When Amazon Went to War With Lesbians

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Oct. 21 2013 4:33 PM

When Amazon Went to War With Lesbians

Jeff Bezos
Jeff and Jane

Photo by Glenn Chapman/AFP/Getty Images

Brad Stone’s brand-new history of Amazon, The Everything Store, chronicles the company’s breakthroughs and missteps and paints a fascinating, sometimes terrifying portrait of its messianic, profit-eschewing founder, Jeff Bezos.

The Everything Store says the company name originated with Bezos poring through the A section of the dictionary and having an “epiphany” when he came to the entry for Amazon:

He walked into the garage one morning and informed his colleagues of the company’s new name. He gave the impression that he didn’t care to hear anyone’s opinion on it. … “This is not only the largest river in the world, it’s many times larger than the next biggest river. It blows all other rivers away,” Bezos said.
Advertisement

But there was already a bookstore of that name: Minneapolis’ Amazon Bookstore Collective. And in 1999, that feminist bookstore, a community fixture since 1970, sued Amazon.com for trademark infringement. Although Amazon.com had been operating since 1995, during the 1998 holiday season, the number of people confusing the two operations cost the bricks-and-mortar store considerable time and money.  General manager Barb Wieser told the Corporate Legal Times, “We were getting 20 or more phone calls a day from people thinking we were Amazon.com. They were looking for books we didn't have. They wanted to come down and get them. We fielded so many calls it felt like we were working for Amazon.com."

It’s no surprise that Amazon.com contested the suit, but its lesbian-baiting legal tactics in a pretrial deposition shocked many observers. As Katharine Mieszkowski reported in Salon, Amazon.com’s attorney repeatedly asked a bookstore collective member “under oath about her own sexual orientation and that of the staff.” Questions included: “Have you had any interest in promoting lesbian ideals in the community?” “I’ll ask you this, are you gay?” and “Are any of the employees of the bookstore gay?”

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

According to an Amazon spokesman, the lawyer’s questions were intended to establish that the two companies were in “different businesses,” with Amazon.com catering to a “general-interest” audience, while Amazon Bookstore Collective was “lesbian-owned and operated, catering to the lesbian community.” Whatever the merits of this approach, it was a PR nightmare. According to Mieszkowski: “Amazon.com’s own customers are sending outraged e-mails to the company demanding answers. The idea that Amazon.com would focus on sexual orientation in a trademark lawsuit apparently does not sit well.” She noted that Amazon.com responded to customer complaints with “an e-mail attempting to justify the company’s legal strategy and to tout its progressive values.”

Perhaps that’s why, when the lawsuit was settled in November 1999—the Minneapolis bookstore assigned its common-law rights in the Amazon name to Amazon.com, which then licensed it back to the store—Amazon.com’s press release quoted Weiser praising the online retailer’s politics. She said: “As a part of working with Amazon.com to resolve this dispute, we have learned about its long-standing commitment to diversity. Its policies of explicitly forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation and offering same sex benefits to all of its employees make it a leader in the corporate world in that regard."

At the time of the settlement, both parties declined to discuss financial details, but in 2008, when the collective sold the store to customer Ruta Skujins (who then had to change the name, according to the terms of the legal agreement), Wieser acknowledged that the collective had received a small cash settlement from Amazon.com that helped “keep the business going a little longer.” In 2012, Skujins’ store, now known as True Colors, went the way of so many independent bookstores and closed its doors.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.