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Gay rights group hails policy

Wal-Mart says all workers will be treated equally

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SEATTLE — Victory wasn't supposed to come this easy.

Pride Foundation, a Seattle-based philanthropic group for gay and lesbian issues, spent more than two years talking with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. about making it company policy not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The foundation was preparing to draft a shareholders resolution to further pressure the Bentonville, Ark.-based company.

Then word came that Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and private employer, was making the change voluntarily. The company announced Wednesday that it is including gays and lesbians among groups protected by its anti-discrimination policy.

"We assumed we would be working on Wal-Mart for quite a while," said Zan McColloch-Lussier, campaign director for Pride Foundation. The group owns a small amount of Wal-Mart stock and had expected to write a proposal for shareholders.

"We are quite proud that we did not need to do that," he said.

The change resulted in part from external pressure but also from Wal-Mart workers, who have long urged the company to make the change, company spokesman Tom Williams said.

"It's the right thing to do," he said. "The issue was that everyone feel valued and treated with respect . . . No exceptions at all."

The success bolsters Pride Foundation and those who assisted in the Wal-Mart campaign, including Trillium Asset Management and Walden Asset Management, both of Boston. All three groups are members of the Equality Project, a New York-based coalition of funds, investors and others that seek to change corporate policy with the voice that comes from being a shareholder — even a small one.

The groups now are considering where to focus their energies next.

With Wal-Mart's conversion, nine of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies expressly include sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination policies, said Shelley Alpern, an assistant vice president at Trillium.

The exception is Exxon Mobil Corp., she said.

Exxon Mobil, which is based in Irving, Texas, issued a statement Wednesday saying it did not plan to add the language and believes its "intentionally broad" policy clearly bars discrimination on any basis, including sexual orientation. In May, shareholders of the oil giant defeated a resolution to ban discrimination against homosexuals.

Pride Foundation, founded in December 1985 to provide grants and assistance to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organizations, has given more than $4.2 million to Northwest groups and projects.