In the afterglow of Tuesday’s election, the term “historic turning point” for LGBT rights is hardly an overstatement. The passage of equal marriage rights by popular vote in three states, the blockage of an anti-equality constitutional amendment in a fourth (after losses in 30 other states), plus the reelection of the first president to ever publicly ally himself with same-sex marriage equality, demonstrates a dramatic shift in public attitudes.
Equally dramatic, however, and perhaps even more significant, has been the willingness of large businesses and major corporations to lend both their names and dollars toward the cause. In Washington State, in particular, a blue-chip list of high-profile companies — Starbucks, Nordstrom, Amazon, Microsoft, REI, to name just a few — took a prominent stand in support of the marriage-equality referendum. Amazon chief Jeff Bezos tossed in $2.5 million of his own toward the campaign. Bill Gates wrote a check for $100,000.
Less than 20 years ago, in 1994, Senator Edward Kennedy’s staff had a difficult time trying to convince corporate executives to testify on behalf of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the first attempt to bar employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation at the federal level (a measure that still has not passed.) Their companies had successfully implemented internal policies that did the same; the executives were even on record saying they thought it was a good idea. But testify before Congress? No, thanks.
Why the change? The list of supportive companies comes as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with gay-friendly companies. For more than 20 years, many of these companies have been in the forefront, banning discrimination, creating safe and supportive environments, even pioneering equalized benefits for lesbian and gay families of their employees — and proving they could work fairly and cost-effectively. (Starbucks was notable here, even offering domestic-partner health benefits to part-timers.) They did it because their corporate cultures valued employees and their diversity, which they believed — and proved –gave them access to top talent and creativity.
They did it well, but they did it quietly.
So why the new level of prominence on the marriage equality issue? There’s a business advantage for them.
“Business seeks uniformity,” said Bob Witeck, founder of Washington, D.C.-based Witeck Communications, a public relations and marketing communications firm with a longstanding reputation for advising companies on LGBT issues. He points out that some of the Washington State supporters are among the more than 40 corporations that initially signed on to an amicus brief in the case to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act (a list that is growing as DOMA nears the Supreme Court).