Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Taking Initiative: His Family's Business Became ExxonMobil, and Now This Gay Man Has the Stock and the Standing to Persuade the Oil Company to Change Its Antigay Ways. (Money)

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Taking Initiative: His Family's Business Became ExxonMobil, and Now This Gay Man Has the Stock and the Standing to Persuade the Oil Company to Change Its Antigay Ways. (Money)

Article excerpt

Gay rights activists come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and colors. They can also be found at all socioeconomic levels.

Just ask Phillip Winston. He's the 32-year-old gay great-grandson of Texas oil prospector Frank Sterling, whose Humble Oil, founded in the early 1900s, later merged with Standard Oil and eventually became ExxonMobil--which today is the largest oil company in the world, with $210 billion in annual revenues.

Winston has been working as an advocate for gay rights--sometimes quietly on the sidelines by voting with his shares, other Mimes front and center--to convince the Irving, Tex.-based corporation to change its companywide policy, which excludes gay and lesbian employees from workplace discrimination protections and prevents them from receiving domestic-partner benefits.

"It is embarrassing that one by one the top Fortune 100 companies are failing into the progressive, right way of thinking and ExxonMobil is one of the last holdouts," says Winston, who today lives in Boston, far from his Houston roots.

Gays' most recent problems with ExxonMobil began in 1999, when Exxon merged with Mobil. In a controversial move that evoked loud disapproval from activists, the corporation eliminated Mobil's same-sex domestic-partner benefits program as well as its nondiscrimination policy that covered sexual orientation. (Though ExxonMobil did not respond to interview requests by press time for this story, company officials have told The Advocate that ExxonMobil's nondiscrimination policy, which does not mention sexual orientation, covers all employees.)

Every year since that time, gay and progressive groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Equality Project, joined more recently by representatives of New York City's five pension funds, have challenged the company to change its policy by submitting shareholder resolutions to a proxy vote.

Proxy votes, which usually happen once a year, give company stock owners the opportunity to vote on various aspects of corporate policy and management. Though the results are nonbinding, majority decisions on shareholder resolutions are strong cues that top management usually follows. ExxonMobil shareholders are expected to vote on partner benefits and nondiscrimination protections again at the end of May.

Winston, who moved from his family's Houston home to attend Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., has worked as an event planner for the American Cancer Society and is now planning to open a restaurant in Boston's South End. "It will be called the Silver Line Kitchen, and it opens in late fall," he says. "It will fill in the gap in the South End market between high-end bistros and low-end sandwich shops."

Winston also is the owner of about 300,000 ExxonMobil shares, and he says he has always used them to vote on shareholder resolutions--on issues including Exxon's environmental policies and its human rights record overseas.

So when an acquaintance asked him if he wanted to speak at ExxonMobil's 2001 shareholder meeting about his opposition to the company's policies toward gay men and lesbians, he jumped at the opportunity. "I knew that I have enough shares that I could speak at the shareholder meeting and that what I said would have weight," he says.

Still, when he saw the frosty reception other gay activists got from company executives as they pressed their point that year, he feared that he would receive the same treatment. …

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