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The TOMS debacle: Another crack in Focus on the Family's 'newer, softer' facade

by Jeremy Hooper

Regular G-A-Y readers might know the name Esther Fleece. Esther is the young, highly personable, politically pleasant person who Focus on the Family hired to help put a hip, younger face on the house that Dobson built. She's also been the focus of a couple of G-A-Y pieces, where I've opined about Focus on the Family's desire, under the leadership of new president Jim Daly, to come across as a "new, softer" group, while still pushing, backing, and financing the exact same anti-LGBT/pro-"ex-gay" advocacy for which the organization has long been known. For me, Esther has essentially served as the figurehead for this incongruity: Tasked with hipping up a joint that, in the minds of most LGBT people and their allies in the equality fight (including those who trend GOP), is still about as well-received as a pig roast at a PETA convention.

Which brings us to the hip, world-minded TOMS shoes company. I personally love TOMS shoes, both the product and the inspirational "One for One" program attached to theScreen Shot 2011-07-10 At 5.14.15 Pmcommerce. I'm actually on my third pair in two years (a statement on my color and style variety, not the product's sustainability), something to which anyone who's seen me during the warmer months of the past two years can testify. For those quick trips in a reliably dirty city like NYC, it was TOMS that finally made me ditch the ubiquitous summer flip flops for a more sanitary, podiatrically preferable espadrille option. A truly happy customer here.

So I became somewhat troubled when I started seeing a growing number of Tweets from both Esther and Focus on the Family indicating what seemed to be a strong partnership between one of my favorite below-the-ankles options and one of my most adversarial below-the-belt opposition groups. Tweets that looked like this:

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Huh? What? TOMS, a socially minded company, partnering with a group that opposes every single advancement for LGBT people? Partnering with a group that supports the scientifically discredited idea that gays can and should "change"? My TOMS, whose commitment to giving back always made the purchase feel more charitable than crass, are seriously helping push a group whose sense of charity tells the world that my own two feet are foundationally out-of-step with God's plan? REALLY?!?

Digging further, I and many other online types (Right Wing Watch, Kos, Jezebel, etc) learned that this booking was unfortunately true: Founder Blake MyCoskie did, in fact, join up for an official Focus on the Family event, right alongside president Jim Daly:

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[Photo: Fish959.com]

Then came this Christianity Today article, in which Fleece further solidified the connection and her role in achieving it:

As this issue of Christianity Today goes to press, the ministry is scheduled to highlight the work of Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS, a company that donates shoes to an impoverished child for every pair sold.

"A year ago, they were like, 'Who's that?'," Fleece laughs. Now the company is working to become a TOMS international distributor in Africa. "We're making slow strides here."

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/article_print.html?id=92823 [Christianity Today]

The news was as depressing as it was conflicting. "Conflicting," because when you have a company that does something as great as providing footwear to children in need, it's tough to see any advancement of this mission as a negative. The effort seems like a universal no-brainer -- the exact kind of thing that modern day Christian groups should be pushing, and something that could allow us to form a large, united coalition that comes together for a universal good. For a supporter of the mission and the company like myself, I have trouble standing in the way of it.

But "depressing," because the simple truth is that Focus on the Family has gone way too far over the line to ever make something like this okay. Even when the end result could be so great, this group has gone too far into the arena of anti-LGBT animus to make this kind of thing palatable. We equality advocates cannot, in good conscience, support any effort that raises either Focus on the Family's profile or legitimacy, not while they are daily working to discredit our existences themselves. The hurt they continue to bring to our lives, loves, and families is too exorbitant to put even their well-intentioned work within our realm of possible alliance.

I seriously take no pride in putting this depressing state of affairs above my innate altruism. I get absolutely no joy out of it. I absolutely despise the fact that the religious right in America has brought us to a point where working together is nothing short of impossible. But they have and it is -- and Focus on the Family is the group that's long been at the forefront of this damaging, divisive mission.

But wait -- you know who else realizes this? TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie!

Yep, that's right: It turns out that after being made aware of what exactly Focus on the Family is all about, Mycoskie was pretty much appalled. Appalled enough to release this strong statement to Change.org:

"Had I known the full extent of Focus on the Family's beliefs, I would not have accepted the invitation to speak at their event. It was an oversight on my part and the company's part and one we regret. In the last 18 months we have presented at over 70 different engagements and we do our best to make sure we choose our engagements wisely, on this one we chose poorly.

Furthermore, contrary to what has been reported, Focus on the Family is not a TOMS giving partner.

So there is no misunderstanding created by this mistake, let me clearly state that both TOMS, and I as the founder, are passionate believers in equal human and civil rights for all. That belief is a core value of the company and of which we are most proud."

TOMS Shoes founder expresses “regret,” says Focus on the Family misrepresented relationship [Change.org]

**NOTE: Mycoskie has also released the statement on his personal blog, under the headline "A sincere apology"

The words really do sound sincere. For those of us who obsess over "culture war" stuff, it's hard to imagine how one could be unaware of FoTF's work. But many are. Most, even. So it's quite possible that Mycoskie was duped by the "nice, softer" tone that Focus on the Family works quite well. I get it, knowing this group as well as I do. It also seems that Blake now "gets it," judging by what is an undeniable indictment of Focus on the Family's policy work.

The larger takaeway for the equality movement is that this all bears out what I and others have been saying all along: That you can't just say you are newer, younger, faster, hipper and make it so! When the NCAA caught flack for running "benign" Focus on the Family web ads, my mission was to show America that regardless of how benign the ad copy in question, the organization in question is still running unbelievably anti-gay rhetoric on its website. And then, as that story caught on, two interesting things happened: (1) The NCAA pulled the web ads in question, and (2) Focus on the Family quietly scrubbed almost all of the over-the-top quotes that I brought to light. Because that's what happens to a "newer, softer" PR campaign: When its "old hardness" is exposed, people on the outside get an education about how harsh groups like FoTF really are, and people on the inside learn that their org. has a long, substantive way to go before its targeted populations will allow it to change its surface spots.

That's what we're seeing here yet again. Blake Mycocskie has learned that Focus on the Family still does stuff like push scientifically-rejected attempts to "change" gay people...

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...and Focus on the Family has once again been exposed for being a complete and utter third rail in the human and civil rights fight. It doesn't matter what was said or done or Tweeted to get Mycoskie on board: The reality ultimately sunk the ship.

The reality will always sink Focus' ship up until the day that they commit to real change, the kind that regards the spectrum of the world's normalcy for what it is. A carefully-crafted millennial outreach program is not going to do the trick, no matter how ably or enthusiastically Ms. Fleece does her job.

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