Refusing to Arrive Late on Same-Sex Marriage
By JAMES B. STEWART
When the Human Rights Campaign approached Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs’s chairman and chief executive, a few years ago about making a short commercial in support of same-sex marriage, Mr. Blankfein said he had the impression he’d be one of a number of prominent business executives taking a public stand.
As it turned out, he was the only one. “It was a little lonely out there,” he said.
It’s not lonely anymore. This week, Goldman Sachs was one of more than 100 corporations that lodged their support for same-sex marriage in two briefs filed with the Supreme Court. “I think people wanted to attach themselves to what may be the last great civil rights issue of our time,” Mr. Blankfein said.
Even the authors of the briefs seemed surprised by the wave of corporate support. “What’s remarkable is how fast this happened,” Joshua Rosenkranz, a partner at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, told me as his brief was about to be filed on Thursday. “When I first started working on this issue, people said gay marriage was an idea whose time hadn’t yet come. Even people in the gay rights community said that. When we started to try to get corporate support, I was a little apprehensive. But I’ve been bowled over. Corporate America is not only already there, but they’re passionate about it. For them, it’s not just a human rights issue, it’s a business imperative.”
P. Sabin Willett, a partner at Bingham McCutchen and an author of the other brief, said his group, too, had to turn away companies. “I’d say this really metastasized during the last week,” he said. “Companies were calling and asking to join. We got a call from a Fortune 50 company on Monday. I said, ‘Can you get everything done in an hour?’ We could have had many more with another week.” The deadline for filing the briefs was Thursday.
Historians told me there is little, if any, precedent for such early and extensive corporate support of a civil rights issue that remains, in at least many quarters, highly controversial. “By and large, corporations were not leaders but laggards in this process,” said Gavin Wright, professor of American economic history at Stanford and author of “Sharing the Prize,” an economic history of the civil rights movement. “They supported a public accommodations law only after sit-ins and boycotts inflicted heavy losses and it became clear that these pressures were not going to fade away as the latest student fad. On employment, even leading textile firms resisted and dragged their feet, certainly not testifying in support of civil rights legislation.” But that changed, he said, “when they found that desegregation actually worked.”
Corporations largely steered clear of the Equal Rights Amendment, and played little role decades ago in the early stages of the women’s movement. And while many companies have joined in Supreme Court briefs in recent years supporting affirmative action and diversity in the workplace, those moves came long after landmark Supreme Court cases like Bakke in 1978, in which a white male student challenged affirmative action in admission at the medical school at the University of California, Davis. No companies filed briefs in the Bakke case, and the United States Chamber of Commerce filed one opposing affirmative action.
By contrast, corporations are weighing in on the gay marriage issue in the first cases to reach the Supreme Court.
Given corporations’ traditional reluctance to challenge the status quo, this early stand is all the more surprising. Until now, many large consumer companies seemed to fear that taking a stand might prompt organized boycotts. Of course, given the presence on the briefs of so many companies like Armani, Abercrombie & Fitch, eBay, Estée Lauder, Facebook, Google, Nike, Office Depot and Tiffany, it might be hard for protesters to know where to begin.
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