The unspoken factor in Amazon’s search for a new home: Jeff Bezos’ support for gay rights

Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos and his wife donated $2.5 million in 2012 to support same-sex marriage in Washington state.
(Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty Images)

When Amazon executives recently toured the Dallas-Fort Worth area, one of 20 finalists for a second company headquarters, local officials touted its growing workforce and low taxes as perfectly suited to accommodate 50,000 planned Amazon jobs.

But the team also brought an unexpected guest: the Rev. Neil G. Cazares-Thomas, pastor of a predominantly gay megachurch in Dallas. He impressed upon the Amazon representatives how inclusive and welcoming the community has been to him, his husband and the 4,000 congregants at his church, according to people familiar with the meeting.

In the high-stakes contest to become Amazon’s new location, it may have been a shrewd move. Although the company’s search materials don’t make it explicit, Amazon has quietly made rights for and acceptance of gay and transgender people part of its criteria in choosing a second headquarters, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.


As Amazon executives recently toured finalist locations to help select what they’ve dubbed HQ2, they asked public officials about what sort of “compatible cultural and community environment” — the wording from the company’s search parameters — each city offers, adding to speculation about whether Amazon will choose a liberal stronghold.

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In North Carolina, company representatives asked pointed questions of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper about several state policies such as the “bathroom bill,” which restricted the use of public facilities by transgender people, according to a person in the room. In another city, an Amazon executive groaned at the mention of proposed legislation in Georgia that would restrict funding for same-sex adoption, according to another person who attended the meeting between the company and state and local officials.

Given the publicity and economic impact of the project, including as much as $5 billion in capital expenditures, Amazon’s push on gay and transgender rights may increase pressure on state and local policymakers who have either declined to institute equal-rights rules or passed laws some view as discriminatory.

But by raising a social issue during its search, Amazon also risks alienating conservative political leaders, including President Trump, who has recently criticized the company’s taxes and its contract with the U.S. Postal Service, which delivers many of its packages.

The sponsor of the Georgia bill, Republican state Sen. William T. Ligon Jr., said the issue of same-sex adoption wasn’t intended to be discriminatory. In his view, the legislation would benefit children because church-based adoption agencies would shut down if they were forced to serve same-sex couples.


Ligon said he hoped any company would support the bill.

“If you’re against, then I think we need to think hard about whether you ought to come here,” he said. “We need to seriously consider whether we want you to come here.”

That sentiment has not played well at Amazon, according to a person who has been on tour with Amazon as it met with local officials. “I just think Atlanta’s out,” the person, who is not an Amazon employee, said.

The Georgia Legislature did not approve the adoption bill before it adjourned last month. The Georgia Department of Economic Development, which is handling Atlanta’s bid for HQ2, declined to comment on the matter.

Amazon also declined to answer questions about the meetings, and it is not known how much a region’s stance on gay rights ultimately will factor into its decision. The company’s search for a region of “compatible cultural” values is one of many issues it has said it’s considering as it chooses the new headquarters.

But the cause of gay rights has emerged as a focus for the company’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

One of Bezos’s first public actions on same-sex marriage in 2012 took advocates by surprise.

The Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex marriage nationwide was three years away when advocates in a bare-bones office in south Seattle plotted how best to ask Bezos and his wife about a donation.

Prospects for same-sex marriage in Washington state had dimmed. Opponents had forced a voter referendum and were raising money. In 32 similar measures in other states, same-sex marriage lost every time.

There was little reason to think Bezos would chip in. Other corporate stalwarts in Seattle, Microsoft and Starbucks, were known for mixing social missions into their business. Not Amazon. The Seattle Times that year called the company “a virtual no-show in hometown philanthropy” and questioned its lack of donations to local nonprofit groups.

Other companies were taking heat over the issue. General Mills faced demonstrations after its then-chief executive donated just $10,000 to defeat a Minnesota ban on same-sex marriage. Hundreds of gay-marriage opponents lined up at Chick-fil-As to support a business that shared their view.

The task of asking Bezos fell to Jennifer Cast, one of Amazon’s first employees who had left the company and was volunteering for the same-sex marriage campaign. She was 50 and living with her partner and their 7-year-old twin boys.

“I want to have the right to marry the love of my life and to let my children and grandchildren know their family is honored like a ‘real’ family,’’ she wrote in an email to Bezos. “We need help from straight people. To be very frank, we need help from wealthy straight people who care about us and who want to help us win.’’

Cast asked for $100,000.

Bezos responded: “This is right for so many reasons. We’re in for $2.5 million. Jeff & MacKenzie.’’

The donation brought new prominence to the movement. Bill and Melinda Gates followed with $500,000. Brad Pitt gave $25,000. It became the costliest election in the state’s history.

“It’s easy to look back and think this was a fait accompli, but these were coin-flip endeavors, and the willingness of someone with his national profile and that level of investment — it was a turning point,” said Zach Silk, who managed the same-sex marriage campaign. It prevailed 54% to 46%.

Amazon’s second headquarters project is the biggest economic development prize — by a long shot — that many industry veterans say they have ever seen. The company says that over the years in Seattle, it has invested $3.7 billion and paid more than $25 billion in salaries. For HQ2, the company estimates it will hire as many as 50,000 people, make $5 billion in capital investments and fill 8 million square feet of office space, which would be larger than the Pentagon.

Although Amazon is not sharing details of its meetings and requires nondisclosure agreements from bidders, its conversations with local officials are driving them to make or propose changes in an effort to woo the company. Some jurisdictions are pressing ahead with airport expansions or improvements that might impress Amazon. Others have proposed new partnerships with colleges and universities that could provide it a pipeline of workers.

Shortly after Amazon met with officials in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. — all finalists for HQ2 — the three jurisdictions came to agreement on $500 million in annual support for the ailing Metro system after years of discord over who ought to pay.

“The excitement and the possibility [of Amazon coming] is making good things happen for this region in regard to Metro, in regard to public-private cooperation, how to attract and retain workforce, how to improve quality of life and educational potential,” said Bob Buchanan, chairman of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Economic Development Corporation.

Bringing LGBTQ issues into the process carries risks for the $750-billion company, which began its search last year winning plaudits for the attention it garnered but now increasingly finds itself walking a political tightrope in the spotlight it has created.

As Delta Air Lines recently learned when it ended a discount for National Rifle Assn. members (prompting Georgia officials to deny the firm a tax break), a disagreement over social issues can complicate negotiations for public subsidies, something Amazon is seeking.

While Amazon’s inquiries on gay rights may anger conservatives, LGBTQ advocates say the company is not going far enough. One group wrote to Bezos asking that he not choose any of 11 locations in nine states that have not passed comprehensive legal protections for people based on their sexuality or gender.

But many of the states being criticized — among them Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina and Texas — are among the least expensive of the options, providing a low tax environment the company covets. And harnessing the publicity surrounding his company’s headquarters to advance such a cause would be a significant departure from how Bezos has led the company.

“It’s fairly shortsighted to think a business decision like this is likely to be based on one policy, particularly a social one,” said Matt McDonald, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies who has studied HQ2.

Bezos declined an interview through Amazon representatives, who instead provided comments from Anthony Little, president of the company’s LGBTQ affinity group, GLAmazon. Little said he was “very proud” of the company’s policies, such as expansion of health benefits to fully cover transition surgeries for transgender employees and opposition to Washington state’s version of a bathroom bill.

“Ultimately, I think Amazon wants us to do what is right for LGBTQ employees,” he said.

The company has said it will make a decision this year.

Officials in other regions have argued that if Amazon wants to maximize its support for the issue, it could relocate to — and bring change to — a politically red state. With someone like Bezos around, city and business leaders in Dallas and Austin, both HQ2 finalists, say they could do more to change attitudes in the state. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for instance, has argued that homosexuality is a choice and called on Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy to resign after the high court made its landmark gay-marriage ruling.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines was one of the city’s earliest and most ardent backers of better LGBTQ rights. “I think we’re more impactful here than we would be anywhere else,” Chief Executive Doug Parker said.

Parker said he expects Amazon to choose wherever is best for its business. But he said if Bezos wants to push the issue, he should bring Amazon someplace where equal rights have not advanced as far as Seattle: “My personal view is if they care about making a difference, they should go where they can make a difference.”

O’Connell writes for the Washington Post