How big business got behind gay rights

March 1

Josh Deinert, a graphic designer at Fast Signs, shows an anti-Senate Bill 1062 sign that reads “Open For Business To Everyone” in Phoenix on Wednesday. (Matt York/AP)

After Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed Senate Bill 1062, there was much written about how her decision reflected pressure from the business community. For insight on this issue, I turned to the political scientist Timothy Werner, of the University of Texas at Austin, who has just written a book that looks in part at how businesses both make and affect policy on gay rights. We communicated via e-mail, and a lightly edited transcript follows.

Q: Your book is called Public Forces and Private Politics in American Big Business. What are private politics and how do they factor into the decisions that businesses make?

A: Private politics consist of efforts to shape the behavior of economic actors, especially business firms, rather than relying on public policymakers. When thinking about private politics, rather than thinking of the state as the decision-maker, we instead think of the targeted actor itself as making “policy.” Private politics have existed for a long time — one could argue that the Boston Tea Party is even an example — but they have largely been studied by scholars outside of political science, especially in sociology and management.

The pressures on firms and industries to change their behavior can come from without or within. Examples of the former include traditional corporate boycotts, which push consumers to avoid firms that engage in what is perceived to be controversial behavior, or corporate “buycotts,” which ask consumers to reward firms that are perceived to be socially responsible. Pressure for change within firms and industries comes from managers, employee groups, and competitive pressures in the different fields in which firms operate.

Q: Part of your book focuses on gay rights. How do businesses approach this issue?

In my book, I investigate why firms in the 1990s and early 2000s adopted policies toward their gay employees that went beyond what the state and federal law required of them.  Specifically, I ask why Fortune 500 firms expanded their nondiscrimination policies to include gays and lesbians and/or their benefits programs to include domestic partners.  Although it almost seems foreign to write it now, at that time these decisions may have not made much sense for many large firms. In most states and certainly at the federal level, there was little threat of regulation on these issues, and indeed, most public policymaking on gay rights was overtly hostile toward LGBT individuals.

But, in part, the hostility of the state and federal governments explains corporate America’s progressivism on these issues: Seeing that public policy was hostile, gay rights groups made big business their number one target and sought through various confrontational and cooperative ways to get firms to change their policies. What ultimately enabled these groups to succeed, whether they were national gay rights organizations or gay employee groups within the firms, was the shift in public opinion on gay rights that was already well underway on issues other than marriage in the 1990s. So two things — the combination of activists pointing to shifts in public (meaning, consumer) attitudes, and the speed at which a firm, as opposed to a public policymaking body, can change policy — helped accelerate the expansion of gay rights in the private sector.

Q: Can your argument help us understand anything about the Arizona bill?

A: In the book and work I’ve done since then, I have found that the progressive stance of business on gay rights has affected politics and helped reshape debates regarding gay rights.  One aspect of this is that firms, not wanting to be hypocritical, have taken public stances on gay rights issues. For example, Google advocated for the defeat of Prop. 8 in California in 2008, and firms as diverse as Exelon, Aetna and Starbucks signed an amicus brief in U.S. v. Windsor that asked the Supreme Court to void Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.  What is so fascinating about firms’ behavior is that gay rights is just the sort of majoritarian political issue that firms are typically loath to address. There are simply few historical analogues.

So it should not come as a surprise that big business mobilized against Arizona SB 1062.  Although it has been known for sometime that firms and individuals who discriminate pay an economic price for doing so, the swiftness and preemptive nature of business’s opposition to SB 1062 may nonetheless stand out to casual observers. However, given how much change occurred in the private sector on gay rights even before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize marriage equality, vocal corporate opposition to legislation that effectively targeted the gay community for discrimination seems natural.

In large firms, the debate on nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation largely played out in the 1990s. If anything, big business has moved on and is waiting for politicians to catch up.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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