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LGBTQ+ Community Responds to Death of Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson

Arne Sorenson by Michael Buckner for Getty Images

The travel titan wielded his corportate power to advocate for LGBTQ+ people. Doing so was “not simply the right thing to do,” he believed, “it’s also essential for business.”

The LGBTQ+ community is honoring the memory of Marriott International Inc. Chief Executive Officer Arne Sorenson, who died Monday, at 62. Under his leadership, the international hospitality company became a leader in supporting LGBTQ+ rights. 

In 2015, PFLAG honored Marriott International with the Straight for Equality in the Workplace Award. His leadership also earned praise from Diversity Inc., the Human Rights Campaign, and the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. 

“We lost a champion yesterday,” Brian K. Bond, executive director of PFLAG National said in a written statement. “For my community — the  LGBTQ+ community — he was a beacon of inclusion, and personally, there was no kinder man. You could see his kindness in the culture he created globally at Marriott, whose policies embraced and protected everyone, from travel guests to Marriott associates everywhere.” 

Bond continued, “In 2015, when Arne Sorenson accepted PFLAG’s Straight for Equality in the Workplace award on Marriott’s behalf, he made the case that only the leader of an organization as large and influential as Marriott could about corporate America’s role in achieving equality. He spoke out from our stage against Indiana’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, calling it ‘idiocy,’ and ‘just plain wrong.’ He firmly stated that he and Marriott as a whole would not stand for it, and they did not.”  

Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, Inc., and a pioneering LGBTQ+ rights movement communications strategist also spoke about Sorenson’s passing, writing, “For over 15 years, I’ve had the privilege to enjoy the friendship of Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott, who passed away yesterday here in Washington DC. I just wanted to share that news and pause for a moment about the significance he had for all of us as a global ally in the LGBTQ community.” 

Witeck added, Sorenson was “proud to be our ally and champion wherever it mattered most —  as in the battle against NC’s HB2 a few years ago, see below. He was part of the crucial movement that many major American corporations have led advocating for our civil rights, and articulated both the business case along with his dedication to fairness, equity and humanity in everything he stood for. I know he inspires many others to follow his example, and his life really mattered.”

Witeck was refering to the op ed that Sorenson wrote for CNBC in 2016, opposing North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ+ bill HB2.

The law, Sorenson wrote, did not reflect his or Marrriott’s values nor “a basic principle that helps drive new jobs and economic growth in North Carolina and beyond: Everyone deserves to be welcome. We are disappointed with the unusual speed that was given to passing and signing this legislation into law, undoubtedly an attempt to minimize public outcry.”

He continued, “Undeterred, I’m pleased to see that we are aligned with civil rights advocates, as well as most of the state’s top employers and job creators in calling for HB2 to be repealed. ... We have seen this happen elsewhere, where haste and political expediency produce laws that ultimately diminish a state’s reputation along with its appeal for tourism, job creation and economic activity.” 

“As a global hospitality leader and multistate employer,” Sorenson added, “these legislative skirmishes can be frustrating and costly. We still see a patchwork of gaps in state and local nondiscrimination laws that add complications and uncertainty for our people and local managers. It dismays many of us that, in 29 states, people are still at risk of losing their job just for being gay or transgender.”

Marriott joined many other businesses to endorse passage of the Equality Act (which, unfortunately, remains to be passed), and Sorenson made it clear that Marriott was, “dedicated to ensuring every guest and all of our associates are valued, welcomed and protected from discrimination whenever they enter our doors. However, we also believe they deserve equal respect and safeguards from discrimination in the communities where they live and raise their families.”

Sorenson’s op-ed concluded, “America’s promise is clear. Our nation strives to provide equal opportunity, no matter who you are. Most Americans today understand that we shouldn’t judge people by how they worship, who they love, what gender they identify with or by their wealth, nationality, race, sex, age or physical abilities. To be competitive in the world today, America needs everyone’s skills. Including LGBT people in that effort is not simply the right thing to do, it’s also essential for business.”

The CEO of one of the leading travel companies in the world believed supporting our rights was good for business, and he wasn’t afraid to throw the company’s significant weight behind efforts to prevent discrimination. 

In writing about Sorenson, Bond, the executive director of PFLAG National, noted,  “Now, years later, marriage is the law of the land, and now we are working to pass the Equality Act, to address the issues that marriage could not fix. We would be missing a significant part of the story if we didn’t acknowledge the role that corporate America has played in our progress, progress that would never have happened without vocal, unflinching, and authentic leaders like Arne Sorenson.”

Sorenson continued to serve as CEO after being diagnosed with stage-2 pancreatic cancer in May 2019, and sheparded the company through a global pandemic that emptied hotel rooms and threatened service workers. He helped make rooms available for front-line workers. And through all the troubles of 2020, he remained bullish about the future of travel.

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