10/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Big Business and Gay Rights

You won't hear much about gay marriage this week at the Republican convention, but it remains a hotly-contested political issue, particularly in California, where a fall ballot initiative would overturn the state Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to wed. John McCain supports the ballot Proposition 8 while Barack Obama and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger oppose it. A recent poll shows that most Californians side with their governor, Obama and gay rights groups like Equality for All. Should gay marriage win at the ballot box in the nation's most populous state, that would be big news.

A political win for same-sex marriage would also reflect the fact that in corporate America, support for gay marriage - or at least workplace policies that treat same-sex couples the same as they treat heterosexuals - is fast becoming business as usual. Indeed, the shifting political tides are being driven, in part, by business.

Two new reports, released on the day after Labor Day, point to the changes unfolding in hundreds of American workplaces.

The Human Rights Campaign, in its seventh annual Corporate Equality Index, awarded 259 businesses, each with at least 500 employees, a 100% score for their treatment of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) workers. These business collectively employ 9 million people, and among them are dozens of household names, some of which may surprise you--Shell Oil, which is based in Houston, Texas (Bush country the last time I looked), Lockheed Martin, America's biggest defense contractor, and Marriott Corp., which is led by the politically conservative and Mormon Marriott family. Longtime gay-friendly companies like AMR Corp. (American Airlines), Eastman Kodak, Intel, JP Morgan Chase, Nike and Xerox also notched perfect scores, even as HRC has raised its benchmarks over the years.

Joe Solomonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, writes in his intro:

Since (our) first report in 2002, the rates at which corporate America has expanded policies, practices and benefits to include LGBT employees have been faster than perhaps many thought possible.

All 259 companies with perfect scores support domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. They stand behind their LGBT workers for pragmatic business reasons, as Marvin Odum, president of Shell, told the Human Rights Campaign: "A 100-percent rating helps us to better attract, recruit and retain diverse talent."

These 259 companies are part of a self-selected group that chooses to work with HRC. But Daryl Herrschaft, director of the HRC's Workplace Project, who oversees the report, tells me that 283 of the FORTUNE 500 companies now provide domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. Think of that as a majority vote of Big Business for gay rights.

Companies that scored 100% also provide employment protection for transgender workers. The transgender issue is contentious inside the LGBT community because some gay rights groups supported the idea of removing protection for transgender workers from ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a proposed federal law that was passed last year by Congress but vetoed by President Bush. Removing transgender protection was seen as making the bill more palatable to moderates.

Transgender issues are also highlighted in a new survey from Out & Equal, a nonprofit network of workplace LGBT networks and their supporters. The online opinion survey found that "seven out of ten heterosexual adults (71%) agree that how an employee performs at their job should be the standard for judging an employee, not whether or not they are transgender."

"A lot of people now have colleagues who have transitioned on the job, and life goes on," says Selisse Berry, executive director of Out & Equal. Of course, professing to be fair-minded in a survey is a different thing from going to work on a Monday morning to learn that Grace from accounting has turned into George.

The Out & Equal report itself demonstrates that surveys are an imperfect measure of workplace behavior: Nine out of 10 heterosexual adults said they would feel indifferent or positively upon learning that a co-worker was lesbian or gay, and only 10% said they would feel negatively. Yet about 20% of gays and lesbians report being harassed on the job by co-workers and two-thirds say they have faced some sort of discrimination at work. So it appears that the bigoted 10% minority have been pretty vocal.

Still, both surveys make clear that all the trends are moving in the right direction for supporters of gay rights. Other research indicates that people who actually know other people who are gay tend to be far more supportive of gay rights than those who don't.

As Selisse Berry told me:

Because we all spend so much time at work, and people are sitting in meetings and cubicles next to people of different races and gender and sexual orientation, we've come a long way. People get to know a person as a person and, by the way, she's a lesbian.

The Out & Equal survey was conducted by Harris Interactive in conjunction with Witeck-Combs Communications, a Washington D.C.-based marketing and consulting firm that specializes in the LGBT market and advises such big companies as Wal-Mart and American Airlines. Bob Witeck, a founder of Witeck-Combs, has a column addressing these issues on Huffington Post.