Microsoft Caves on Gay Rights
Pressured by Evangelical Minister, Microsoft Withdraws Support for Civil Rights Bill
The Stranger has learned that last month the $37-billion Redmond-based software behemoth quietly withdrew its support for House bill 1515, the anti-gay-discrimination bill currently under consideration by the Washington State legislature, after being pressured by the Evangelical Christian pastor of a suburban megachurch. The pastor, Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond, met with a senior Microsoft executive in February and threatened to organize a national boycott of the company's products if it did not change its stance on the legislation, according to gay rights activists and a Microsoft employee who attended a subsequent April 4 meeting where Bradford L. Smith, Microsoft's senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary, told a group of gay staffers about Hutcherson's threat. Hutcherson also unsuccessfully demanded that the company fire two employees who had testified in favor of the bill.
State Rep. Ed Murray, a gay Democrat representing Capitol Hill and the prime sponsor of the bill, confirmed that Smith also told him about the pressure from Hutcherson during an awkward and at times heated March 29 conference call in which they discussed the company's decision to end its active support for the bill.
At the April 4 meeting, Smith told members of GLEAM, the gay and lesbian employees group at Microsoft, that the company had switched its official stance to "neutral" on the bill, and took personal responsibility for the decision. He characterized the shift as part of a broader general review of company policy designed to more precisely formulate criteria for determining when Microsoft should involve itself in "social issues," but also disclosed the pressure that had been brought to bear on him by Hutcherson.
About 50 gay employees attended the GLEAM meeting with Smith. One attendee provided The Stranger with a detailed account of Smith's comments under condition of anonymity. The employee cited the fact that attendees had been warned by management that the meeting was to be treated as confidential, and cited a fear of retaliation should the employee's name be revealed.
Some proponents of the legislation expressed shock and anger at the company's decision, characterizing it as a capitulation to extreme social conservatives that appeared to run directly counter to the company's internal policies which stress diversity and are considered gay-friendly; Microsoft, for instance, offers domestic-partner benefits. That one of the world's best-known corporations, synonymous with cutting-edge workplace innovation, would reverse its stance on such a basic piece of legislation because of threats from one minister seems to be yet another sign of the ongoing reverberations of last November's presidential election, when "moral values" voters were widely--if probably erroneously--perceived to have played the role of kingmaker in ensuring the reelection of President Bush.
"The pastor of a megachurch gets a meeting in two weeks with one of the top executives at one of the world's most powerful corporations. He makes these idle threats and he gets everything he wants," the GLEAM member who reported Smith's comments says. "Microsoft just got taken to the cleaners on this issue."
House Bill 1515 would protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment, housing, banking, insurance, and other matters by adding sexual orientation to a state law which already bars discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, marital status, and mental or physical handicap. More than a dozen states currently have similar laws on the books, but the effort to pass the legislation in Washington State has been a struggle. Some form of the legislation has been introduced in the state legislature for 29 consecutive years; for the last 10 years, Murray, an influential legislator who chairs the House Transportation Committee, has sponsored the bill.
The list of high-profile companies that endorsed the bill this year reads like a who's who of the Pacific Northwest corporate world. It includes the Boeing Company, Nike, Coors Brewing, Qwest Communications, Washington Mutual, Hewlett-Packard, Corbis, Battelle Memorial Institute, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc., and others. And as late as February 1, Microsoft, which issued a letter in support of the bill last year, appeared poised to do so again.
On that date, two gay Microsoft employees, Jean McCarthy, a business development manager, and Gregory S. McCurdy, a senior attorney, testified in the house State Government Operations and Accountability committee in favor of the bill. Asked if they were making their statements as official representatives of the company, McCurdy informed the committee that they were appearing in a personal capacity, but added that "the company has taken a position in support of the bill." He further stated that DeLee Shoemaker, an aide to former Governor Gary Locke who now handles state-level government relations for Microsoft, had issued a letter in support of the bill. "We are going to be providing copies of that letter to the committee," he said.
McCurdy spoke too soon. Murray says that beginning on February 7 he began receiving calls from company employees informing him that Hutcherson was pressuring the company to change its position on the bill. Murray eventually contacted Shoemaker. She admitted to him that Microsoft was planning to change its position on the bill. "I told her, 'This is a crisis. It will kill the bill,'" he says. "She said no one will know."
According to the account provided by the GLEAM employee, it was during February that Hutcherson, a former Seahawks linebacker, contacted Stafford Mays, also a former professional football player and Microsoft's senior outreach manager for corporate diversity. Hutcherson asked Mays for a meeting with top management to discuss Microsoft's position on the bill and a conversation with Smith was arranged.
Hutcherson, whose church boasts 3,500 members, is an outspoken national leader in the Evangelical Christian crusade against gay rights. He organized the Mayday for Marriage rally last spring that drew an estimated 20,000 conservative Christians to Safeco Field, as well as a national Mayday for Marriage rally in Washington, D.C. last October, which attracted some 140,000 participants from around the country. An African American, he strenuously objects, in public appearances and writings, to the equation of gay civil rights with the African-American civil rights struggle in the 1960s. For instance, in an op-ed in the Seattle Times on March 29, 2004, Hutcherson wrote, "It has been said loudly and proudly that gay marriage is a civil rights issue. If that's the case, then gays would be the new African Americans. I'm here to tell you now, and hopefully for the last time, that the gay community is not the new African-American community." He has also said that he does not tolerate known gays in his church.
A fixture in local Republican politics, Hutcherson was clearly feeling empowered after last November's election, when 11 states passed constitutional amendments barring gay marriage. "11 out of 11," he bragged to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on November 3, characterizing the ballot-box victories as a happy indictor of the growing power of the Religious right. "We're a force to be reckoned with," he said.
Hutcherson did not return a call requesting comment for this article.
According to the account Smith later provided to GLEAM members, in their meeting Hutcherson told the Microsoft general counsel that 700 Evangelical Microsoft employees attend his church, and all of them oppose H.B. 1515. He added that if Microsoft did not withdraw its support of the bill, he intended to organize a national Evangelical boycott of Microsoft. He further demanded that Smith fire McCarthy and McCurdy, the two Microsoft employees who had testified in favor of the bill. Smith did not immediately respond to Hutcherson's demands. After investigating the issue for about two weeks, Smith told Hutcherson that because Microsoft had no set policy restricting employees from testifying on political matters, he would not fire the two employees. He did, however, decide that Microsoft would change its stance on the bill by adopting an officially "neutral" position.
As Murray learned of Smith's decision, he mounted a backroom lobbying campaign to keep the company from changing its stance. He networked with several gay Microsoft employees, he says, and even enlisted Steve Davis, the CEO of Corbis, to call Smith to urge him to change his mind. It didn't work. On March 19 or 20, Microsoft officially changed its position on the bill from supportive to neutral.
On March 22, Hutcherson testified against the bill in the senate Financial Institutions, Housing, and Consumer Protection committee. He bragged there about his success in moving Microsoft. "You won't hear about Microsoft standing behind H.B. 1515 because I'm dealing with Microsoft on that issue and will be dealing with Gates on that issue…" he said.
Murray spoke to Smith directly via conference call on March 29 in a last-ditch effort to change the executive's mind. The call went very badly, Murray says, with Smith, apparently irked by Murray's attempts to influence him, launching into a "vicious attack on me" in which he belittled Murray's political and legislative skills. "I'm a politician. I'm used to people talking to me like I'm a piece of shit, but I have never had anyone talk to me the way this guy did," Murray says. He eventually cut Smith off, saying, as he recalled it, "I know I'm not one of the Masters of the Universe. I'm just some hayseed legislator, but don't tell me how to do my job."
Smith then provided what Murray describes as a "very legalistic" justification for Microsoft's decision, stating that most of the company's employees reside in King County, which already protects gays and lesbians from discrimination. And Smith discussed the pressure he had been subjected to by Hutcherson, stressing to Murray that he had decided not to fire McCarthy and McCurdy. The conversation lasted 15 to 20 minutes, Murray says.
Smith was traveling this week and unavailable for comment, according to Microsoft corporate communications spokesperson Tami Begasse. Shoemaker, who also attended the April 4 GLEAM meeting, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Begasse did provide an e-mail response to written questions posed by The Stranger. Begasse wrote that Microsoft remains committed to "providing our employees with a workplace that is free from any form of discrimination," and she wrote that Microsoft's position on the bill this year was not the result of "any external factors." She wrote: "This year we made the decision to focus our resources and efforts on a limited number of issues that most closely align with our business objectives and directly affect our industry." She added, "In this case there was some apparent confusion surrounding some employees who testified as individual citizens in Olympia in February, and the company felt it was appropriate for the employees to make their roles clear as they were not representing or speaking for the company." Her response did not specifically address any of The Stranger's questions concerning the meetings and conversations Smith had with Hutcherson, Murray, or the company's gay employees.
Posts from employees to the GLEAM e-mail list that were shown to The Stranger indicate that Microsoft's decision provoked intense discussions among the company's gay employees. The questions posed there eventually resulted in Smith's April 4 meeting with GLEAM members. Smith told attendees that he had made the decision with the intention of initiating a broader review of policy relating to Microsoft's participation in social issues. "He said there was no consistent way to determine when and why we would engage in a social issue. He wanted to turn the issue into an abstract question of formulating policy," the attendee says. While Smith said he personally hoped the legislation passed, he said the company needed to "pause" temporarily until it figured out how it ought to engage with such hot-button matters.
Some employees accepted Smith's explanation and offered words of support. A larger group, however, "responded with anger, disappointment, and shame," the employee told The Stranger. "People said, 'I'm disappointed in you. I'm ashamed for Microsoft. This is impossible to explain to friends and family why Microsoft would take this position,'" the employee recalled. Asked at the meeting if he would change his mind, Smith said he would not. He also refused a request that the company publicly reiterate Microsoft's own internal anti-discrimination policies, the participant says.
The employee stressed that those policies are indeed comprehensive and progressive. The employee pointed out that Microsoft has recently added gender identity to its diversity policy, and has also modified its policies for gay employees in Massachusetts who have legally married to account for the gay rights gain there. "Microsoft is a good place to work for gay and lesbian employees. This is the worst thing that has happened. It was shocking that they wouldn't support this bill," the employee says. "This is the case of an otherwise progressive employer getting caught short by the changing political climate."
As for Murray, he believes the company was faced with a "profound" moral test, which it failed. The backpedaling "sends an incredible message of weakness and shows a lack of moral backbone," he says. "I mean, what is this? Is this the 1930s, and are they Krups?"
After meeting with Hutcherson, Microsoft had to make a choice: Maintain its long-standing, progressive support for civil rights or side with reactionary forces advocating discrimination. The company chose the latter. The gay Microsoft employee who spoke to The Stranger concluded, "Microsoft needs to feel the pain of a bad decision here." ♦