Microsoft Showdown on Gay Rights

Bill Gates reluctantly drawn into flap over Washington State anti-discrimination measure

The leader of the National Gay and Lesbian Task force warned Tuesday that Seattle area-based software giant Microsoft could face a boycott of its products by gay and lesbian organizations and consumers if it continues to refuse its support for a Washington State non-discrimination bill.

“I believe that if they don’t change their position in the near future that we all have to look at ways for us all to move off of their operating system and their programs,” said Matt Foreman, the head of Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. “I’ve already asked our IT department to give me options for that.”

“We all have real hopes and expectations that they will reverse course, so I don’t believe in going straight to the threat,” Foreman continued. “And I think they will change their position because their position is wrong, not because they’re worried about financial pressures.”

The threat of a boycott seriously ups the ante in a fiercely contested battle over a measure that would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The company, which is the Seattle area’s second largest employer, has supported nearly identical legislation in past years. But this year, the software giant refused. News of the company’s change of position came just days before a key state Senate vote on the bill, which the state House of Representatives had passed with a broad bipartisan mandate and the new Democratic governor, Christine Gregoire, has vowed to sign.

The bill failed by one vote last Thursday.

The bill’s author, Seattle Democratic Rep. Ed Murray, who is gay, said that if Microsoft had renewed its support for the bill early in the legislative session and been consistent, it “might have made all the difference.” But Murray stopped short of saying that Microsoft’s change of position killed his legislation, because the company’s switch became clear so close to the Senate vote.

But the leader of Washington State’s major gay advocacy organization, Equal Rights Washington, draws a straight line from Microsoft’s withdrawal to the bill’s defeat. The bill failed on a nearly party-line vote, with two Democrats and all of the Senate’s Republicans voting against it, and George Cheung, who heads the group, said that Microsoft’s move gave the Republicans “ample cover to lock up [their] caucus and prevent fair-minded Republicans from voting against discrimination.” Cheung said he had assurances from two or three Republicans that they were willing to vote for the bill, “if they were going to be able to vote their consciences.”

In the end, the Republican senators were able to hold together what Murray characterized as a religious-right dominated caucus.

Washingtonians have been advocating for similar bills for nearly 30 years. Murray has been working for this legislation since he started as a political volunteer when he was 29. Murray will turn 50 on Monday, and emotions are high over the defeat.

“We’re all crying,” Equal Rights Washington’s Cheung said.

Advocates say that Microsoft bowed to pressure from an influential conservative minister, Ken Hutcherson of the Antioch Bible Church, who objected when two Microsoft employees testified in favor of the bill at a House committee meeting. According to published reports, in a meeting with a Microsoft vice president, Brad Smith, Hutcherson demanded that the two employees be fired and that Microsoft formally denounce the bill. He reportedly threatened a boycott of Microsoft’s products if the company did not fall in line.

Microsoft didn’t do either of those things, but, said company spokeswoman Tami Begasse, the two employees were told to “clarify their position” and state that they were speaking for themselves only and not the company.

Begasse refused to say at what level of Microsoft’s management the company made the decision to dump the bill from its legislative agenda and said that Smith, the vice president who met with Hutcherson, was out of the country and not available for comment. But in most people’s minds, the name Microsoft is synonymous with Bill Gates, the company’s founder and chairman, and even though the decision on the Washington bill may well have been made rungs below his level, he has inevitably been drawn into the flap.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Gates suggested that the company might re-evaluate its position. “Next time this comes around, we’ll see,” he told the Seattle daily during a rare interview which was intended to be a preview of Microsoft’s new operating system. Gates has refused interviews focused on the controversy. “We certainly have a lot of employees who sent us mail. Next time it comes around that’ll be a major factor for us to take into consideration.”

That kind of a when-we-get-around-to-it schedule is not likely to satisfy the Washington State gay advocates. Cheung’s group is asking that Microsoft come to a town hall meeting on Thursday, May 5 at Seattle’s LGBT Community Center to explain its position.

“Right now they’re not with us,” Cheung said. “Are they going to change their position? I wish I understood their mindset at this point. They have a lot to lose and very little to gain by this decision.”

Cheung went on to charge that Microsoft’s defection on gay rights may have been influenced by Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, whose lobbying firm, Century Strategies, has been retained by Microsoft for work on trade and competition issues at a rate of $20,000 per month for, Begasse confirmed, “a number of years.” Though Reed’s work for Microsoft has been public knowledge for at least five years, details of the ongoing financial relationship reported this week fueled suspicion that the conservative, who is now running for the Republican nomination for Georgia’s lieutenant governor, has influenced the software giant to step back from its tradition of social advocacy. Cheung called on Microsoft to fire Reed.

Cheung said he was very surprised when he learned of Microsoft’s about-face, because he had thought, right up until the days just before the Senate vote, that the company would renew its endorsement of the measure. Microsoft, he said, has been “a model corporate citizen.”

Microsoft’s fortunes have certainly benefited causes championed by gays and lesbians. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given a total of $126 million to fund the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, a non-profit organization based in New York that aims to create global incentives for the speedy development of an effective HIV prevention vaccine. Through November 2004, a total of $980 million in money from the foundation has gone to AIDS causes.

Foundation spokesman Andrew Shih, however, was quick to point out that the organization is completely separate from Microsoft.

The software company itself first offered gay and lesbian employees domestic partnership benefits in 1993, years before any significant number of U.S. corporations moved on that front. Microsoft had a sexual orientation nondiscrimination employment policy even earlier.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), compiles an index of corporate policies on LGBT issues. Just this Monday the company took action that improved its rating from 86 to 100 percent, when it adopted an employment nondiscrimination policy offering protection based on gender identity or expression. Microsoft’s Begasse said the policy change was under consideration for a long time, and had nothing to do with the controversy over the Washington legislation.

But, even as the company achieves a perfect corporate rating, HRC’s Daryl Herrschaft warned, “Now, in light of what has transpired, their score may change.”

Microsoft has made substantial in-kind contributions of products to groups like the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, but it has been less forthcoming with cash than some of other blue chip companies. The L.A. Center, which awarded Microsoft its Corporate Vision Award in 2001, has received donations of only $10,000 since 1999. HRC has received about $90,000 in dinner sponsorships over the past three years. But the group’s “national platinum sponsors” like IBM, Citi Group and Chase Home Mortgage have all contributed at least $150,000 to HRC each year.

Despite HRC’s criticism of Microsoft’s decision, it is not yet ready to say whether it would join the Task Force in calling for a national boycott if the company fails to change its course in Washington State. Other groups are not so hesitant. Jim Key, the spokesperson for the L.A. Center, said his group would not rule it out. Inga Sarda-Sorensen, communications director for New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, said her group would “absolutely join other LGBT organizations in exploring the possibility of a boycott” if Microsoft does not reverse its decision. And Thom Lynch, head of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, said he would support a boycott but is concerned that Microsoft’s market dominance might limit the effectiveness of such a move.

“It’s a monopoly,” Lynch said. “I’d love to put out a call to techies who could help an organization like our center get off of a Microsoft system.”

But Murray, the bill’s author, said he’d like to spend more time “trying to find a way to get the groups together.”

He disagreed that a public forum, like the one Cheung’s group has organized, is the best way to handle the matter. He said that the talks should begin privately.

“Dialog is something that both parties participate in,” he said.

He also doesn’t think a boycott is warranted yet.

“We should try and work with the organization that has been generally a friend to this community before we go to war with them,” Murray said, adding that the community should direct its anger at the real opposition.

And who is that?

“The Republicans.”

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