Gay rights hasn’t been an issue in the presidential campaign, and that’s good. “On gay issues, silence is golden,” says Jonathan Capehart, a Washington Post editorial writer. As recently as during the 2004 election, you may recall, Republicans put gay-rights measures on state ballots to draw out voters who would favor George W. Bush over John Kerry. “We’re not the punching bags we were two elections ago,” Capehart says. The tide is turning.
Some credit for this belongs to corporate America, which has over the last two decades embraced the gay community. Capehart made his remarks during a panel discussion at the 2012 Out & Equal Workplace Summit, a gathering of LGBT people in the business world. Out & Equal, an advocacy group, champions workplace equality, in part because changes in the workplace become a catalyst for broader cultural changes.
I spoke on the panel, too, because of my 2006 FORTUNE story, Queer Inc., which was subtitled, “How Corporate America fell in love with gays and lesbians. It’s a movement.” It’s become a potent movement–today, the vast majority of FORTUNE 500 companies promise not to discriminate against gays (even though it’s legal to do so in many states) and more than 60% offer domestic partner benefits (which few governments do). The business world is out in front of the political world when it comes to gay rights, in part because companies compete aggressively for LGBT workers and customers. Just look at the major sponsors of the Out & Equal summit: IBM, Hewlett Packard, Dell, Target, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, Citi, Diageo, Genentech, Intuit, Marriott, Marsh & McLennen, Northrop Grumman, Paul Hastings, TD bank, The Advocate and Wells Fargo; many more companies signed on as mid-level sponsors or advertised in the 169-page conference program.
Even so, some companies stop short when it comes to the issue of marriage equality. On Tuesday, four states — Maine, my home state of Maryland, Minnesota and Washington — will vote on the question of whether to legalize gay marriage. In Washington state, corporate leaders have been in the forefront of the battle for marriage equality, with their dollars and voices. Business leaders have been quieter elsewhere.
First, the good news. Many of Washington state’s leading companies, including, Amazon, Costco, Microsoft, Nordstrom, Starbucks and REI, supported the 2011 marriage equality law enacted by the state legislature that is now being challenged in the voting booth. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, and his wife, MacKenzie went a step further: They agreed to donate $2.5 million to support Referendum 74. Last summer Jennifer Cast, a former Amazon employee and a lesbian mother of four children, wrote an email to Bezos sayings:
I want to have the right to marry the love of my life and to let my children and grandchildren know their family is honored like a ‘real’ family. We need help from straight people. To be very frank, we need help from wealthy straight people who care about us and who want to help us win.
“Jeff, I suspect you support marriage equality,” she went on. “I beg you not to sit on the sidelines and hope the vote goes our way. Help us make it so.”
Jen, this is right for so many reasons. We’re in for $2.5 million. Jeff & MacKenzie.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave $100,000 each to the Washington marriage-equality campaign. Those gifts take guts; the issue remains divisive.
In Minnesota, meanwhile, Ken Powell, the ceo of General Mills, proved willing to stick his neck out . At an LGBT pride meeting in June, he spoke against a state ballot measure that would prohibit gay marriage. Powell said:
We do not believe the proposed constitutional amendment is in the best interests of our employees or our state economy – and as a Minnesota-based company we oppose it.
We value diversity. We value inclusion. We always have … and we always will.
He reiterated that position when he came under criticism at a General Mills shareholder meeting a few months later. Cheerios remain my favorite breakfast cereal.
But General Mills seems to be the exception in Minnesota. Other companies headquartered there, including Best Buy, Target and 3M, have stayed out of the fray, as best as I can tell and according to a list of major companies and business leaders backing marriage equality, compiled by the Human Rights Campaign.
In Maryland, it’s much the same story. This state is home to the headquarters of six FORTUNE 500 companies, but only one–Constellation Energy–is on record as supporting marriage equality, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Marriott is moving in that direction–the company said this week that it will file an amicus brief in a court challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law (signed by President Clinton–see how times have changed!) which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same sex marriages.
Deena Fidas, deputy director of the workplace project of the Human Rights Campaign, who was also on our panel, told me that getting companies to step into ballot campaigns is a challenge. But, she added: “We’re seeing larger number of businesses affirm their support for marriage.”
None of this means that workplaces (or other places) are free of discrimination, of course. Even after companies adopt LGBT-friendly policies, some workers don’t feel fully included or comfortable discussing their sexual orientation. It’s a tricky business, coming out in the business world, even today. The CEO of the world’s most valuable compan remains intensely private about his sexuality (as is his right), although it’s been widely reported that he’s gay.