238 cities across the United States were eager to become the home of HQ2, Amazon’s new headquarters. Amazon has trimmed down its list to just 20 cities.
Correction & clarifications: A graphic in a previous version of this story had an incorrect classification for Washington, D.C. The graphic has been updated.
SAN FRANCISCO — Gay-rights advocates ran a “No Gay? No Way!” campaign Thursday to pressure Amazon to avoid building its second headquarters in a state that does not protect its residents from discrimination for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Of the 20 cities on Amazon’s list of finalists, nine are in states with no anti-gay-discrimination laws, according to the campaign. They are Austin; Dallas; Nashville; Atlanta; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; Miami; Raleigh, N.C.; and the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia.
Amazon launched a public search for a second headquarters site last year. It asked cities to send in proposals, saying it preferred candidates with a business-friendly environment, a highly educated labor pool, strong transportation options and a good quality of life. The company said it would spend $5 billion building the new headquarters and it expected to hire 50,000 well-paid workers.
That prize needs to go somewhere all workers are welcome, says the ad hoc group launching the campaign.
“We were frankly just stunned that a company with such a great track record of equality and diversity had put all these states into the mix,” said Conor Gaughan, the ad-hoc campaign’s manager and communications consultant, told USA TODAY.
The group, which includes the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a gay-rights activist and author, planned a demonstration near Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle on Thursday as Amazon prepared to issue its fourth-quarter earnings. It also hired a plane to fly overhead trailing a “No gay? No way!” banner. It also put billboards on trucks driving through Seattle and online ads saying “Hey, Alexa? Why would Amazon even consider HQ2 in a state that discriminates against LGBT people?,” according to the organizers, who shared copies of the ads with USA TODAY.
Like many tech companies, Amazon has long been a supporter of gay rights and anti-discrimination legislation. It has had a robust gay and lesbian employee group, GLAmazon, since 2005. Before it was common, advertisements for the e-tailer featured gay couples. And CEO Jeff Bezos contributed heavily to the push for gay marriage in Washington state. The company was one of the more than 50 tech firms that last year signed a friend of the court brief in a case involving a transgender high school student in Virginia.
The campaign comes as some conservatives accuse tech companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook of a pro-liberal bias that censors their voices and ideas.
Having a state law that prohibits discrimination against gay workers is important, even if there’s a law in place in the city, said Mary Bonauto, the civil rights project director at GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders in Boston.
“Cities don’t really have the ability to protect people. So you get this, ‘Married on Friday, fired on Monday’ situation” where people lose their jobs because they married their same-sex partner, said Bonauto, who is not involved in the ad-hoc group.
In some cases, the states also have laws on the books that are outright hostile to LGBT people, the group says. In Texas, public schools are required to teach that homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle.
In Tennessee, state laws restrict counties and cities from passing laws protecting against discrimination against gay and lesbian people, and transgender people are prohibited from changing the gender on their birth certificates.
The idea of using corporate clout to move politicians is by no means new, but tech companies, seeking to attract and retain a young workforce that often skews liberal on social issues, have been particularly active on gay-rights issues.
In 2016, PayPal canceled plans to open a global operations center in Charlotte after the state passed a law that prevented cities from creating non-discrimination policies to protect transgender people. The center had been expected to employ 400 people. The state eventually repealed the law, but PayPal stayed away.
Major U.S. companies filed friends of the court briefs in October urging the Supreme Court to create federal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender employees.
Amazon’s request: A ‘compatible’ community
While Amazon’s request for proposals for its second headquarters does not mention the LGBTQ community, it does include a section saying that it requires “a compatible cultural and community environment” that includes “the presence and support of a diverse population.”
Richard Florida, the author of The Rise of the Creative Class who studies talent migration, says historically there has been a correlation between centers of innovation and high rates of economic growth, and a thriving gay and lesbian community.
“It’s a signal of a community that’s open to new thinking and new kinds of ideas. I don’t think Amazon can attract talent to a city that’s closed-minded,” he said.
The activists say they want Amazon to use its economic power to assert its values of diversity, inclusion and tolerance. There’s an edge of a threat to the campaign as well.
“We want companies to know that if you’re going to talk the talk when it comes to LGBT diversity, you need to walk the walk,” Gaughan said.
The group includes various activists, including Kate Kendall of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and activist and author David Mixner. The weekend after the Amazon finalist list was made public, emails began to fly among people who work for LGBT rights, and a loose coalition quickly formed.
They contend that cities and states that are hostile to LGBT people will also present a barrier to current Amazon staff, said Gaughan.
“Think about the implications for an existing employee who might be asked to transfer there. You move to one of these states and you’re looking for an apartment and you could be denied a lease because you’re gay,” said Gaughan.
One activist said the campaign is not meant to harm the gay people who live in the nine cities.
“Putting HQ2 in a place with no non-discrimination protections seems contrary to Amazon’s stated commitments, and puts both its employees and their families at far greater risk than is necessary in some other places,” said Kate Kendall, director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights.
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