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Highly Evolved: Public Companies That Were Already Supporting Gay Rights


Now that Obama has taken a stand, we look at the companies who beat him to it.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL It took nearly an entire term but our country's first black president has finally come around on civil rights. On Wednesday, Barack Obama publicly announced that his personal stance on gay marriage has "evolved" from supporting civil union laws to a full-fledged endorsement of same-sex marriage and, thus, first-class citizenship for gays and lesbians.

It's a politically risky position for a president, sure, but Obama's new pro-marriage stance does piggyback on the opinion of the majority of the American public (true, anti-gay marriage proponents question the validity of most polls), and an ever-growing list of corporations. From hippy-dippy ice cream makers to tech giants to the most conservative financial institutions, Minyanville has profiled stocks that are sticking their necks out to help blaze the trail for equal rights, even if the position isn't always economically expedient.

Ben & Jerry's
No surprise here. The self-described "activist brand" owned by Unilever (UL) has used its products to reflect its politics. Based in South Burlington, Vermont, the ice cream maker celebrated the Green Mountain State's passage of same-sex marriage in 2009 (the first state to do so through legislation without a court ruling) with a makeover of its Chubby Hubby flavor. Hubby Hubby sundaes were served throughout Vermont store locations.

In March of this year, in response to the United Kingdom's announcement to enact gay marriage legislation, Ben & Jerry's began dubbing its Oh My Apple Pie flavor (not available in the US) the matrimonially-minded Apple-y Ever After. Ben & Jerry's people "believe love is love," said company spokeswoman Liz Stewart: "Marriage should just be defined by love and commitment."

Apple and Google
In the 2008 presidential election, the very same electorate that voted for Obama by historic margins -- not seen since the 1936 election of FDR -- also voted on a ballot initiative that banned same-sex couples from marrying. But in an effort to prevent Prop 8 from appearing on the California ballot, Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) were among a group of Silicon Valley leaders -- including Intuit (INTU), Yahoo (YHOO), Adobe (ADBE), Cisco (CSCO), eBay (EBAY), Omidyar Network, and Facebook (FB) -- that joined the No on Prop 8 campaign.

Cupertino donated $100,000 to the effort. "We strongly believe that a person's fundamental rights -- including the right to marry -- should not be affected by their sexual orientation," the company said in a statement issued on its Hot News site. "Apple views this as a civil rights issue, rather than just a political issue, and is therefore speaking out publicly against Proposition 8."

Mountain View's Sergey Brin and Larry Page also put their profits where their politics were with a combined $140,000 contribution to the cause. In its own blog statement, the search engine giant explained its position: "[F]urther government encroachment on personal lives, ambiguously written text -- it is the chilling and discriminatory effect of the proposition on many of our employees that brings Google to publicly oppose Proposition 8. While we respect the strongly-held beliefs that people have on both sides of this argument, we see this fundamentally as an issue of equality."

It's unlikely that JCPenney (JCP) anticipated the amount of controversy that would result from hiring an openly-gay spokesperson. The department store was trying to reinvent itself when it brought on the incredibly likeable and charismatic Ellen DeGeneres to breathe new life into its outdated brand. Far from polarizing, DeGeneres is a mainstream figure, having hosted an NBC (CMCSA) talk show for the last nine years, while also serving as a judge on the Fox (NWS) hit American Idol, and appearing in commercial campaigns from American Express (AXP) and CoverGirl (PG).

So Ellen seemed like a pretty safe bet for JCPenney -- a "no-brainer," in fact -- said the company's CEO Ron Johnson in a CBS This Morning interview.

But the endorsement was the wrong move, cried the One Million Moms organization, a project of the American Family Association, which threatened to boycott JCPenney unless the retailer dropped DeGeneres. JCPenney not only refused to cave to their demands -- Johnson sought to more closely align his company with gay rights, saying it "shares the same values" as its celebrity sponsor.

Last century, when public opinion was still far from being on the side of gay rights, the last place one may have expected to find forward-thinking on the issue would be inside an aerospace and defense corporation. That's why, in 1999, Boeing (BA) made headlines for being an early adopter of same-sex domestic partner benefits for employees.

A decade later, Boeing took up the legislative fight to extend domestic partnership rights in its state. Joining a Washington-based corporate coalition that included Microsoft (MSFT), Nike (NKE), Puget Sound Energy, RealNetworks (RNWK), Vulcan Inc., and, later, Starbucks (SBUX), Boeing publicly supported the state's 2009 ballot measure, Referendum 71, that turned a domestic-partnership bill into law.

A joint statement from the coalition read: "Overturning this law would undo years of equal rights progress made in Washington state. We do not believe that this step backward would be in the best interest for the future of our state."

Referendum 71 passed and set a precedent for a state's voters approving a gay rights measure in the voting booth.

Goldman Sachs
Back in February, Lloyd Blankfein made an announcement that floored pro- and anti-gay camps alike. The much-maligned Goldman Sachs (GS) CEO became the "Wall Street face of marriage equality" when he signed on to be the Human Rights Campaign's first national corporate spokesman on the issue.

But that endorsement didn't come "without a price," Blankfein reportedly told Out on the Street, a gay rights advocacy group based in the financial sector. When speaking to the group last week, Blankfein revealed that his firm has already lost one client. "There was some adverse reaction by someone," Blankfein said. "They didn't want to continue a relationship that they had with us in money management."

Blankfein opted to protect the client's anonymity but his remarks suggest the account was a high profile one: "[I]f you heard the name it wouldn't surprise you," he said.

Marriage equality isn't exactly a new passion of Blankfein's. Before lending his name to the Human Rights Campaign, he'd successfully lobbied the New York State Legislature to pass a same-sex marriage law last summer. And, as an employer, Blankfein has created policies that reimburse Goldman employees for extra taxes they pay on domestic partner benefits.

Also see: Less Evolved Companies: Five Firms on the Other Side of the Gay Rights Movement
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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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