By Jonathan O’Connell

The Washington Post

When Amazon executives recently toured the Dallas-Fort Worth area, one of 20 finalists for a second company headquarters, local officials touted its growing workforce and low taxes as perfectly suited to accommodate 50,000 planned Amazon jobs.

But the local team also brought an unexpected guest: the Rev. Neil G. Cazares-Thomas, pastor of a predominantly gay megachurch in Dallas. He impressed upon the Amazon representatives how inclusive and welcoming the community has been to him, his husband and the 4,000 congregants at his church, according to people familiar with the meeting.

In the high-stakes contest to become Amazon’s new location, it may have been a shrewd move. Although the company’s search materials don’t make it explicit, Amazon has quietly made rights for and acceptance of gay and transgender people part of its criteria in choosing a second headquarters, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.

As Amazon executives recently toured finalist locations to help select what they’ve dubbed HQ2, they asked public officials about what sort of “compatible cultural and community environment” — the wording from the company’s search parameters — each city offers, adding to speculation about whether Amazon will choose a liberal stronghold.

In North Carolina, company representatives asked pointed questions of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper about several state policies such as the “bathroom bill,” which restricted the use of public facilities by transgender people, according to a person in the room. In another city, an Amazon executive groaned at the mention of proposed legislation in Georgia that would restrict funding for same-sex adoption, according to another person who attended the meeting between the company and state and local officials.

Given the publicity and economic impact of the project, including as much as $5 billion in capital expenditures, Amazon’s push on gay and transgender rights may increase pressure on state and local policymakers who have either declined to institute equal-rights rules or passed laws some view as discriminatory.

But by raising a social issue during its search, Amazon also risks alienating conservative political leaders, including President Donald Trump, who has recently criticized the company’s taxes and its contract with the U.S. Postal Service, which delivers many of its packages.

The sponsor of the Georgia bill, Republican state Sen. William Ligon Jr., said the issue of same-sex adoption wasn’t intended to be discriminatory.

In his view, the legislation would benefit children because church-based adoption agencies would shut down if they were forced to serve same-sex couples.

Ligon said he hoped any company would support it.

“If you’re against, then I think we need to think hard about whether you ought to come here,” he said. “We need to seriously consider whether we want you to come here.”

That sentiment has not played well at Amazon, according to a person who has been on tour with Amazon as it met with local officials. “I just think Atlanta’s out,” the person, who is not an Amazon employee, said.

Amazon also declined to answer questions about the meetings, and it is not known how much a region’s stance on gay rights ultimately will factor into its decision. The company’s search for a region of “compatible cultural” values is one of many issues it has said it’s considering as it chooses the new headquarters.

While Amazon’s inquiries on gay rights may anger conservatives, LGBT advocates say the company is not going far enough.

One group wrote to Bezos asking that he not choose any of 11 locations in nine states that have not passed comprehensive legal protections for people based on their sexuality or gender.

But many of the states being criticized — among them Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina and Texas — are among the least expensive of the options, providing a low tax environment the company covets. That could force Bezos to choose between getting the best deal for his new headquarters and supporting gay rights.

“We’re talking about a decision that will affect the quality of life of thousands of people,” said David Mixner, a writer and activist who signed the letter. “If all they are concerned about is money, then they roundly deserve to be criticized.”

Harnessing the publicity surrounding his company’s headquarters to advance such a cause would be a significant departure from how Bezos has led the company.

And some business and relocation experts are still skeptical that LGBT rights will be a major factor. If Bezos opts for a liberal stronghold such as Boston or New York City, he will do so knowing it will cost his company more in taxes and salaries.

“It’s fairly shortsighted to think a business decision like this is likely to be based on one policy, particularly a social one,” said Matt McDonald, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies who has studied HQ2.

Bezos declined an interview through Amazon representatives, who instead provided comments from Anthony Little, president of the company’s LGBTQ affinity group, GLAmazon. Little said he was “very proud” of the company’s policies, such as expansion of health benefits to fully cover transition surgeries for transgender employees and opposition to Washington state’s version of a bathroom bill.

“Ultimately, I think Amazon wants us to do what is right for LGBTQ employees,” he said.

The company has said it will make a decision this year.