Gay CEO on a Christian Loveseat
Furniture mogul Mitchell Gold eschews glitzy Democratic confabs for coffee talk with evangelicals
If you’ve sat down in America in the past two decades, there is a good chance it was on a piece of furniture sold by Mitchell Gold. His company, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, which is based in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina, has made upholstered chairs, sofas, and beds for Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, and Williams-Sonoma Home. That’s in addition to Gold’s branded stores, which have popped up everywhere from Soho to Orange County, Calif. Starbucks buys the company’s leather club chairs. And the Obamas put two pieces of Gold’s furniture in the White House.
But despite the fact that Gold’s stores also sell Tipper Gore’s photography, most people who buy the company’s plush, slightly oversized furniture probably have no idea what Gold’s politics are—a fact that evidently delights the veteran gay-rights advocate and major Democratic donor. When I asked him what he thought of homophobes sleeping on the beds he makes, the 61-year-old replied impishly: “Well, it’s the greatest revenge, to get their money.”
In truth, he’d much rather change their minds. For the past eight years, Gold, a secular Jew from New Jersey, has been conducting a one-man campaign against what he calls “religion-based bigotry”—the invocation of biblical authority to justify denying rights to Americans on the basis of their sexual orientation. It is, to his Yankee ear, directly analogous to the way Southern preachers once cited scripture to defend the Jim Crow system. “One of the things I’ve learned is that on the other side, there are a lot of good people, and they do not want to be bigots,” Gold told me when we first met this summer at the condo he and his husband, Tim, keep in Washington, D.C. “And unless we teach them that, in fact, they are bigots, they will never know that what they are doing is really harmful to people.”
Gold is among a growing number of corporate executives pouring resources into the cause of gay rights this year. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, pledged $2.5 million in support of same-sex marriage legislation in Washington state, and hedge-fund head Paul Singer has given $1 million to a Super PAC that supports pro-gay Republican candidates. But Gold may be the only one who spends Sundays sitting in houses of worship that belong to a faith other than his own in order to get a clearer idea of what, exactly, his target market is. “What I’ve noticed is that if you get someone who’s moderate, they’ll tell 10 people,” Gold told me. “But if you get someone evangelical, they’ll tell 10,000 people.”
In many ways, it’s been a watershed year for gay rights—President Obama publicly came out in May in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage; the Democratic Party platform includes both an endorsement of same-sex marriage and a call for repeal of the Clinton-era federal Defense of Marriage Act; and even big-time Republican donors and operatives are pushing their party to moderate its views on gay issues. But the issue is far from settled. Last week, in Tampa, the Republican Party adopted a platform firmly in favor of limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. And Gold is still smarting from North Carolina’s passage, last May, of Amendment One, a ballot measure that altered the state constitution to prevent the recognition of same-sex marriages. (It was the 31st state to do so.) “The amendment was started by, aggravated by, and implemented by people who have strong anti-gay, Christian beliefs,” Gold told me. “This was their chance to make sure people in the state knew that gays are not first-class citizens.”
When he was just starting to get involved in the issue, Gold took all of the usual steps: He attended gala fundraising dinners; sat on the board of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay-rights organization; and gave to political candidates. In 2004, he used his service as a delegate for North Carolina at the Democratic National Convention in Boston as a springboard to talk about gay rights and put up billboards outside the convention center to draw attention to his cause.
The furniture maven remains an ardent Democratic partisan and as well-connected as ever—he’s been a guest at various White House events and is a summer regular at the Fire Island home of Democratic National Committee Treasurer Andrew Tobias. Yet as this year’s Democratic National Convention convenes in Charlotte, just an hour away from where he lives and works, Gold is pursuing a far less glitzy brand of activism: one-on-one outreach to pastors, preachers, and devout Christians whom he thinks can be persuaded to his view that demeaning gay and lesbian Americans is, in religious terms, a sin far worse than homosexuality itself is taken to be. He regularly totes manila envelopes with the photographs of 24 gay teenagers who, rejected by their churches and families, have committed suicide over the past five years. (In August, he took one with him to a meeting with Vice-President Biden as a way to thank him for taking a public stand in favor of gay rights earlier this year.)
Gold already has a victory to show for his efforts. It was after engaging in dialogue with Gold that Jane and Joseph Clementi, evangelical Christians whose son Tyler committed suicide in 2010 after his Rutgers University roommate used a webcam to broadcast him having sex, went public with their new-found conviction that there was nothing wrong with their son being gay. The Clementis credit Gold with giving them the words to articulate their change of heart, as well as strategies for coping with the press and with their fellow churchgoers. “He taught me to keep the conversation going, whereas my personality might be to walk away,” Jane Clementi, who late last month publicly broke with her church over its teachings on homosexuality, told me. “But he understands the importance of someone’s faith in the fabric of themselves, and he doesn’t say you have to get rid of your faith to grab hold of the idea that people who are gay aren’t broken.”
Gold has also made some unexpected allies, including David Blankenhorn, the president of the Institute for American Values and a well-known advocate for “traditional” marriage, who in June published a blockbuster op-ed in the New York Times calling for an end to “denigrating or stigmatizing same-sex relationships.” “When I first met him, I think he thought I was pretty much the worst offender, or among the worst,” Blankenhorn told me. “I don’t agree with everything he says. I think there are good reasons to be against gay marriage that don’t stem from prejudice, and I really don’t think he does. But it doesn’t matter because he definitely does point out that whether these church leaders mean to be hateful or not, whether or not they harbor animus or resentment or want to demean other people, they cause teenagers to be in despair over their lives.”
For some Jewish conservatives, the RNC is a chance to be vocal about politics they usually keep quiet