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Saturday, April 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gay group wants award back from Microsoft

Seattle Times technology reporter

Microsoft's public-relations troubles intensified yesterday as news spread that the company had withdrawn support for state legislation banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The legislation, House Bill 1515, was voted down Thursday by a single vote in the state Senate, prompting frustration and anger that continued to build yesterday among some gay-rights activists.

The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center asked Microsoft yesterday to return an award it gave the company in 2001, saying the company is no longer worthy of its highest corporate honor. The center had given Microsoft its "corporate vision award," which it bestows on one company every year.

Also yesterday, national lobbying group Human Rights Campaign sent a letter to Microsoft expressing disappointment with the company.

Microsoft spokeswoman Tami Begasse said the company had no comment on whether it would return the Los Angeles center's award.

"We should be judged on issues of civil and equal rights by how we operate our business and treat our employees," Begasse said.

It is the first time the center has asked that an award be returned, said Darrel Cummings, the center's chief of staff.

"People in our community are surprised and really shocked by the actions of Microsoft," he said. "There is no apparent reason why this corporation would have taken this action if it were not for the pressure put on them by what we consider to be very right-wing religious leaders that do not reflect the views of the people of Washington or this country."

Ken Hutcherson, pastor of Redmond's 3,500-member Antioch Bible Church, said Thursday that he met with Microsoft officials earlier this year and threatened a national boycott of the company if it did not withdraw its support of the bill.

Microsoft has said that it decided to withdraw its support before the meeting with Hutcherson, and that its decision was not influenced by external factors. The company said it decided to narrow its lobbying focus to issues such as transportation, computer privacy and business competitiveness.

In its letter to Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, Human Rights Campaign asked the company to reinstate its support for the bill when it returns to the Legislature next year. The bill has been introduced to the Legislature every year for a decade by Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, based in Washington, D.C., also said in the letter that Microsoft should go a step further and clearly state its support for nondiscrimination legislation at the state and federal levels.

"This lack of clarity may have already had a devastating effect and it's past time to clear the air," Solmonese wrote.

Microsoft could drop in the organization's annual index that rates how companies treat their gay and lesbian employees, customers and shareholders, said Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director of the group's workplace project. Last year, Microsoft received a score of 86 out of 100.

Although reaction to Microsoft has come quickly and forcefully, it was unclear yesterday how much momentum the issue would sustain.

John Aravosis, who has been covering the issue on his Web log after the news of Microsoft withdrawing support was broken by local alternative newsweekly The Stranger, said some people still remember a boycott organized by gays and lesbians against Coors beer in the late 1970s. The boycott reportedly stemmed from Coors' moves to screen out prospective employees who were gay.

Although the company has changed its policies and worked hard to mend fences, memories of the boycott remain.

"For 30 years they've had to fight that spot on their name," Aravosis said. "You don't get away from that stuff. That's the danger [Microsoft] has in the long term."

But Steve Rubel, a public-relations consultant who tracks the impact of blogs on his industry, said he thinks Microsoft's actions could have long-term impact only among people who feel strongly about gay and lesbian issues.

The bill is a localized issue and may not get the national or international attention of other controversies, he said.

"The people who are passionate about this subject, whether they're pro or con, will be vocal about it," he said. "Until they find something else to write about."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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