Microsoft may rethink position on gay-rights bill

Microsoft may re-evaluate whether to support state legislation that would ban discrimination against gays and lesbians, Chairman Bill Gates said yesterday.

Gates said Microsoft was surprised by the sharp reaction after it became known that the company took a neutral position on the perennial measure this year, after actively supporting it in previous years.

"Next time this one comes around, we'll see," he said. "We certainly have a lot of employees who sent us mail. Next time it comes around that'll be a major factor for us to take into consideration."

The legislation was rejected by one vote in the state Senate last Thursday, prompting outrage toward Microsoft among advocates for the legislation.

The reaction was fueled in part by a story in The Stranger alternative newspaper that suggested Microsoft had caved to pressure from a fundamentalist Christian pastor. Other papers followed up on the story, including The Seattle Times and The New York Times, which ran its story Friday on its front page.

Microsoft denied that it had been influenced by the pastor or anyone outside the company.

The response to the stories surprised Microsoft. "Well, we didn't expect that kind of visibility for it," Gates said. "After all, Microsoft's position on a political bill — has that ever caused something to pass or not pass? Is it good, is it bad? I don't know.

"Is my being behind it good? Look at the referendums I've been behind. I've lost gun control — I'm looking really good on that one," he quipped.

Gates reiterated the position laid out in an e-mail that Chief Executive Steve Ballmer sent to employees on Friday, explaining what happened.

Ballmer said the company decided before the Legislature convened to narrow its lobbying focus to a smaller number of bills directly affecting its business.

Two Microsoft employees testified in support of the anti-discrimination measure. The pastor, Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond, then met with Brad Smith, the company's chief lawyer, and asked that the two employees be fired and that the company oppose the measure. Hutcherson said he threatened to organize a boycott of Microsoft if it didn't stop supporting the bill.

A new lobbyist for the company apparently was unclear on whether the company supported the measure, leaving State Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the bill's sponsor, with the impression that it had the company's backing this year.

Gates said he and Ballmer both support the measure personally but "we won't always pick every issue for the company to have a position on."

Gates also noted Microsoft's generally progressive stance. "We as a company were amongst the first to have domestic-partner benefits, to have anti-discrimination things, and so in this general area we speak very clearly," he said.

Advocacy groups still feel betrayed. The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center demanded the return of an award it gave the company in 2001.

Gates welcomed the feedback.

"It's perfectly fair for us to be scrutinized on anything," he said. "We didn't realize that one would get that level of scrutiny, but there's people who care a lot. They care a lot about the issue."