criticism from gay-rights activists for firing openly gay employees under a policy that required workers to display “normal heterosexual values which have been the foundation of families in our society.”

The company's policies largely reflected the times. Sodomy was still a crime, and it was legal in many parts of the country -- and continues to be today -- to fire someone based on their sexual orientation. But experts say that Cracker Barrel's stance has evolved, a sign that the movement's victories go beyond the big cities of the coasts and the Midwest.

In an annual survey assessing corporate practices relevant to LGBT employees published this week by Human Rights Campaign, Cracker Barrel was given a score of 45 out of 100, a 10-point boost from the previous year. The survey from the national gay rights group examines the largest businesses in the United States, and gives a score based on a range of practices, including drafting an anti-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, and creating LGBT employee affinity groups.

According to the campaign's report, called the Corporate Equality Index, this year corporations around the United States reached new heights in their support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers; 304 businesses achieved a top rating of 100, more than any previous year. In 2002, the first year the survey was conducted, just 13 companies achieved a perfect score. Most significantly, hundreds of major businesses weighed in during 2013 on public policy decisions either by signing an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, or by joining a coalition of companies publicly supporting an federal anti-gay workplace discrimination bill.

Although companies like Texas-based Exxon Mobil -- where executives have repeatedly ignored shareholder pressure to protect gay and lesbian employees from discrimination -- and the Georgia fried-chicken chain Chick-fil-A -- whose president stated that legalizing same-sex marriage "invited God's judgement" -- continue to make headlines for their opposition to gay rights, a slow, but steadily growing trend is reshaping business practices across the South.

"This rising tide of LGBT corporate engagement has picked up previously unlikely boats in the form of dozens of businesses across the South and Midwest taking initial steps," HRC's report says.

Deena Fidas helps run the Corporate Equality Index, and often travels to the South to help companies -- including Cracker Barrel -- seeking to improve their ratings. She said she believes companies approach the issue by assessing whether these changes improve their businesses, instead of weighing moral or political values.

"When you strip away some of the language around social issues, you see that where many Southern businesses have landed is a viewpoint, backed up by their own policies and practices, that LGBT equality makes the most sense for them as a business," she said.

Several Southern-based companies that have improved their scores in recent years confirm this attitude.

"Our mission is about pleasing people," said Terry Deas, Cracker Barrel's director of diversity and outreach told The Huffington Post. In 2013, the company focused on adding LGBT content to its employee training seminars, participating in local LGBT educational events, and trying to recruit more LGBT employees and partner with LGBT-owned companies. "It was all about living the mission of our company."

Deas declined to talk about the company's policies more than 20 years ago when gay employees were fired if their sexual orientation was revealed, because he said he has only been with the company for a year and a half.

Darden Restaurants, a Florida-based restaurant company that owns brands including Red Lobster and Olive Garden, received the full 100 points on the index last year for the first time. Darden executive Samir Gupte said the improvements Darden has made in the last several years were integral to the company's bottom line. "If we don't create an environment where everyone can bring their true self to work, we're going to miss engaging our employees, retaining the best people in the business and then delivering a great guest experience," Gupte said.

The idea that businesses must be LGBT friendly to compete in the global marketplace is as good a marker as any to measure the success of the gay-rights movement, said Bob Witeck, a gay-rights advocate and communications expert who specializes in working with corporations to improve their policies.

"When I started about 20 year ago, companies saw this as far more risk-far less reward. They thought they'd be giving up more than they'd gain," he said. "Today that equation has flipped and clearly corporations get it."

Although nearly all conservative Southern politicians remain set against legalizing gay marriage, or protecting gay employees in the workplace, Fidas said that in her work with Southern companies she does see signs that voters are shifting faster than their elected officials. At a recent training session in Atlanta on LGBT workplace diversity, she asked the employees of various corporations in the audience to share their earliest memories of learning about LGBT people. One woman shared that her father was a Baptist minister and that as a little girl, she and her friends were told that certain musicians and choir members in the church were "like that" -- meaning gay.

"Her reference point was that they showed respect for gay people by never acknowledging that they knew they were gay," Fidas said. "What I think you're seeing is some workplaces' policies and benefits catching up with these evolving understandings of the LGBT community and the fact that these have always been our friends, our neighbors and family members."

CORRECTION: Darden Restaurants received the full 100 points on the index for the first time last year, rather than this year.

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