The reaction to my recent profile of Tim Gill, the 63-year-old tech entrepreneur who has spent nearly $500 million of his fortune to win equal rights for LGBTQ people in America, is a small but useful case study of how the warped echo chamber of conservative media works.
The story went largely unnoticed by conservatives when it first appeared a month ago. Yet in the past 48 hours, the boldface names of today's right-wing media—Breitbart News, the Washington Times, Washington Examiner, Glenn Beck's The Blaze, The Federalist—have seized on the story. Every one of these outlets has chosen to fixate on – and badly mangle – a single quote of Gill's. Here's the passage in which it appears:
"More broadly, for Gill and his allies, nondiscrimination is the new front of the movement: a campaign that pits LGBTQ advocates against a religious right that responded to marriage equality by redoubling its efforts. The election of Donald Trump, who claims to support gay rights but stocked his administration with anti-LGBTQ extremists, has only emboldened those looking to erase the gains of the past decade. Gill refuses to go on the defense. 'We're going into the hardest states in the country,' he says. 'We're going to punish the wicked.'"
Pointing to this solitary quote, conservative outlets say that Gill is "targeting" Christians. The Federalist writes that Gill is "aiming to punish Christians who don't want to participate in same-sex weddings." The Blaze claims that Gill "called for the punishment of Christians who refuse to take part in same-sex weddings." The Washington Times ran this headline: "Gay megadonor on going after Christians: 'We're going to punish the wicked.'"
This is complete nonsense.
Not once in my profile does Gill talk about "targeting" Christians. Not once does Gill so much as hint at singling out Christians or adherents of any other religion. Not once does the word "Christian" appear. The authors of these cookie-cutter stories sprouting up across the conservative blogosphere either didn't bother to read the actual piece or were blinded by their own biases. (None of the outlets in question attempted to contact Gill or his foundation for comment or clarification, according to a Gill spokesman.)
The response to these inaccurate stories in the far-right fever swamp is as grotesque as you'd expect. Anonymous death threats on Twitter. Vulgar emails to the Gill Foundation with messages like "Faggots of the world unite!!!" and "You better watch what you say and do. Christians don't take lightly to being threatened by degenerates like you." One man left a voicemail: "Tim Gill is nothing but a piece of shit homosexual bastard."
First, some background. Gill has used the phrase "punish the wicked" as a rallying cry for years. "The wicked" is anyone who stands in the way of progress on equal rights for LGBTQ people: politicians, activists, lawyers, some people of faith, and plenty more with no religious affiliation whatsoever. This isn't a Democrat-Republican thing: Some of the most brutal and effective campaigns mounted by Gill's operation have targeted Democrats who opposed marriage equality. (See, for instance, the 2010 Fight Back New York campaign.) For the quote in question, "the wicked" refers to anti-equality lawmakers on the ballot in 2016, such as then-North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed his state's infamous HB2 bathroom bill. (With Gill's help, Democrat Roy Cooper ousted McCrory and then partially repealed HB2.) "The wicked" refers to the lawmakers who, in response to the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage, have introduced dozens of so-called religious freedom restoration bills that would give legal cover for individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
It's worth pointing out that Gill and his foundation actively fund organizations that team up with faith leaders in support of LGBTQ equality. Last October, I spent several days with a Phoenix-based equality group, ONE Community, that gets funding from Gill. Among ONE Community's allies and activists are several pastors and other clergy members. I interviewed two such faith leaders, Rev. Debra Peevey and Rev. Troy Mendez, and both told me that they viewed their efforts to enact LGBTQ non-discrimination policies as rooted in their religious beliefs and studies. "From a Christian perspective, we're here to build up the kingdom of God," Rev. Mendez told me. "With inclusion, we are building up the kingdom of God."
But perhaps the best authority on the injustice of religious freedom restoration bills, the anti-LGBTQ measures that Gill is working to defeat, is the governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal. A Republican, a deeply religious man, and a professed Christian, Deal vetoed a religious-freedom bill when it landed on his desk in the spring of 2016. Deal's veto statement is a stunning rebuke, and worth reading in its entirety. "I do not think that we have to discriminate against anyone," he said, "to protect the faith-based community in Georgia of which my family and I are a part of for all of our lives." He went on, "Our people work side-by-side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way."