A Company’s Stand for Gay Marriage, and Its Cost
By JAMES B. STEWART (New York Times, May 26, 2012)
In the months leading up to North Carolina’s vote this month to ban gay marriage, most of the state’s business leaders were conspicuously silent. While some executives spoke out against it as individuals, not one Fortune 500 company based in North Carolina, including Bank of America, Duke Energy, VF Corporation and Lowe’s, opposed it.
But one company did: Replacements Limited, which sells silver, china and glassware, and is based in Greensboro. Its founder and chairman, Bob Page, is gay. The company lobbied legislators, contributed money to causes supporting gay marriage, rented a billboard along the interstate near its headquarters, and sold T-shirts at its showroom. Its experience may explain why no other for-profit company followed its example.
Hostile letters and e-mails poured into the company from customers canceling their business and demanding to be removed from its e-mail list. “I understand that your company donated $250,000 or so to the effort to ban the marriage amendment,” read one. “I am very concerned that with an increased visibility and acceptance of the gay and lesbian lifestyle, one of my children, who would have grown up and been happily married to a husband, could be tempted to the lesbian lifestyle.”
Another read: “I was excited to see your wares and expected a pleasant shopping experience. Instead I was accosted by your political views, which I do not share. It was very uncomfortable and unpleasant browsing with all those signs and T-shirts against amendment one, to the point where I had to leave.”
A third said, “Money you used to support this opposition came from my many purchases from your company and that is not O.K. with me,” adding, “I will look for my replacement pieces elsewhere.”
Several writers seemed more sad than angry. “Visiting Replacements Limited has always been one of my favorite treats,” said one. “I had the privilege of experiencing your beautiful store firsthand,” began another. Both said they would never return.
Andrew Spainhour, Replacement’s general counsel and a member of the steering committee that organized opposition to the amendment, tried to recruit other businesses. “I had a lot of phone calls and e-mails that weren’t returned,” he said. “If I did have a conversation, they’d say, ‘Gosh, we can’t do this, we can’t go out on a limb.’ There’s a tremendous amount of fear.”
The company did get a few letters and e-mails of support, but the outpouring against its stand shows that the subject of gay marriage “is hugely divisive in our state,” Mr. Spainhour said. “It’s exposed a lot of fault lines. It’s a natural reaction for people to say, ‘We’re not going to anger 50 percent of the people that we do business with or want to do business with.’ There’s too much downside.”
Mr. Spainhour said he worried about Mr. Page’s safety, and has discussed his concerns with him. He mentioned Charles C. Worley, pastor of the Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, N.C., not far from Greensboro, who preached on May 13 that lesbians and gays should be separated from each other and society and quarantined behind electrified fences. “In a few years, they’ll die out,” Mr. Worley said. “They can’t reproduce.” Video of the sermon circulated on the Internet.
“Bob has been absolutely fearless in the face of that,” Mr. Spainhour said. “It’s a North Carolina that exists but that I don’t recognize. There are two North Carolinas: the progressive cities and college towns, and places where there are no openly gay people.”
Much the same could be said of America as a whole. Although recent polls suggest a majority of Americans favor legalizing gay marriage in their state, those who do are concentrated in the Northeast and on the West Coast. But even in those states most hostile to the idea, support for gay marriage has grown strongly over the last decade.
Most companies have traditionally tried to avoid taking positions on political and social issues. But corporate involvement in campaigns to support gay marriage has mirrored the shift in the nation’s attitudes, from nonexistent 10 years ago to some involvement by major companies in 2008, when Apple, American Apparel, Google and Levi Strauss publicly opposed California’s Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage (it passed). Last year, corporate support in New York was deemed critical to the Legislature’s passage of a law allowing gay marriage. This year, major corporations based in Washington State, led by Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft, have publicly opposed an effort to repeal the state’s law permitting gay marriage, scheduled to take effect on June 7.
Mr. Page, 67, said he didn’t like politics and wasn’t “extreme,” or “in your face” about being gay. But, he added: “I just refuse to hide. I did that way too many years and it’s just not healthy.”
At the same time, he said: “I’m always concerned I will hurt our business. I know we have lost business. But I don’t have a board or shareholders I have to answer to. My life is not about money.”
Mr. Page drives a Ford Explorer with 146,000 miles on it and said he had never paid more than $10 for a shirt. His father was a tobacco farmer with a ninth-grade education and his family of six lived in three rooms with no indoor bathroom. He attended the Happy Home United Church of Christ with his family and earned a 10-year attendance pin. “I prayed that God would not make me this way,” he said. Mr. Page served two years in the Army and was the only member of his family to attend college, graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I could not deal with being gay,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone who was gay. I never discussed how I felt with anybody straight through the Army. At one time, I hoped I would go to Vietnam and get killed. I contemplated suicide. I never felt I measured up to everybody else. Sometimes, I still feel that way.”
Mr. Page liked to go to flea markets, and in 1981 he left his job as an auditor for the state of North Carolina to start an antique china and glassware mail-order business. The Small Business Administration told him not to bother applying for a loan. “Selling used dishes for a living? People thought I was crazy,” Mr. Page said. He scraped up enough money to open the business with one part-time assistant.
Five years later, lonely and still in the closet, Mr. Page placed a personal ad. Dale Frederiksen, a math teacher from Tennessee, responded, and they spent several months talking on the phone. Finally they met. They traveled back and forth until Mr. Frederiksen said he’d have to make a decision about whether to move to North Carolina. “I can’t make that decision for you,” Mr. Page said. Mr. Frederiksen moved.
When Mr. Page finally told his parents he was gay, they were supportive. His two brothers and their families are also “pretty accepting,” he said. His sister and her daughters “think I and my partner are going to hell.”
“I’ve always loved children and wanted a family,” Mr. Page said. In 1999 he and Mr. Frederiksen traveled to Vietnam where Mr. Page adopted twin boys (North Carolina bans adoption by gay couples, but not by single parents.). An article in the local News and Record, “Partners in Parenthood,” chronicled their struggle to change diapers and prompted angry letters from readers. “I’d lie awake at night and I was in so much pain and agony that I couldn’t sleep,” Mr. Page remembered. “They suggested we wanted to adopt children so we could molest them. Even though we don’t know these people, it still hurts.”
The visibility led to growing public awareness that Mr. Page is gay. Fifteen years ago, he was invited to speak at nearby Elon University, and a student asked him about his sexual orientation. “I was so nervous I was trembling,” he said. Now, “I’m very comfortable speaking out. But there are people who will tell you I’m the Devil’s advocate here on earth.”
Despite this month’s lopsided vote in favor of the amendment (it passed by a margin of 20 percentage points), Mr. Page said that he considered his money well spent, and that tolerance in North Carolina, while it may have a long way to go, has improved. “I love children, and it tears me apart when I think about these young kids and teens who are committing suicide, like the young guy at Rutgers who jumped off the bridge. This doesn’t have to happen. I want things to be better for other people than it was for me. I truly hope things will be better, and I want to do my part to make things better for those coming after us.”
Today their twins are 13. Mr. Page and Mr. Frederiksen have been together 23 years. Replacements has annual revenue of $80 million and employs 450 people, all in North Carolina. Mr. Page was named North Carolina’s small-business person of the year by the Small Business Administration in 1986. The company was included in Inc. Magazine’s “Inc. 500” in 1986 and Fast Company’s “Fast 50” in 2004. It has received numerous workplace awards and was cited in 2002 by the Advocate magazine as one of the top 10 gay-friendly companies in America. Hundreds of local construction workers completed an expansion that nearly doubled the size of its warehouse to 500,000 square feet. It holds over 13 million items.
Angry e-mails and letters notwithstanding, and despite the weak economy, Mr. Page said 2011 was one of the best in the company’s history.