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For Cirque, Disney and others, does standing up for LGBT rights require ethical acrobatics?

For Cirque, Disney and others, does standing up for LGBT rights require ethical acrobatics?
Cirque du Soleil perform during the Opening Night Gala of The 5th Annual Dubai International Film Festival held at the Madinat Jumeriah Complex in 2008 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

When Cirque du Soleil recently announced that it would join a boycott of North Carolina over the state's controversial transgender bathroom law, the company received effusive praise from activists on social media.

But it also attracted criticism from those who detected a double standard: Why is the company canceling shows in North Carolina while continuing to do business in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, where transgender and gay individuals face greater legal threats?

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The Cirque backlash is just one of the cases demonstrating how activism can be a double-edged sword for entertainment companies, especially when it comes to hot-button issues like North Carolina's House Bill 2, which requires transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond with the sex indicated on their birth certificate.  The Walt Disney Co. and Comcast NBCUniversal are among the other players in the entertainment sphere facing similar accusations of contradictory political messages.

Cirque's critics, many of whom were from libertarian and conservative media outlets, pointed out that in September, the company is scheduled to bring its popular "Varekai" spectacular to the UAE, which has restrictive laws against gay and transgender people. In October, the company brought "Totem" to Singapore, which criminalizes sex between men.

Cirque didn't respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. Justice Department has sued North Carolina over its law, calling it discriminatory. North Carolina has countersued, arguing that the federal government is overreaching its powers. On Wednesday, 11 other states sued the Obama administration over its directive that schools must allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to the gender they identify as.

Some see companies' boycotts as a form of economic coercion and even blackmail.

"You don't hold an economic threat over people's heads. If companies are against the North Carolina law, they can use their influence — commercials, campaigns," said Ryan T. Anderson, a senior research fellow in American principles and public policy at the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank.

"But it's something different when you align big business and big government to impose a policy that people may not want."

Others argue that companies face social pressures — from employees, shareholders and ticket buyers — and must find ways to respond to all sides.

"Sometimes shareholders and consumers want them to be more active, to be reflective of the environment in which they operate," said Edward Walker, an associate professor of sociology at UCLA, where his research includes how corporations interact in public life.

"We're not in an era where a corporation can cut itself off, because that looks bad too. It looks like they're unresponsive."

In March, the Walt Disney Co. threatened to stop filming in Georgia over a state bill that some interpreted as anti-gay. The Free Exercise Protection Act, which Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed after vociferous public debate, would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny service to individuals who violate their beliefs.

Disney has shot in Georgia some of its Marvel superhero movies, including "Ant-Man" and the recent "Captain America: Civil War."

At the same time, Disney shot significant portions of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in the United Arab Emirates, which has actively courted Hollywood productions with generous incentives.

This image released by Disney shows a scene from "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens."
This image released by Disney shows a scene from "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens." (Disney via AP)

While not as draconian as its neighbor Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates makes it difficult for gay individuals to live openly through a complex set of laws. Being gay isn't strictly illegal, but same-sex relations or public displays can lead to arrest. Transgender individuals also have trouble living openly due to decency codes derived from Sharia, or Islamic, law.

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Disney didn't respond to a request for comment, but UCLA's Walker said some companies may assume their customers care more about politics at home than abroad.

"American consumers don't really think that these companies are global and are most concerned about what's going on at home," he said, later adding, "They don't think about the global ties these companies have."

Following Disney's stance on the Georgia bill, other entertainment companies have made similar statements. Comcast NBCUniversal released a statement in March that said, "We are proud of our record of inclusion and stand against discrimination of all forms. We join the voices that urge Governor Deal to protect Georgia from any discriminatory laws."

The company's Universal division was behind the 2015 action hit "Furious 7," part of the "Fast and the Furious" franchise, which was shot partially in the United Arab Emirates. The movie showed off the country's striking locales in scenes including a heart-stopper where the character played by Vin Diesel drives a sports car out the window of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper.

A Universal spokeswoman said the company declined to comment.

"Corporations can be a partner for good," said Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International, a human rights organization focused on gay and transgender rights around the world. "And we need more corporate engagement that is being used productively. That said, we also want corporations to hold themselves to the same standard whether doing business in North Carolina, Georgia, or anywhere else."

The complexities of the North Carolina bathroom debate have tripped up companies beyond the entertainment industry.

PayPal said in April that it was canceling plans to open a new global operations center in Charlotte that would have employed more than 400 people.

"This decision reflects PayPal's deepest values and our strong belief that every person has the right to be treated equally, and with dignity and respect," PayPal President and Chief Executive Dan Schulman said in a statement published on the digital payment company's website.

The announcement provoked some conservative groups, including the American Family Assn. The group recently took out a full-page ad in the San Jose Mercury News pointing out that PayPal has a major operations center in Malaysia, a country whose record on gay and transgender rights has been condemned by organizations including Human Rights Watch.

"Shouldn't you be boycotting Malaysia rather than the people of North Carolina?" asked the newspaper ad.

Neither PayPal nor the American Family Assn. responded to requests for comment. The association has separately called for a boycott of Target, citing the retail giant's policy of allowing transgender individuals to use bathrooms that conform to their gender identity.

The potential pitfalls of corporate activism shouldn't discourage companies from making social and political stands, said David J. Vogel, a professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, where his areas of study include business ethics and global corporate responsibility.

"I don't think the fact that they're inconsistent should be held against them," he said. "Those companies that were willing to support civil rights in the South deserve credit and many companies didn't do that. Companies are social institutions and they will be criticized either way."

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