What Microsoft executives discovered over the last several weeks--to their surprise and dismay--is that they trapped themselves in the no man's land of the culture war, stuck in an indefensible position between the Christian right's anti-gay backlash and the increasingly powerful progressive backlash against the backlash. For a year now, since the push for gay marriage went too far too fast last spring, gays and lesbians have been widely scapegoated and vilified by the Republican right as the root of all evil in America. And let's not be partisan: by the Democrats as well, who blamed them for last November's defeat. Meanwhile, the country's business and media elites have largely stood by in idle detachment, all but legitimizing the rollback of gay civil rights as a natural reaction to those uppity gays, who for some inexplicable reason don't like being treated as second-class citizens in America.

On Friday Microsoft, which had pulled its support of a bill barring discrimination against gays and lesbians in Washington State, realized its error and publicly reversed itself. That's great for Microsoft and for Washington State, but it may also be a sign that people with real power are starting to realize that the political attacks on gays have finally gone too far. And they're not alone: A lot of ordinary people, many of them straight, in the Seattle area and around the country, were tickled pink (so to speak) when they learned that the company had renewed its commitment to workplace diversity.

If you haven't been following the latest developments in the Microsoft flap, last Friday morning CEO Steve Ballmer sent out a company-wide e-mail in which he revisited the company's previous decision to take a neutral stand on the legislation.

"After looking at the question from all sides, I've concluded that diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda… Therefore, it's appropriate for the company to support legislation that will promote and protect diversity in the workplace," he wrote. Moreover, Ballmer explicitly stated that Microsoft will back future nondiscrimination bills in Washington State--this year's bill failed by one vote in the state senate--and will support federal nondiscrimination legislation as well.

It took Microsoft a couple of weeks to see the light, during which time they got hammered, not just by this paper, but by John Aravosis of AMERICAblog (most memorable line to Microsoft: "You messed with the wrong faggots"); by the country's most honest fake journalist, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show; and by the New York Times (which wrote five stories, including a front-page article on the controversy two days after The Stranger broke the initial news). Hundreds of other newspapers ran stories as well. Locally, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer did a reasonable job of covering the story, and even the stodgy, culturally clueless Seattle Times, after initially treating the story as a curious sidebar to be buried in the back pages, eventually figured out that it was massively underplaying an important story.

There are other signs that the mainstream media is fed up with anti-gay attacks. It may not be a coincidence that a paper as ultra-establishment as Spokane's Spokesman-Review went all out after Republican Mayor Jim West not only on his alleged pedophilia, but also on his blatant hypocrisy in trolling gay websites for sex as he publicly supported a harsh anti-gay agenda.

It was also clear that the people in charge at Microsoft didn't have any idea at first how strong the reaction would be to their decision to pull back their support for gay civil rights. They learned soon enough, and once it was clear how untenable their position had become, they made the right decision in the end. For that, Ballmer and the senior leadership team at the company deserve credit. It's not easy for people in positions of power to admit error--look at George Bush. The company's employees also deserve a share of the credit--more than 1,500 bucked corporate protocol in signing an internal petition asking Microsoft to reverse its decision, and many others appealed to Ballmer and company chairman Bill Gates directly.

GLEAM, the company's gay and lesbian group, played a key role in pressing the company to reaffirm its support for the legislation. Jeff Koertzen, the group's secretary-treasurer who said he had received "a lot of calls and e-mails of support" when he spoke out publicly to The Stranger after giving notice at the company, said on Friday that GLEAM had written to top executives the previous week demanding the company reverse its decision. Other, outside GLBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the locally based Pride Foundation privately initiated a dialogue with Microsoft to press them on the implications of their decision.

But this issue is really much bigger than Microsoft and whether or not the company supports a nondiscrimination bill in Washington State. Over the last year, a nationwide backlash against gay rights has been building steam, extending far beyond public antipathy to gay marriage. In Texas, a bill barring gays and lesbians from becoming foster parents passed the state house. In Florida, the state supreme court recently upheld a blatantly discriminatory law banning adoptions by gay couples. Many states have passed constitutional amendments that not only bar gay marriage, but reject civil unions as well. Some even call into question whether local jurisdictions can offer domestic-partner benefits.

That's a big part of the reason why this story drew international attention: It exemplified the zeitgeist, and indicated how far the anti-gay backlash has gone. Even a corporation as large and powerful as Microsoft found itself so unsure of its own progressive principles that, when confronted by an outspoken minister, it started backpedaling on an issue it had a long and stellar record of supporting.

The ball is in Pastor Hutcherson's court now. He told Fox News that Ballmer called him personally on Friday morning to inform him that Microsoft would be rescinding its neutral stance. "I've already won," he told The Stranger on Friday afternoon, pointing out that the legislation failed this year. And he took a shot at Microsoft: "I can see why Microsoft gets sued so much when its CEO makes such dumb decisions."

Uncompromising words, but do they mean much? A year from now, we may all look back on Hutcherson's victory as a short-lived triumph that actually signaled the right's overreach on gay issues, just as the Terri Schiavo case did for end-of-life issues.