The Ultimate Fighting Championship franchise has a 20-year history of its fighters saying some amazingly stupid things about women, rape, gays and lesbians and minorities.
That isn’t stopping the Gay and Lesbian Center of Las Vegas from tagging the cage-match fighting company as its Corporation of the Year — but that support has sparked a family feud in Las Vegas’s usually tight-knit progressive community.
The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, citing a “troubling history of homophobia, misogyny, and a cavalier attitude towards rape” is planning a community discussion Wednesday night on holding “our corporate partners accountable to the communities we serve.” (Full disclosure: The author formerly worked for PLAN and while there worked with staff from both The Center and Culinary Union Local 226.)
The Center is a member of PLAN, which is a statewide coalition of progressive nonprofits, and so too is the Culinary Union, which has been locked in a battle for years with members of the Fertitta family, owners of the UFC and its parent company, Zuffa LLC. The Fertittas also own Station Casinos, the locals-friendly Las Vegas chain which has battled Culinary’s efforts to unionize for years.
The Center is motivated by UFC’s support for its community program, specifically financial support for the rebuilding of the new community center near Maryland Avenue and Charleston Boulevard.
The Center board voted to make UFC its Corporation of the Year last spring, but the company is to accept the honor Oct. 19.
Representatives for PLAN and the Culinary Union Local 226 were careful Friday to say that they support the mission of The Center, which provides a range of support for lesbians, gay, bisexual people and transgender people and others in the community.
“It’s been kind of tough,” Laura Martin, PLAN communications director, said. “The (Center) staff are our friends. They are still our friends.”
She said that PLAN and Culinary representatives attended The Center’s board meeting earlier this month and submitted a letter expressing their concerns with the partnership. The board did not respond, Martin said.
“This is something that The Center’s board has decided,” she said.
PLAN’s announcement of the meeting Wednesday noted that other member groups of its coalition have accepted financial support from industries and companies that don’t agree with PLAN’s larger agenda. Specifically, PLAN noted one of its conservation partners had taken money from the mining industry. PLAN has worked with limited success to raise state taxes on the gold mining industry.
The Culinary Union, in a flier promoting the PLAN meeting Wednesday, took pains to show the concern was with the UFC, not with The Center: “We believe The Center is an invaluable organization in Las Vegas that provides a safe and affirming place for the LGBTQ community and allies to gather and support each other in our fight for equality. It is important to have an organization that can tackle challenges like HIV prevention, coming-out issues, bullying, and discrimination. We are allies in the struggle for LGBTQ rights and believe tremendous work has been done by staff, board, and volunteers of The Center over the past 20 years.”
The Center defended its relationship with the UFC.
“The partnership between The Center and UFC is unlike any other joint effort we have, providing a platform for The Center’s programs, services, and messaging to be communicated to an important and critical demographic, mostly new to The Center,” said Raymond Wilmer, The Center’s board president. “From the outset of our partnership, the participation by UFC in the life of The Center has been about more than just funding. They have had an impressive presence at significant events, and they have ensured that this participation has been inclusive and has included the highest level of leadership of UFC. The Center, in turn, has committed ourselves to supporting UFC’s long-standing efforts to ensure that their operation is fully supportive of equality and the LGBTQ community. It is our strong belief that we can effect greater change by working with corporations like UFC than by isolating them.”
But the partnership between The Center and UFC is clearly fraught with potential pitfalls. A website operated by the Culinary Union, unfitforchildren.org, alleges a history of offensive, homophobic and misogynistic statements by fighters and executives in the UFC’s corporate retinue, among them that:
• UFC President and minority owner Dana White has made on-the-record statements referring to a “fucking faggot” and other anti-gay slurs
• A YouTube video has former UFC fighter Rampage Jackson feigning the parking-lot-kidnapping and rape of a woman, titled “How to Pick Up a Gurl — Fast.” During a Japanese tour, Jackson urged Japanese to repeat gay slurs such as “I want you to piss on my face.”
• Other fighters made similar anti-gay slurs directed at their opponents.
• Fighters, including former bantamweight Miguel Torres, have made or posted comments that appear to endorse rape, including the following from Torres on Twitter: “Your mouth says no but my roofies say yes.”
Representatives from Zuffa did not return phone calls between Friday and Tuesday's deadline. Ryan Marquardt, spokesman for The Center, said UFC had posted a statement to The Center website earlier in September: “It is clear that the Culinary Union’s leadership is more interested in perpetuating lies about the UFC and Station Casinos instead of promoting a healthy environment for their members. They are more concerned with launching negative campaigns seeking to misinform the public about the UFC and Station Casino’s continuing efforts to promote LGBTQ issues and the tolerance of everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The statement said UFC has an openly lesbian female fighter among its ranks, Liz Carmouche, and that the company and Station Casinos have contributed $200,000 to The Center.
Martin said the PLAN meeting was not designed to penalize either The Center or UFC.
“We don’t want to punish them at all,” Martin said of The Center. “I don’t know what our community would be like without them.… These are issues all over the country. We just want organizations that have gigantic boards, like The Center does, to know that these issues are important.”
She said companies often make charitable contributions to “whitewash” troublesome histories.
“That’s part of their marketing,” Martin said. “We want them to do good, but we don’t want that to be a veneer. We want it to be part of their culture.”