By now, those with a working internet connection and even a passing interest in beer have likely heard the news: In early April, Bud Light, the American-style light lager beer produced by brewing juggernaut Anheuser-Busch InBev, gifted the transgender activist Dylan Mulvaney a pack of beer adorned with her face. Controversy ensued.
Over the past year, Mulvaney has gained a massive following on social media platforms, like TikTok (10.8 million followers) and Instagram (1.8 million followers), for chronicling her gender transition. Mulvaney called the personalized Bud Light can—which commemorated a full year since the start of her transition—”the best gift ever” and sipped the beer in a sponsored Instagram post.
Many conservative voices were quick to colorfully condemn the collaboration. The rapper Kid Rock made a point of shooting up a row of lined-up Bud Lights, and the country music singer Travis Tritt announced he was removing requests of Bud Light from his concert rider. Even Anheuser-Busch production facilities received threats. It’s the latest chapter, one could argue, in a culture war that’s resulted in an influx of anti-transgender legislation in the U.S., with 11 states enacting bans or restrictions on gender-affirming health care for children and over 465 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced this year.
“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” said Brendan Whitworth, Anheuser-Busch CEO in a statement that hinted at a desire to remain neutral amid a 17% drop in sales. “We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.” Leadership within Anheuser-Busch have taken a leave of absence due to the controversy.
Mulvaney commented on the fallout in late April, saying she was “struggling to understand [the] need to dehumanize and to be cruel,” adding that “dehumanization has never fixed anything in history ever.”
When did beer get so politically charged? Maybe it’s always been. After all, consider the Stonewall Inn, the New York City watering hole that became the focal point of the then-nascent LGBTQ+ movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. Go back even further, to the 1800s, for the transformation of beer-slinging saloons into political spaces.
The politicization of beer is certainly an inescapable fact of 2023. But Anheuser-Busch InBev’s seeming support of a trans activist, coupled with a recoiling from the backlash that followed, begs the uncomfortable question: Is Big Beer trying to have it both ways?
Big Beer’s LGBTQ+ Embrace
Despite the controversy, the brands associated with Anheuser-Busch InBev—which include Budweiser, Stella Artois, Michelob Ultra and Hoegarden—have long worked with other members of the LGBTQ+ community. Over the past 20 years, the company has contributed over $13 million to LGBTQ+ non-profit organizations.
Why? Because “Anheuser-Busch wants everyone to drink their product and that should include people who have a transgender lived history,” suggests Ashley T. Brundage, a trans activist.
Indeed, during Pride 2019, Bud Light released rainbow aluminum beer bottles and donated $1 from every case sold to GLAAD—an organization that works to increase LGBTQ+ presence in media. In 2021, Michelob Ultra partnered with CeCe Telfer, a transgender female athlete. And for Pride 2022, Bud Light gave a $200,000 donation to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce to support BIPOC LGBTQ-owned businesses. Bud Light, in fact, has a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index.
Anheuser-Busch InBev isn’t the only big beer player to support the LGBTQ+ community. It’s joined by the Molson Coors company, maker of Coors Light and Miller Lite, which has sponsored Pride parades and contributed nearly half a million dollars to the Equality Federation. For over two decades, Coors Light has sponsored Denver Pride, and Molson Coors’s Tap Into Change program has also raised $700,000 for LGBTQ+ non-profit organizations in a decade.
In fact, half of the top ten best-selling beers in the U.S. have LGBTQ+ partnerships.
“Pride organizations around the country provide a safe space,” explains Brundage. “This wouldn’t be possible on a large scale without corporate sponsorship.”
Certainly, many in the LGBTQ+ community saw the partnership with Mulvaney as an extension of that support. “For a trans person to be part of a sponsored social media post by a major corporation helps demonstrate that trans people are as common as Bud product placement,” says Jessica Jones, a transgender brewer and co-owner of Giant Jones Brewing Company in Wisconsin.
But what happens when a campaign goes sideways?
The Fine Line Between Support and Rainbow Washing
For some, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s attempts to shrink from the Mulvaney controversy actively undermine the work it’s done with the LGBTQ+ community. It’s led some to cry rainbow-washing—sometimes called rainbow capitalism—a term used to describe the signaling of support for the LGBTQ+ community through LGBTQ+-aligned imagery, like rainbows, while making little actual effort to support that community or taking active steps to work against it.
“Bud Light recklessly displayed performative allyship at the expense of Mulvaney’s safety and wellbeing,” says Liz Wieland, a non-binary licensed clinical social worker. “Alcoholic beverage companies erode trust within the LGBTQ+ community when they try to have it both ways. Anheuser-Busch’s lack of response to extremist views is unacceptable. Whitworth didn’t call for consumers to stop the attacks on Mulvaney.”
Cathy Renna, communications director for the National LGBTQ+ Task Force, agrees. “Companies can’t walk the middle line between divided communities—they need to make a decision and take a stand,” she says.
Complicating the narrative, too, is Big Beer’s history of donating to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians. Accountable for Equality Action reported that Anheuser-Busch has donated $235,449 to state lawmakers supporting anti-trans laws since 2016. Affiliates of the Molson Coors also made donations to anti-LGBTQ+ Senator Ron Johnson.
“Rainbow washing is inherently harmful, especially when the offending companies contribute to anti-LGBTQ+ political campaigns, as it misleads LGBTQ+ consumers to participate in their oppression,” says Wieland.
“[Some] corporations aren’t here to lead the way on human rights issues—they’re looking for profits,” Jones adds. “Capitalism is focused on getting money from consumers, not human rights.”
Certainly, brands are having a harder time getting away with inconsistent support. In 2021 Anheuser-Busch beers were banned at The Stonewall Inn in New York City. To protest the corporation’s alleged rainbow washing, bottles of Bud Light, one of the Stonewall’s top-selling beers, were poured out.
As the fallout from the Mulvaney episode settles, the path forward for Big Beer’s relationship with LGBTQ+ remains unclear. Ultimately, modern brands need to deal with modern issues. Consumers of all stripes will only continue to hold brands accountable—for better or for worse. And that means, many believe, that Big Beer needs to decide which consumers matter more.