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Microsoft rejects charges it caved on gay rights

Microsoft denied Friday that it caved in to evangelical pressure when it decided not to lobby for a bill that would have broadened Washington state’s protections for gays and lesbians.

Microsoft Corp. denied Friday that it had succumbed to pressure from a prominent evangelical minister in deciding not to lobby for a bill that would have broadened Washington state protections against discrimination to include gay men and lesbians.

The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle, and The New York Times reported that Microsoft withdrew its support for the bill, which failed Thursday by one vote in the state Senate, after the Rev. Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond threatened in two recent meetings with Microsoft officials to engineer a national boycott of the software company’s products because of its past support for the measure.

The reports created an uproar among advocates for gay and lesbian rights and in the blogosphere, where Microsoft was portrayed as having abandoned its gay and lesbian employees. (MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC News.)

“They threw us to the radical right dogs and now are risking every other company in America withdrawing its support for our civil rights legislation as well,” wrote “John in DC” on the widely read Americablog, while another writer, identified as “Angry Desi” wrote on The Minority Report: “Any way you look at it, Microsoft is leaving gays out in the cold.”

Microsoft has received numerous honors from gay and lesbian activist groups for its diversity initiatives. But Friday, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, which presented Microsoft with its Corporate Vision Award four years ago, asked the company to return the award.

“Because of Microsoft’s apparent capitulation to the demands of anti-gay extremists and withdrawal of support for a bill that would do nothing more than protect gay and lesbian people from discrimination, we believe it’s no longer worthy of our highest corporate honor,” Darrell Cummings, the center’s chief of staff, said in a statement.

The Human Rights Campaign said in a letter to Microsoft that “the strong stance of Microsoft on behalf of the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gendered] community and our partnership with the organization in the past makes this feel like even more of a betrayal.”

Workers affiliated with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Employees at Microsoft, or GLEAM, the oldest employees group at the corporation, did not respond to requests for comment. The New York Times reported that employees were reluctant to speak because they feared retribution for publicizing details of a contentious private meeting at which company executives discussed the legislation with members of GLEAM.

Microsoft: No shift in policy
Microsoft has barred discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1991 and has extended health care benefits to same-sex partners since 1993.

Tami Bergasse, a senior corporate spokeswoman for Microsoft, said Friday that the company’s stances on diversity and nondiscrimination had not changed and noted that Microsoft issued a letter in support of the Washington legislation, which has been introduced annually for many years, as recently as the last session.

Reports that Microsoft had rescinded its support for anti-discrimination policies misrepresented the company’s position, Bergasse said. “What the reality is is that we moved to a neutral position on this bill, and we did it well before the legislative session,” she said.

Bergasse said Microsoft’s government relations specialists chose to focus their legislative efforts this year on more central priorities “that have a direct impact on our industry and our business,” specifically computer privacy, education, competitiveness and transportation. She did not rule out that the company could support the measure again in the future, saying it reassessed its legislative priorities every year.

Bergasse would not answer directly when asked several times why, if the company’s concern was its focus on its legislative priorities, it felt it had to take any action on the gay rights bill at all, especially a public change of position.

But she strongly denied that it was because of pressure from Hutcherson, who said in the New York Times article that the company “backed off” after a meeting this month with Bradford L. Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel. Hutcherson did not return calls for comment, but he was quoted in the Times as saying, “I told them I was going to give them something to be afraid of Christians about.”

Bergasse insisted that “this decision was not influenced by external factors.” She said that the company’s meetings with Hutcherson, the first of which was in February, took place “long after our decision to focus on the tighter legislative agenda.”

She said Hutcherson made several demands of the company, all of which were rebuffed. Microsoft, however, did ask two employees who testified in favor of the bill to clarify that they were speaking for themselves, not the company, she said.

Bergasse would not comment on GLEAM’s meeting with company executives this month, at which employees were characterized as having expressed shock and anger, because “we certainly respect the confidentiality of the meetings.”

“We understand that this is a very controversial issue with emotions on all sides,” she said. “Yes, we made a decision to take the neutral stance, but we remain very committed to providing the strongest anti-discrimination protections to our employees.”