The Excuses for Purging Brendan Eich Are the Old Excuses for Firing Gays

Think again.
April 7 2014 9:04 AM

Brendan Eich and the New Moral Majority

brendan_eich_mozilla_foundation_official_photo
"Community standards" used to be invoked against gay employees. Now they're invoked against Brendan Eich.

Photo courtesy Darcy Padilla/Mozilla Foundation

Many self-styled liberals are celebrating Brendan Eich’s resignation as CEO of Mozilla. They say the company had every right to remove Eich for supporting a 2008 referendum campaign against gay marriage. It’s a matter of free enterprise and community standards, they argue.

Here’s Michelangelo Signorile in the Huffington Post:

None of this is about government censorship. It's about a company based in Northern California which has many progressive employees, and which has a lot of progressives and young people among the user base of its Firefox browser, realizing its CEO's world view was completely out of touch with the company's—and America's—values and vision for the future.
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Tim Teeman makes a similar case in the Daily Beast:

Eich resigned presumably because he and his company figured the bad publicity they were getting from this, and the financial knock-on on their business, would be adversely affected by the revelation of his Prop 8 donation. … [E]ven a whiff of homophobia can be bad for business. … His prejudiced views are simply not those a company like Mozilla wants to be associated with. 

Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times agrees:

What about Eich's right to be CEO of Mozilla? He doesn't have that right … [H]is personal views were at odds with community standards. Gay rights, including the right to marriage, have indisputably moved into the mainstream of American society, even more so in the communities from which Mozilla draws its employees, business partners and customers. … The tension between Eich's personal views and corporate and community standards was going to be felt, whether subtly or overtly, in his dealings with employees, customers and business partners. We know this because it already had: protests roiled the staff, the online dating service OKCupid posted a letter on its website encouraging clients to use browsers other than Mozilla's Firefox, and outside developers expressed dismay with Eich's elevation. 
William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

That’s the argument: Each company has a right—indeed, it has a market-driven obligation—to make hiring and firing decisions based on “values” and “community standards.” It’s entitled to oust anyone whose conduct, with regard to sexual orientation, is “bad for business” or for employee morale.

The argument should sound familiar. It has been used for decades to justify anti-gay workplace discrimination.

Twelve years ago, Larry Lane, a former manager at a carpet company, testified before Congress about how he lost his job:

In the late summer/early fall of 1998, an employee, one of the sales representatives that I supervised, learned that I was gay and “outed” me—that is, told a number of other direct reports in my Region that I was gay—without my knowledge. … [Two of them] informed one of their coworkers that they didn't want to work for me … [They] told my supervisor that they could not trust me and said that I was secretive. … [M]y supervisor and his boss, the Vice President of Sales, placed me on probation and advised me that my “job was in jeopardy.” They explained that I was “hired to build the team in NY” and that based on feedback from “several of [my] people'” I was failing to get this “critical phase of [my] job done.” They … told me to return to New York and “reflect on what may be causing this dissension among my people.” … [Then they] fired me. When asked if this had anything to do with my performance or work ethic the Vice President of Sales stated, “Let's just say you don't fit” …

Dissension. Building the team. Don’t fit. Sounds a lot like the case for removing Eich.

Two months ago Wayne Shimer of Des Moines, Iowa, sued his former employer after he was fired from his job at a convenience store. According to Shimer’s lawsuit, the store manager found out Shimer was gay and told him not to act "feminine" because it would “make customers and co-workers uncomfortable.” Shimer’s attorney says the manager made clear that “she didn't want his 'feminine behavior' to scare off the customers, and she was concerned that it may have some impact on some of the employees.”

Scare off customers. Make co-workers uncomfortable. Does that ring a bell?

In early February college football player Michael Sam became the first NFL draft prospect to affirm his homosexuality. Some NFL officials welcomed Sam’s statement, but others said it would hurt his draft prospects. “It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room,” a player personnel assistant told Sports Illustrated. A general manager predicted that Sam wouldn’t be drafted at all:

The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, “How will drafting him affect your locker room?” And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable.

The day before Sam came out, he was projected as the 90th pick on the CBS Sports draft board. By the next day, he was 20 picks lower. Now he’s 227th. Some of the drop has to do with doubts about his talent. But a lot of it has to do with what GMs describe as “the potential distraction of his presence—both in the media and the locker room.”

Distraction. Uncomfortable. It’s the same old story.

Losing your job for being gay is different from losing your job for opposing gay marriage. Unlike homosexuality, opposition to same-sex marriage is a choice, and it directly limits the rights of other people. But the rationales for getting rid of Eich bear a disturbing resemblance to the rationales for getting rid of gay managers and employees. He caused dissension. He made colleagues uncomfortable. He scared off customers. He created a distraction. He didn’t fit.

It used to be social conservatives who stood for the idea that companies could and should fire employees based on the “values” and “community standards” of their “employees, business partners and customers.” Now it’s liberals. Or, rather, it’s people on the left who, in their exhilaration at finally wielding corporate power, have forgotten what liberalism is.