Gay CEO on a Christian Loveseat
Furniture mogul Mitchell Gold eschews glitzy Democratic confabs for coffee talk with evangelicals
As it turned out, Gold’s coming-out was relatively easy. In his mid-20s, he finally blurted out on the phone to his mother, Rhoda, that he was going on vacation with his boyfriend. “My mother’s biggest concern was, ‘What will Shirley think?’ ” Gold said, referring to his parents’ friends at the suburban country club. “But then she met my first boyfriend, who was blond, a real Presbyterian middle-American type, and the first thing she said to me was, ‘Is he Jewish?’ ” Gold went on, grinning at the memory. “And I thought, ‘That’s what you care about now?’ ”
In 2005, Gold decided to leave the Human Rights Campaign board and start his own organization, Faith in America, to focus exclusively on the issue of religious attitudes toward homosexuality. “I got to know Mitchell when he joined the HRC board and watched him grow impatient,” Andrew Tobias, also a former board member, told me. “Mitchell was used to having a vision and executing on it, and ultimately he decided he’d be more effective doing it himself.”
It was an odd thing for him to do, given that his own religious feeling is expressed by little more than the wooden mezuzah affixed to the doorpost of his house in Hickory. “At first I was very concerned about talking to people as a Jew,” he told me, sitting in his office, which is outfitted with English bulldog kitsch and, the day I was there, a selection of canvases by the outsider artist Earl Swanigan that he bought on a recent trip. “But I knew Al Sharpton and talked to him about it, and he said to me, ‘The oppressor doesn’t get to choose who talks about the oppressed,’ ” Gold went on. “So, if a minister says to me, ‘What do you think about Jesus Christ?’ I say, ‘Well, I think if he were sitting here right now to hear how you’ve mangled his beliefs, he’d be pretty upset.’ ”
In its first years, Faith in America staged events in Ames, Iowa, and Greenville, S.C., home to Bob Jones University. Last year, the group won a meeting with the president of the Southern Baptist Convention at the group’s annual powwow in Phoenix. In 2007, the organization recruited a pastor from Hickory to pose a question to Sen. Edwards in a CNN-YouTube debate about why it was acceptable to use religion to deny gay Americans equal rights. The next year, Gold and his brother’s wife, Mindy Drucker, co-edited Crisis, an anthology of coming-out stories that included submissions from celebrities like Richard Chamberlain, Candace Gingrich, and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts—along with essays from two mothers who had lost gay children, one to suicide and the other to a violent assault in Greenville by someone who called him “faggot.”
At the same time, Gold has tried to be a living advertisement in favor of gay marriage. He planned his own wedding to Tim Scofield, two years ago, with an eye to marketing. “We wanted to do it in Middle America, because I suspected it might be written about in the Hickory paper,” Gold told me. “And it was a front-page story in the Hickory Daily Record, on July 11, which was a Sunday, and one letter said, ‘It’s bad enough to write this article, but to do it on God’s day!’ ”
The pair met in 2006, when Scofield (now Gold), an archivist at the Smithsonian, was in New York for an auction. They were married by the judge who issued the crucial 2007 ruling that led to Iowa becoming the first state in the union to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. “I said, ‘You’re my hero,’ ” Gold told me, choking up at the memory. “He said, ‘I never wanted to be a hero. I was a deacon in the Methodist church! But when I got this case I couldn’t go any other way.’ ”
The judge, in other words, is Gold’s ideal target: a religious person who, upon reflection, determined that treating gay Americans as less than equal in the eyes of the law was wrong.
Gold frequently tells a story about Bob Thompson, pastor at Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory, part of the United Church of Christ, who invited Gold to meet him for lunch after a public forum about his book Crisis in 2010. “He says, ‘I want to give you a piece of advice, the word “bigotry” really shuts people down,’ ” Gold told me. “So I said, ‘Really? Then why are you here today?’ ” The point, as Gold sees it, is that using such a freighted word forces his opponents to respond. But it doesn’t necessarily get them to change their minds.
When I reached Thompson, he said he had enjoyed his dialogue with Gold but remained set in his beliefs. “I think Mitchell at first saw me as what he calls ‘the movable middle,’” Thompson told me. “Sometimes when people find someone who comes across as warm and friendly, they think it’s someone whose view is evolving. Well, my view is not evolving.” Still, Thompson—who is in the minority in his own denomination, which in 2005 adopted a nonbinding resolution in favor of gay marriage—admitted he does “feel a lot of remorse about how the church has treated a lot of people, including lesbians and gays.” That is enough for Gold. “There’s a crack in the wall here,” he told me.
For those immersed in the politics of the issue, though, Gold’s work can look ephemeral. “I admire what he’s doing,” Barney Frank told me. “But the way this is working, it’s moving in a broader way—society as a whole is getting better. We have reality on our side, and reality will kick prejudice’s ass when it gets a chance.” And yet, the Democratic Party has been hesitant to trumpet its support for gay marriage. Planners for this week’s convention in Charlotte initially looked for a parent-and-child pair to speak about the issue, “not a gay couple,” according to a leaked planning document obtained by Politico. The people the party is hoping not to scare off are, of course, just the people Gold wants to confront with the reality Frank described.
In the past year, Gold stepped down from the board of Faith in America and has moved away from broad-brush events in favor of converting individuals, like the Clementis. He is also quietly supporting Tim’s efforts to launch a national museum of LGBT history in Washington. But when the Democrats began drafting their marriage equality plank, Mitchell Gold stayed out of the discussion. This week, instead of attending the convention in Charlotte, he’s in Paris at a trade show, with a stopover in London for his husband’s 36th birthday. “What I’ve figured out is what I have to do and what I don’t have to do,” Gold told me. “It was happening, it had a lot of momentum, and I didn’t need to get involved.”
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