Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
A new campaign, “No Gay, No Way,” is fighting for Amazon to choose a more inclusive home for HQ2.
Amazon has a long wish list for the city that will eventually host its second headquarters. It says it wants to settle in a place with colleges, tech talent, room to grow—and a diverse populace.
That’s always been a publicly professed priority for the company. “We believe that diversity and inclusion are good for our business, but our commitment is based on something more fundamental than that,” reads Amazon’s Diversity Statement. “It’s simply right.”
But after Amazon released its shortlist of 20 regions still in the running, LGBTQ advocates called out at least one glaring metric of diversity Amazon had seemingly overlooked. Thirty-one states in the U.S. don’t have any laws on the books that codify protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations—and nine of those 31 host jurisdictions are finalists for HQ2.
“We were a little stunned that lost in that initial fanfare was the reality that almost half of these finalists are in states that don’t have comprehensive legal protections for LGBT citizens,” said Conor Gaughan, a communications strategist and LGBTQ activist. Quickly, he banded together with other organizers to launch a campaign called No Gay, No Way, calling on Amazon to make a final headquarters decision that takes into account what diversity and inclusion really look like at the state level. “We want to ask Amazon—a company that’s been a real champion [for LGBTQ rights] for so long—to live by their word and their historic performance,” Gaughan said.
The No Gay, No Way campaign, which formed last week, is also calling on Amazon to use its very public bidding war as an opportunity to send a message on LGBT rights.
“Everyone’s paying attention. From our perspective, [Amazon has] an opportunity to send a signal to states that you can’t expect the best, brightest, biggest, most creative and innovative companies to come to your state if you don’t protect your citizens,” Gaughan said. “They can send a signal to other organizations: If you’re willing to be a LGBTQ advocate in corporate America, it’s not just about writing checks.”
When Amazon began its North America-wide search for a second headquarters, it seemed to make clear that these political circumstances mattered. “The Project requires a compatible cultural and community environment for its long-term success,” read its Request for Proposals. “This includes the presence and support of a diverse population.” So why, asks No Gay, No Way’s website, would it locate a 50,000-strong workforce “[i]n these nine states, [where] it is legal to fire someone, deny them housing, or refuse them service just because of who they are or who they love”?
Even before the shortlist was announced, state lawmakers in Georgia took Amazon’s cultural community fit criteria as signaling that now might be a bad time to pass a state Religious Freedom Law, which critics say allows for “state-sanctioned discrimination” against LGBTQ individuals. It’s possible that the lure of Amazon could keep Georgia from passing a religious freedom law. But Georgia is one of the states that still lacks any real protections for LGBTQ residents.
Other states that lack these protections are Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They are home to shortlist candidates Miami, Atlanta, Northern Virginia, Nashville, Indianapolis, Raleigh, Dallas, Austin, Columbus, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.
It’s true that despite being located in the heart of red or purple states, all of the contender cities themselves are relatively blue. Some, like Atlanta and Philadelphia, have city-level policies in place where state ones are lacking. But ultimately, state
“Our perspective is if you want to have a truly safe and equal environment for [your employees], you can’t pick a state that doesn’t have comprehensive equal protections,” said Gaughan. “If you’ve got employees that live just outside of city limits, they lose those protections on the commute home.”
Take Texas, for example. Austin’s and Dallas’s LGBTQ protections may be strong, but Texas has repeatedly attempted to pass a bill banning transgender individuals from using the restrooms that correspond with their gender identity; and enforces a so-called “No Promo Homo” law that prohibits teachers from talking about LGBTQ issues to their students.
In Tennessee, a law mandates that certain words in the state code are only defined by their “natural and ordinary” meanings, which LGBTQ advocates say can be used to restrict the use of gender-oriented words like “mother” and “wife” only when talking about biologically-defined women. Nashville has attempted to pass new inclusive legislation within city limits, but it’s been stalled by a Tennessee statute that says municipalities can’t offer their own non-discrimination protection.
In other states that may have been slower to implement active LGBTQ support but are not actively enforcing anti-LGBTQ policies, like Georgia and Pennsylvania, politicians have the power (and in some cases, the political will), to introduce even more damaging legislation.
“There are currently 20 bills in the 2018 state legislative season that increase discrimination in some legal statute or framework,” said Gaughan. “It’s not necessarily an environment that is simply moving towards the slow removal of these or adoption of protections—there are still states that are moving in the opposite direction.”
Pennsylvania, home to shortlist cities Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, has a bill in the pipeline that would prohibit children’s health insurance from covering gender reassignment surgery; and Tennessee wants to pass an anti-trans “bathroom bill” specifically within public schools.
Texas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and Indiana each already enforce state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, which have been used in the past to justify denying service to LGBTQ individuals. But Georgia’s GOP has attempted to pass its own RFRA legislation for years. While business interests have kept it at bay for now, new GOP state leadership could push it through. Atlanta, the state capital, has been placed at the top of many speculators’ HQ2 location lists.
Other states on Amazon’s—and No Gay, No Way’s—list are advancing more progressively. Virginia legislators are attempting to add gender identity discrimination protections in their Fair Housing Act, as well as gender identity and sexual orientation in employment, public accommodation, and banking; and a bill introduced in Ohio would add gender identity and sexual orientation to their protected classes under the state-wide Ohio Fairness Act.
“There’s conflict in some of these states where you’ve got bills going both directions. It’s a really strange environment,” said Gaughan. “But fundamentally, from the perspective of the individuals, the family of employees, the customers, or the vendors: The reality is you don’t have protections in 31 states, and certainly in nine of the states on the finalist list for Amazon.”