A group of marchers from Macy's department store holding a banner in the Pittsburgh Pride Awareness Parade

Macy’s shows support for LGBT employees and marriage equality during the Pittsburgh Pride Awareness March in 2012. Photo Courtesy: Jenn and Jon | Flickr Creative Commons

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage is the result of years of judicial argument and political activism. Surprisingly, a substantial number of these activists are from the business world.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, was an outspoken critic of laws that banned same-sex marriage. He’s a prime example of the combination of technology leader and social progressive shaking up the traditionally conservative world of business. “I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me,” he wrote in an open letter last year. Cook may be the most famous corporate executive supporting equality for LGBT people, but he is not the first.

Innovating Equality and Technology

In 1993 Microsoft became the first Fortune 500 company to provide equal benefits to LGBT employees. Ric Weiland, one of Microsoft’s first 5 employees, left $65 million to organizations supporting LGBT rights after his death.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife donated over $2 million to Washington United for Marriage in 2012 to ensure that gay marriage remained legal in Washington State.

Starbucks Executive Vice President Kalen Holmes shared his support for legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington, prior to the law’s passage in the state. The company continued their support despite a “Dump Starbucks” campaign launched by the National Organization for Marriage.

It’s not surprising that innovative technology and food companies actively supported LGBT rights. It was startling when that support was echoed by J. C. Penny’s, Levi’s, and Macy’s—brands long associated with mainstream American consumers.

Quality Employees Want Equality

Support for marriage equality among business leaders gained momentum over the last few years. In 2009 two-dozen high-profile New York business leaders released an open letter urging state lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage, arguing that the measure would help companies attract and retain employees.

In their quest to hire the most talented employees business leaders knew they had to offer equal benefits to LGBT staff to stay competitive. The business community’s understanding of these special circumstances is evident in the friend-of-the-court brief filed by 379 companies urging support for same-sex marriage.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling same-sex unions were only recognized in 37 states. Employers often resorted to paying their employees with same-sex spouses a higher salary to cover taxes on their partner’s health benefits. The brief states this situation is difficult to manage and is, “burdensome and prone to human error.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling has brought every state into alignment allowing employers to provide the same benefits to all of their married employees.