Why Gay Rights Are Good for Business

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: gay rights



Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His books include Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.

Check out those homophobes in Arizona! They’re like white racists in the Jim Crow South! So declared a chorus of my fellow liberals last week, after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill to protect businesses who turned away clients on the basis of owners’ “sincerely held” religious beliefs. Although the law did not mention homosexuals, it clearly aimed to defend enterprises that refused to serve gays. Its rationale seemed to echo racial segregationists from the pre-1960s South: If I run a business, I get to determine who can patronize it.

But the segregationist case was always more about cold hard cash that it was about racial prejudice and the rights of Southern whites to practice it. Despite their nods to “freedom of association” and the like, Southern businesses sought to maintain segregation because they thought it would be good for business. And when they realized they were wrong, they backed off.

That history contains important lessons for the gay-rights movement today. Discrimination doesn’t just hurt its victims’ feelings or dignity; it also injures the bottom line, for all of us. So the most effective challenges to discrimination often target our wallets and pocketbooks, not just our hearts and minds.

Before the 1960s, let’s recall, most white Southern merchants assumed that race-mixing would cut into profit-making. Following the now-famous 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, for example, a committee of local businessmen warned that they would lose white customers if they served black ones in the same place....




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