As the CEO of a furniture company in North Carolina that boasts annual sales of more than $100 million, Mitchell Gold knows a thing or two about making customers feel comfortable. These days, however, he is working to unsettle people.
Gold, in addition to his day job, is the founder and primary funder of Faith in America, an organization that seeks to “educate Americans about the misuse of religious teachings to discriminate and isolate gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.” This week, the organization launched a multi-city campaign aimed at people who live in the early presidential primary and caucus states.
The campaign’s first newspaper ad ran May 6 in Ames, Iowa. After Iowa, from May until the end of November, the campaign will hit Reno, Nev.; Greenville, S.C.; Manchester, N.H., and Colorado Springs, Colo. Colorado Springs is the home of Focus on the Family, an organization known for opposing, on religious grounds, gay rights and other liberal causes. In addition to newspaper ads, Gold’s campaign will feature billboards, yard signs, bumper stickers and direct mailings.
“Faith in America is not looking to have a fight with anybody, not looking to have a mean-spirited debate, but we really want people to think about this,” Gold, 56, said at a press conference May 3. Religiously-based discrimination “is really hurting people’s lives. And causing families great turmoil.”
Gold, who is gay, said that he experienced his own personal turmoil when he was a teenager in Trenton, N.J.
“I was brought up Jewish, Reform Jewish,” he said. “During the early ’60s, in my early teenage years, I realized I was gay. As I look back, those were some of the worst years of my life. Afraid to tell my parents, family and friends; knowing I would be outcast by all of them as well as my synagogue and government. I kept my secret to myself.”
Gold has vivid memories of those times, one of them particularly strong.
“It is of Governor George Wallace standing, with Bible in hand, on the steps of the capitol, proclaiming something like ‘Segregation now, segregation forever! It says it in the Bible,’” he said. “I remember my mother saying how wrong it was to use one’s Bible to justify hurtful acts against other people.”
Gold attended Long Island University, graduating in 1974. He worked for Bloomingdale’s and for Lane Company before starting his own business in 1989 with his then life partner, Bob Williams.
Today the pair’s eponymous company, with more than 700 employees, has 18 signature stores; its products can also be found at Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware and Williams-Sonoma Home. Gold just co-authored a new book, “Let’s Get Comfortable,” a guide to home furnishing and decorating.
Over the years, as the business became more and more successful, Gold became well known for his philanthropy, supporting the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, among other causes.
Gold also served for seven years as a member of the board of directors of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group. He grew frustrated there, however, because of the cautious way things are done inside the Beltway.
One of the “most important things that the gay community has to do in order to get to full and equal rights is talk about the religious-based bigotry and discrimination,” Gold told the Forward. But he also noted that his ideas were rebuffed by several organizations, because their leaders were really afraid to confront the Christian right with religious arguments.
Gold was also very active in the 2004 Kerry/Edwards presidential campaign. But there again, he was disappointed. When Senator John Kerry was asked about marriage equality and said he was not for gay marriage because of his deeply held religious beliefs, Gold wanted someone to challenge him — and all the other candidates — on the matter.
“I’m really looking toward the day when the follow-up questions are ‘How would you have been in 1967, when interracial marriage was banned and 70% of America was against lifting the ban because of deeply held religious beliefs? How would you have been in the early ’60s about segregation? How would you have been in the ’20s about a woman’s right to vote?’”
Gold wants his new campaign to demonstrate how religious teachings were historically used to justify slavery, racism and the oppression of women — and how similar teachings are being used today to deny equal rights to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders.
“So many religious leaders stand out against the gay community, it’s left a sour taste in my mouth,” he said. In the past two years, however, since starting Faith in America, Gold has met many affirming ministers and rabbis. “But, frankly, in the past two years I’ve met so many ministers and rabbis. It’s been an extraordinary transformation because I have a very different view of religion today than I did just a couple of years ago.”