Levi Strauss & Co. Chairman Emeritus Bob Haas has been honored with the 2019 SF PRIDE Freedom Award for his steadfast efforts in advancing civil rights and freedom for the LGBTQ community through his time at the company and as a board member of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, a San Francisco-based foundation established by his parents in 1953.
Bob’s involvement with issues important to the LGBTQ community began in 1982, when he was LS&Co.’s Chief Operating Officer. In response to growing concern from employees about a misunderstood and potentially fatal disease (while unnamed at the time, it would eventually be called HIV/AIDS), Bob stood shoulder-to-shoulder with employees handing out educational materials at our corporate headquarters in San Francisco.
During Bob Haas’s tenure as CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. from 1984 to 1999, the company established itself as a corporate leader in responding to HIV/AIDS, educating employees, enacting progressive human resources policies regarding integrating HIV-positive employees into the workplace, establishing support groups and sponsoring volunteer activities. The Harvard Business Review named Bob “the foremost corporate spokesperson on the responsibilities of business in the AIDS crisis.”
In 1992, under Bob’s leadership, LS&Co. became the first Fortune 500 company to provide benefits to same-sex couples. That same year, the company decided to withhold matching gifts by employees to the Boy Scouts of America based on its discriminatory policies around sexual orientation. This triggered a boycott campaign by a conservative organization as well as 120,000 letters and postcards protesting the decision. But Bob and company leaders stood their ground, taking what the New York Times coined “a hard line on the new diversity of society.”
The Haas, Jr. Fund was the first funder to make marriage equality a priority and helped create the Freedom to Marry campaign as a driving force for change. This work culminated in the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision, making marriage equality the law of the land. It continues to support efforts to defend and protect marriage equality and advance the cause of LGBTQ rights. As Bob once wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Whether in San Francisco or elsewhere, advocates for marriage equality didn’t give up on the fight despite enormous setbacks — and even with the Supreme Court firmly on the side of justice, I know we won’t stop moving forward.”
Bob elaborated on his efforts with the SF Pride Committee – below are excerpts from that Q&A.
The theme for Pride 2019 is Generations of Resistance. Resistance is a powerful act, and one which our movement is built upon. How do you feel your visibility/work/existence are acts of resistance?
What I, Levi Strauss & Co. and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund are being honored for – supporting people with HIV/AIDS in the early days of the crisis, developing pioneering human resources practices, sustaining philanthropic support for AIDS-serving organizations and the fight against discrimination and stigma, and achieving marriage equality on a national scale – were motivated by our belief that they were the right and necessary things to do. They were not conceived as “acts of resistance.”
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the LGBTQ communities? What do you see as our greatest achievements as LGBTQ communities?
A community’s milestone achievements often give rise to new sets of challenges.
On June 26, 2015, history was made when the U.S. Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land. This landmark win was built on the remarkable efforts of leaders, litigators, diverse LGBTQ+ organizations, straight allies, elected officials, and most importantly, hundreds of thousands of people changing hearts and minds in cities and towns across the U.S. I am proud that Levi Strauss & Co., the Levi Strauss Foundation and the Haas, Jr. Fund were part of this effort.
But the fight did not end on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. In the last two years we have seen the rolling back of many hard-fought gains in the areas of diversity and inclusion. This reminds us that we can’t let up… we must continue to mobilize and fight for justice.
The brunt of the fallout since the 2016 election has been borne by transgender and gender non-conforming people, immigrants and communities of color. It is incumbent upon us to see that the promise of social justice includes and uplifts all members of our community.
An important part of the Pride tradition is to honor and celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of those chosen to be an awardee. As a 2019 honoree, what are you most proud of achieving? What would you like to share with the community?
I am proud that we took courageous stands – and achieved meaningful change – on behalf of people who bore the brunt of isolation, discrimination and stigma.