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.”
Gold’s chief advantage, Blankenhorn added, is his sheer approachability. “Maybe it’s because he’s in business and has to have relationships with his customers,” Blankenhorn added. “He’s a salesman.”
Taylorsville, where Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams is headquartered, is tucked away in hills dominated by church steeples above and emerald mines below. The steep driveway down to the 600,000-square-foot factory carries the cutesy postal address “One Comfortable Place.” The front door to the corporate offices is less noticeable than the off-kilter yellow schoolhouse façade that marks the entrance to the company’s on-site daycare center. (When I visited earlier this summer, tall stalks of corn planted by the children were being inspected by a groundskeeper with a full ZZ Top beard.) “We are in the country, my dear,” Gold told me. “At first I was like, oh my god, it’s like Deliverance.”
Gold, who grew up in the suburbs of Trenton, N.J., wound up in the South by accident. His mother, a schoolteacher, wanted him to be a lawyer, but when he graduated from Long Island University in 1974 with a degree in history, one of his professors set him up with an interview at Bloomingdale’s. “He said, ‘You don’t want to be a lawyer. Lawyers are such boring people, you belong in retail,’ ” Gold recounted. “So, I thought, ‘OK, I’ll go check it out.’ ”
He got an entry-level job with the department store and spent six years working his way up to furniture buyer, before leaving to work for one of his clients, Lane Furniture. By the mid-1980s, Gold was handling national accounts like JCPenney and Sears, but when Penney’s relocated to Plano, Texas, Lane’s president, Arthur Thompson, asked Gold to move to Lane’s headquarters outside Lynchburg, Va. One night, Gold, who didn’t know anyone in the area, decided to look for the gay bar in town. “I finally found a gay hotline in the blue pages and said, ‘I just moved here from New York, I’m in Lynchburg, there must be somewhere I can go,’ ” Gold said. “And the guy says, ‘Lynchburg is the headquarters of Jerry Falwell. There’s nothing.’ ”
After a year in Lynchburg, Gold moved to Hickory, N.C., which, he says, felt “like moving to Paris.” Lane had promoted him, and Gold asked Bob Williams, a graphic designer for Seventeen whom he had started dating in New York, to join him. “I grew up in Texas,” Williams told me over lunch with Gold at the company commissary, Cafe Lulu, named after their late English bulldog, “so it was almost like moving back home.”
At the time, the fastest-growing segment of Lane’s business was its upholstered dining furniture. “Rich people had fully upholstered chairs that designer showrooms made,” Gold recalled. “Lane had this division making them in 50 or a hundred fabrics, and they were better priced than the ones in the designer showrooms, and it was a cheap business to get into.” Gold decided they should start their own company and convinced Williams, who had trained at Parsons School of Design, to take on the design side. “He helped me pick some fabrics, and then it was like, ‘OK, let’s put the fabric on these chairs, and let’s get a showroom,’ ” Williams said. “I’d never done any of these things before.”
They incorporated in April 1989 as Mitchell Gold’s DesignLine. (Williams’ name was added in 2005, to cement their professional partnership after they split as a couple.) The new company began selling to JCPenney, Levitz, and Crate & Barrel, which was just beginning to move from housewares into furniture. “We sold 5,000 chairs before we even started manufacturing,” Gold told me. “We put on these beautiful florals, velvets. I would have put five different shades of beige, but Bob brought a wow factor to it.”
Gold and Williams hit the market just as home retailers were looking to capitalize on a phenomenon started by chain clothing retailers like the Gap: the casual buyer. “Mitchell was the first person to think about selling upholstery as an impulse item,” Glen Senk, the CEO of jeweler David Yurman, told me. When Gold and Williams were starting out, Senk was at Williams-Sonoma, where he was charged with reinventing their Pottery Barn brand, and Gold convinced him to try selling sofas. “It was a white slipcovered sofa, and we shot it in my apartment,” Senk said. “And I remember waking up the morning after the catalog broke and everything had changed.” The sofa led to a leather club chair, modeled on a Parisian flea-market find but more generously proportioned for suburban American spaces. It became one of Pottery Barn’s iconic products. “We didn’t invent slipcovers,” Gold said. “But Bob had this idea to tailor it and make it different sizes to fit with different homes.”
As the company grew, Gold—who had been student body president in college—began to get actively involved in politics. “Bill Clinton gets elected, and he says gays should be in the military, and next thing there’s this whole push back against it,” Gold told me. “Living here, when you hear the preachers talking, and the local news, it’s not quite what people up north are hearing.” By 1998, he had joined the national board of the Human Rights Campaign, while Williams volunteered for the Equality North Carolina board. The pair also started running ads featuring male couples with babies and children and teased the fall 2000 collection with the line, “We’re coming out September 15th.”
As they expanded—today, the company employs more than 600 people—employees would sometimes approach Williams and Gold with questions. “They’d say, ‘You’re gay, and my preacher said this or that,’ ” Gold said. “There were people who did not understand it.” Gold also began to get questions from people who needed support coming out: employees, friends, and sometimes strangers who were terrified of being ostracized not just by their families, but by their communities, people for whom the idea of leaving for New York or even nearby Charlotte felt like rejection rather than freedom.
As a teenager, Gold was privately wracked by anxiety over his sexuality. He knew he was a minority as a Jew and occasionally encountered mild anti-Semitism, but that never made him feel bad. “On the contrary,” Gold told me. “Because what I was learning in synagogue was that we were the chosen people.” But he heard his parents making fun of “the feygeles” and decided there was something wrong with him. “It was an enormous fear,” Gold said. He worried that his parents would send him for shock therapy—homosexuality was categorized as a mental disorder until 1973, when Gold was 22—and that he would never be able to get a job, let alone fall in love and have a family of his own. “It was torture, as a high-school kid, figuring out how I was going to act so no one knows, so that no one catches me,” Gold went on. He struggled with depression in high school and contemplated suicide.
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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