After North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a sweeping law last month that requires transgender people to use public bathrooms that match their birth gender, Bob Page, CEO and founder of Replacements, a Greensboro, NC business that sells replacement china, silver and collectibles and produces $80 million in annual revenue, knew he had to do something. Openly gay with a husband and family of three boys, Page, 70, sent a deeply personal email to more than 3.5 million Replacements customers, objecting to the law, which also strips lesbians, gays, and bisexuals of anti-discrimination protections throughout the state. He described his marriage to his partner of 27 years, the couple’s adopted twin sons from Vietnam, the Nigerian teen they are sponsoring and how he wrestled with his identity: “My experience of feeling like an outcast opened my eyes and my heart to all who have been judged for being different.” In this edited and condensed interview, he talks about the tens of thousands of responses he’s received.
Susan Adams: What was it like growing up gay in North Carolina?
Bob Page: I lived in a really conservative area up in Rockingham County. My father was a tobacco farmer. He had a ninth grade education. I did not know a single gay person growing up. But I knew way back then I was different. I was drafted and when I got out of the army in 1970, I seriously considered taking my own life.
Adams: How did you come to accept yourself?
Page: I gradually met a few gay people and my mindset began to change. But I didn’t come out to my parents until I was in my 40s. Both of them said they knew I was gay but they never discussed it with each other. I’ve only seen my sister once in the last 20 years and that was at my cousin’s funeral. She thinks I’m going to die and go to hell. It was only after I worked for myself for several years that I felt like I could be open with my employees. I have more than 80 people who have been here more than 20 years. They are my family now.
Adams: How have your customers reacted to your homosexuality?
Page: I had a picture of me in the office with kids and my spouse. One lady came in and said she’d never do business with us again. She wrote me a letter afterward saying she didn’t know why gay people needed to flaunt their lifestyles. Another time, someone spray-painted “fags” on the generators outside our building. Once someone went into the men’s room and wrote “fags and queers work here” all over the walls. We’re right on the Interstate, down a service road and one time a lady parked her car sideways and blocked traffic from coming into our building for 45 minutes. She was screaming about the coming of the lord and homosexuals.
Adams: That all sounds awful. How did you react?
Page: I don’t like it but I see the irony. These people claim to be people of god but they do such ungodly things.
Adams: Has the passage of the anti-discrimination ban affected your business?
Page: Last week there was a tour bus from Florida that was coming up to visit Replacements and they called and canceled because of the passage of the law. I had several letters from customers saying they would no longer do business in the state of North Carolina.
Adams: More than 120 businesses, including Apple, Facebook and Bank of America, signed a letter to the governor, objecting to the law. Did that motivate you to write your letter?
Page: I know I’m not alone, but I decided to do something up front. This is injustice and I had to fight it. I know people who can’t be out at their jobs. You can still be legally fired in North Carolina if you’re gay. You can be refused housing and you can be evicted from your home. The leadership in Raleigh has made our whole state appear like we’re cave dwellers.
Page: We put it on our website and we emailed it to customers. It’s gotten more than 800,000 views on our website and 330,000 views on Facebook.
Adams: What kind of reaction have you gotten?
Page: At least 98% of the response has been positive. I’ve gotten 13,000 responses from customers and there have been thousands on Facebook too. I’ve spent many hours a day going through the emails and I’ve answered the personal ones that are directed at me. One lady said she was a Republican but she wanted to support me. There have been a few hundred negative responses. Most of them said, homosexuality is a sin and I don’t want to do business with you.
Adams: Have you been involved in political advocacy before?
Page: We were pretty vocal when they amended our state constitution to ban gay marriage. There was a big article about us that ran in the The New York Times, by James Stewart. He told me he got more emails for that piece than for any other article he’d written. I think that article gained us more business than we lost.
Adams: Do you expect the new law will stand?
Page: I’m convinced it will be overturned, probably through the courts. It’s also possible that if enough companies like PayPal [which has canceled a $3.6 million investment in the state] make announcements that they’re not doing business here, the legislature will act.