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Gay Walmart group PRIDE comes out 

But company's embrace of equality uneasy.

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In 2007, Walmart courted the so-called "Lavender Marketplace" by paying $25,000 to join the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. It also co-sponsored an annual convention of "Out & Equal," a group that promotes equality in the workplace.

But the company quickly caught flack. The national right-wing Christian American Family Association called for a nationwide Black Friday boycott. AFA accused the retailer of yielding to a "radical homosexual agenda." Walmart responded by withdrawing from the chamber. It issued a statement saying it would no longer contribute to "highly controversial issues, or give preference to gay or lesbian suppliers."

Three years later, Walmart got flack from the other side, when the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as well as the Human Rights Campaign called for a boycott, telling LGBTQ shoppers to avoid Walmart stores.

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Still, Walmart has made some strides towards equality within the company. Last year, Walmart extended its non-discrimination policy to include gender expression and gender identity. Most recently the policy, which also protects transsexual associates, was revised to include intersexed individuals. This summer, Walmart PRIDE launched an "Allies for Inclusion" program at one of its meetings, where Sam's Club president and CEO Rosalind Brewer took the stage in support.

But Deena Fidas, deputy director of the Workplace Project at the Human Rights Campaign based in Washington, D.C., said it's time for Walmart to step up. A majority of Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partnership benefits. Walmart does not.

"We applaud Walmart for implementing basic workplace protections for their LGBT employees," she said. "But they should not have to go through undue legal burden of traveling to another state to acquire same-sex partner benefits. Walmart needs to move towards parity."

Diversity officer Orlopp said the issue of benefits comes up every year.

"We offer same-sex partner benefits in states where it is required," she said. "But for us the whole thing is about talent. We want to make sure we have the absolute best talent at Walmart and that all associates can bring their authentic selves to work."

At the 2010 shareholders meeting in Fayetteville, CEO Mike Duke rolled out the concept "Next Generation Walmart," proclaiming, "If we work together, we'll lower the cost of living for everyone. We'll give the world an opportunity to see what it's like to save and have a better life."

Yet when it comes to a better life, Walmart trails far behind Microsoft, Starbucks and Google, which have all come forward in support of marriage equality.

In 1996 only 28 companies offered health benefits for domestic partners. According to the Human Rights Campaign 2013 Corporate Equality Index, 62 percent of the Fortune 500 companies now offer health care benefits for same-sex partners, as well as things like adoption assistance, bereavement and paid family leave. While more than two hundred companies scored 100 percent on the CEI, Walmart scored only 60.

"Walmart is out of the mainstream compared to companies like Target, Costco and Walgreens," Fidas said. "And with such a low score, the retailer cannot authentically tap into the LGBT consumer market, with an estimated buying power of $790 billion U.S. dollars."

Fidas said LGBT consumers look to HRC's Corporate Equality Index to guide decisions on where to spend their money.

Sam Walton once said: "Each Walmart store should reflect the values of its customers and support the vision they hold for their community."

The Williams Institute, a UCLA-based think-tank devoted to LGBT research, estimates that 4 percent of Americans, or nine million people, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. So given that measure, of 2.2 million Walmart associates worldwide, 88,000 potentially identify as lesbian, gay, transgendered or bisexual.

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