Bezos has been an ardent defender of gay rights for years. He and his wife, MacKenzie, donated $2.5 million in support of same-sex marriage in Washington state in 2012, and he received a national equality award last year from the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent LGBT advocacy group.
Now Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, is being asked to put the enormous economic power of his company behind the effort. Amazon plans to hire up to 50,000 people in another city and has narrowed the field to 20 locations. Eleven of the locations are in nine states — Florida, Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — that have not passed comprehensive legal protections for people based on their sexuality or gender. Some additionally restrict adoption rights for gay couples, bar transgender people from using the bathrooms of their choice or have banned cities from instituting equal rights protections of their own.
“Placing HQ2 in one of these states would not only be morally wrong, but also inconsistent with your stated values. We are asking you to only consider states that would protect your LGBTQ workers, their families, and your customers,” the group writes in the letter, a draft of which was obtained by The Post.
The letter is part of a new campaign called “No Gay No Way” aimed at leveraging Amazon’s high-profile search to press state and local officials for better protections. The group has already chartered a plane to fly a banner with its message over the technology giant’s headquarters in Seattle, and it has taken out advertisements in the nine states.
Supporters of many of the rules opposed by equal rights advocates say they are aimed not at discrimination but at protecting a Christian way of life. When the Georgia Senate last week passed a bill that would allow state-backed adoption agencies to refuse assistance to same-sex couples, its sponsor, state Sen. William Ligon (R), told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “just because you are a faith-based organization doesn’t mean you have to check your faith at the door and cannot participate in government programs.”
The mayors of some of the targeted cities have spoken out, saying their communities are diverse, inclusive places that should not be punished for state-level actions. And some LGBT activists have argued that putting 50,000 Amazon workers in a politically red state might bring change there. Corporate heavyweights in North Carolina, Indiana and Georgia have had some success beating back legislation that LGBT advocates view as discriminatory.
“Given their values on LGBTQ policies, it would be good to have them in the state, as a force for good, as part of that growing ally base,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler in a January interview after his city was named a finalist.
Bezos won the equality award for “his long-standing personal commitment to building a more equal society and shining a spotlight on the challenges LGBTQ people face in their daily lives,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement. Speaking at the group’s Washington gala in October, Bezos expressed strong support for equality. “I believe that the ideal of equality is ingrained deeply within all of us. It is inalienable,” he said.
Those beliefs are palpable at the company’s Seattle headquarters. Last June, the company flew a rainbow flag above its headquarters for LGBT Pride Month. It has more than 40 “GLAmazon” chapters for LGBT affinity around the world.
But whether that ethos extends to the decision about Amazon’s second headquarters is unknown. In its search requirements, Amazon lists “the presence and support of a diverse population.” Company officials have declined to expand on the meaning of that, but Anthony Little, president of GLAmazon, issued a statement saying that diversity and equality are “ingrained in the leadership principles” of the company.
“I am very proud of the support Amazon has provided to the LGBTQ community, both with internal policies like the expansion of transition health benefits to fully cover transition surgeries for transgender employees and with external support of policies like our fight against the bathroom bill in Washington State that targeted transgender residents,” he said. “Ultimately, I think Amazon wants us to do what is right for LGBTQ employees.”
Advocates behind the letter, among them actors Alan Cumming and Omar Sharif Jr., former Democratic Pennsylvania congressman Peter H. Kostmayer and former New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, say that doing the best for its employees can’t include putting 50,000 of them in any of 11 final locations: Atlanta; Austin; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Indianapolis; Miami; Nashville; Northern Virginia; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; or Raleigh, N.C.
Conor Gaughan, manager of the No Gay No Way campaign, said the search for a second headquarters — the biggest economic development prize in decades — is so consequential that it could become a model for other companies’ choices.
“It sends a bigger signal to states across the country that lack protections, that the biggest companies, the most innovative companies, aren’t coming to your state unless you fix this,” he said.
For more on Amazon’s search, follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz