Meet the Megadonor Behind the LGBTQ Rights Movement
“Now is not the time to go sit on the sidelines,” Joe Biden thunders, slamming his fist on a podium branded with the vice presidential seal. “We need to push – and push hard.” It’s an early evening in May 2016, and 30 of the nation’s most prolific LGBTQ donors are gathered in the living room of a penthouse apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Biden thanks the men and women in the audience for their efforts so far. But there is one person he singles out by name, an unassuming and slightly awkward man seated in the last row of chairs, doing his best to avoid attention. “Incredible,” Biden calls him. If not for the work of Tim Gill, Biden says, there is no telling where the LGBTQ-rights movement would be.
Gill, a software programmer who made a fortune in the 1990s, is not a household name – and that’s by design. The 63-year-old Coloradan rarely gives interviews and describes himself as pathologically anti-social and ill at ease with publicity. In the past three decades, Gill has methodically, often stealthily, poured $422 million of his fortune into the cause of equal rights for the LGBTQ community – more than any other person in America. Within the movement, he is praised as a visionary, a computer-nerd-turned-brilliant-strategist, the megadonor who coalesced a movement around the fight for marriage equality and then pushed onward to victory.
Today, Gill’s sprawling network of LGBTQ advocacy groups rivals any big-money operation in the country. The Gill Foundation, which he started in 1994, underwrites academic research, polling, litigation, data analytics and field organizing. Gill Action, a political group launched a decade later, has helped elect hundreds of pro-equality lawmakers at the local, state and federal levels. OutGiving, his donor club, coaches the country’s richest pro-LGBTQ funders on how best to spend their money. Gill’s fingerprints are on nearly every major victory in the march to marriage, from the 2003 Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health case, which made Massachusetts the first state to allow same-sex marriage, to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision two decades later that legalized it in all 50. “Without a doubt,” says Mary Bonauto, the attorney who argued the Obergefell case, “we would not be where we are without Tim Gill and the Gill Foundation.”
In the wake of Obergefell, however, some donors and activists declared victory and moved on. The Ford Foundation effectively ended its giving; Bonauto’s organization, Boston-based GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, saw an immediate drop in its revenue. But Gill insists the LGBTQ civil-rights movement is far from finished: In 28 states, it’s still legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in housing, employment and public accommodations like restaurants, hotels and restrooms. In these states, two lesbians can marry in the morning and be fired that afternoon for bringing a photo of their new spouse to work. It took two decades to achieve marriage equality – Gill wants to win nondiscrimination laws nationwide in half the time.
One in three LGBTQ people in America today lives in the South. “We need to bring the freedoms we now have to them.”
Later in the evening, Gill addresses the donors who have gathered – at his invitation – in Manhattan. He is tall and trim, with a thatch of silver-black hair and a wide, toothy smile, and wears a slim dark suit and Italian shoes. The days of prodding legislators in liberal states like Massachusetts and New York are over, he says. One in three LGBTQ people in America today lives in the South – more than in any other region, according to a UCLA study. And most of the states with few or no protections for LGBTQ people are also in the South. “Our marriage campaign was funded by Texans and Georgians,” Gill says. “But in those states, they have nothing. We need to bring the freedoms we now have to them.”
Nationwide, Republican lawmakers have reacted to marriage equality by introducing religious freedom restoration acts (RFRA). Under the guise of right-to-worship protections, these bills offer legal cover for individuals and businesses to deny service or otherwise discriminate against LGBTQ people. Most famously, in 2015, Republicans in Indiana, led by then-Gov. Mike Pence, withstood a revolt by the business community and passed a particularly onerous RFRA law. Pence denied that the bill targeted LGBTQ people, but his choice of guests at the signing ceremony – a clutch of right-wing activists who claimed homosexuality was a treatable disorder and akin to bestiality – spoke volumes.
In fact, by the time of the Manhattan donor event, Gill’s strategy to block religious-freedom bills was already underway. Earlier that year, Republican legislators in Georgia introduced an RFRA law for the third year in a row, and vowed to finish the job this time around. In response, the Gill Foundation helped form a new front group called Georgia Prospers, and settled on a strategy that eschewed noisy, colorful protests in favor of a state-centric approach led by businesses. “You can get money from outside,” Gill explains, “but the state has to own it.” Gill also knew the importance of finding the right face for the effort, in this case, Ronnie Chance, a former Republican state Senate majority leader under the current governor, Nathan Deal.
In January 2016, Georgia Prospers kicked off with more than 100 businesses signed on, including Coca-Cola, Google and Marriott. As the RFRA fight played out in Atlanta, Chance’s phone never stopped ringing, he says, with companies clamoring to sign his group’s pro-equality pledge. But the full genius of the approach wasn’t clear to him until another dad at his daughter’s basketball practice mentioned reading about the effort in a companywide e-mail. The man worked at Delta, which had joined Georgia Prospers and was mobilizing employees to call their representatives. Lawmakers, Chance realized, were “hearing organically from their constituents who may be employed by Home Depot or Delta Air Lines.”
After the Georgia Legislature pushed through the RFRA bill in March 2016, Gov. Deal, a deeply religious Republican in his own right, vetoed it. “I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia,” Deal declared.
It was the first major victory for what Gill calls his Southern strategy. Now, in Manhattan, the focus is on the upcoming election of Roy Cooper, the attorney general of North Carolina and Democratic candidate for governor. Cooper, who flew into New York for the Gill event, campaigned on overturning his state’s infamous HB2 law, the restriction on bathroom access for transgender people that led to the cancellation of dozens of events and the potential loss of nearly $3.8 billion in revenue. Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr canceled tour dates in North Carolina, the NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte, and the NCAA relocated all seven of its championship events scheduled in the state. Cooper’s bid to unseat Republican Gov. Pat Mc-Crory, who signed HB2 into law, Gill says, is a “must-win.”
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.”
The Gill Foundation is located in a renovated brick warehouse in downtown Denver. There are security cameras mounted outside – death threats are not uncommon – and the interior is a hushed, well-lit maze of cubicles and offices with stacks of Out magazine on the coffee tables. On the wall in the conference room is an 18-point list of Gill’s principles, maxims like “Colorado is our learning laboratory” and “Failure is good.” The people who work for Gill tend to speak of him in reverential terms. As Courtney Cuff, the foundation’s president and CEO, says, “Going through that list of principles helps us at the foundation think through WWTGD” – What Would Tim Gill Do?
On my first day in Denver, I meet with Cuff, a Georgia native who took over the foundation around the time that it was shifting from marriage to nondiscrimination. The new phase, Cuff explains, couldn’t be more different from the marriage fight. For starters, most Americans don’t realize legal discrimination exists. “One of the challenges on this issue is 70 percent of the country supports nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but nine out of 10 people think we already have it,” she says. The foundation’s research has also revealed the degree to which Americans’ actual beliefs about LGBTQ individuals haven’t changed. Acceptance for LGBTQ people peaked around the time of the Obergefell decision, bolstered by uplifting coverage of same-sex marriage, but the pace of change has since slowed. “When it comes to values-based questions like ‘Do you want your kids to have a teacher who is LGBTQ?’ ” says Brad Clark, a vice president at the foundation, “the numbers just plummet.”
The next day, I sit down with Gill and his husband, Scott Miller, at their private office in a tony neighborhood south of downtown. Gill still codes nearly every day – his latest project is an artificial-intelligence assistant for your home, called Josh.ai – and our conversation is halting at first, as Gill’s mind turns over from coder to activist. Even when the mood loosens, as Gill and Miller’s two dogs interrupt us or when Gill talks about his love of heli-boarding, he gives the impression of someone with little patience for small talk. “Conversation is a lesser art for him,” a longtime friend says. “If you don’t have something specific to say, and there’s not a transfer of information, he’s programming in his head.”
The push for basic civil rights, Gill says, marks a return to the roots of the LGBTQ movement. “We have been fighting for [nondiscrimination] since the Sixties,” he says. “It’s the religious right that decided to make marriage an issue. They worked tirelessly on it for decades and they lost.”
Gill calls himself “genetically Republican” – his parents are Republicans, and so were his grandparents, all of them members of a prominent Colorado family. (They have a town named after them, population 1,224.) As a teenager, Gill devoured the science-fiction novels of James Tiptree Jr. and learned to program on a hulking HP 2000. He came out to his parents during his freshman year at the University of Colorado. They were rattled but gradually came to terms with his sexuality. (To better understand her son, his mother later earned two degrees in psychology.)
Gill volunteered for the campus gay-liberation group and later supported local AIDS awareness. Otherwise, he had little connection to the explosion of activism in the 1980s – die-ins staged by ACT UP or the marches in Washington. Gill stayed in Denver and focused on launching a software company, Quark, with a $2,000 loan from his parents. Soon, Quark’s publishing software was ranked as one of the best in the industry. Sales skyrocketed, and Gill landed on the Forbes 400 list. (He recalls arguing with the magazine’s staff over the years to ensure his bio said he is gay.)
Walking through Quark’s headquarters one day in 1992, he noticed on an employee’s desk a tent card in support of Amendment 2, a ballot measure that would amend Colorado’s constitution to ban any law or regulation affording LGBTQ people equal rights. It set something off in Gill. Around the time Amendment 2 passed, a poll came out: Nearly 60 percent of Americans said they didn’t know anyone who was gay or lesbian. “So I’m going, ‘That’s not right,’ ” Gill tells me. “ ’We can fix that.’ ”
Two years later, he launched the Gill Foundation, mainly to fund LGBTQ projects in Colorado. He had no grand strategy; he left that to the professional activists. After a few years, though, Gill grew tired of dabbling in the LGBTQ movement. In 1999, he sold his stake in Quark for a reported $500 million and went to work running the Gill Foundation full time. Then as now, he set a goal to help as many LGBTQ people as fast as possible, so he set his sights on winning battles in individual states. “We said, ‘This is the goal for this state,’ ” Gill recalls. “ ’We think we can achieve it in this period of time. These are the steps to get there.’ ” Around that time, he bumped into another gay-rights donor at a conference. “You know, Tim,” the donor said, “as I get older, I don’t give money away as much because I might need it.” To avoid a similar impulse, Gill moved 60 percent of his assets – more than $300 million – into an endowment for his LGBTQ work.
Working with three other wealthy donors – the Gang of Four – Gill started with his home state, where his newly hired political adviser, a former tobacco lobbyist named Ted Trimpa, built a political and policy machine aimed at reversing the red tide in Colorado politics. Gill and his fellow donors poured millions into groups with sleepy names like the Alliance for Colorado’s Families and Coalition for a Better Colorado – groups that, from the outside, seemed to appear out of nowhere. They invested in get-out-the-vote work and microtargeted advertising, all of it driven by a state-of-the-art data operation, and they were extremely effective. In 2004, Colorado Democrats won back control of both legislative chambers for the first time in 30 years.
At the national level, however, 2004 was a disaster. Karl Rove mobilized evangelical voters for President George W. Bush’s re-election by putting constitutional amendments to outlaw same-sex marriage on the ballots in 11 states. It worked: Bush won, and voters in all 11 states approved marriage bans. Only six months earlier, Massachusetts had become the first state to perform a same-sex marriage. Now, the movement had suffered its largest setback yet. “It was really clear at that point,” Gill tells me, “that the other side was terribly, terribly coordinated with each other.”
The LGBTQ rights movement, by contrast, struggled to agree on almost anything – tactics, timing, rhetoric. Large groups accused one another of hogging resources and squeezing out smaller groups, or of selling out the movement by embracing the prospect of civil unions over legal marriage. Some activists chafed at Gill’s state-by-state approach, believing that the fastest way to win marriage was passing legislation in Congress or through the courts.
Soon after the 2004 elections, Rodger McFarlane, a legendary AIDS activist who had recently joined the Gill Foundation, summoned the leaders of the major LGBTQ groups to Denver for a meeting at Gill’s behest. Gill couldn’t tell the Human Rights Campaign or Lambda Legal or the ACLU what to do. But he had the clout to tell them they needed to get along, a task he left to McFarlane, an imposing former Navy officer, baldheaded and standing six feet seven. McFarlane gathered the LGBTQ leaders in a conference room at the foundation’s headquarters and shut the doors. No one leaves this fucking room, he told them, until we have a plan.
Gill initially shied away from the rough-and-tumble of campaigns. “It was messier, and I didn’t have any experience with it,” he says. But, among other things, the movement’s crushing defeats at the hands of Rove and the Republican Party convinced him that politics couldn’t be avoided. “You cannot say, ‘This is a tool I will not use because I’m uncomfortable with that tool.’ ” McFarlane’s post-election meeting in Denver set in motion the creation of what became known as the 10-10-10-20 Plan, a movementwide blueprint for winning marriage equality in 10 states, civil unions in 10 states and domestic partnerships in 10 states, while shifting public opinion toward the gay community in 20 states, all by the year 2020.
In late 2005, Gill and his team launched a political operation, Gill Action, to elect lawmakers who support LGBTQ rights and defeat those who don’t. OutGiving, the network of donors started by Gill, would host a political program during election years to bundle donations for campaigns and ballot measures hand-picked by Gill Action. Per the 10-10-10-20 Plan, Gill Action’s efforts focused on the state level. Congressional elections cost millions, but a smart investment of $50,000 in a handful of state races could flip an entire legislative chamber from anti-LGBTQ to pro-LGBTQ. “You go down to the states and all of a sudden you have those options,” Gill says. “They’re better laboratories, they’re more diverse and they’re a cheaper date.”
Gill also knew his political efforts would never succeed if opponents connected him directly to the money. Stealth was key. The words “Gill Action” rarely appeared in a candidate’s campaign filings; instead, anyone who bothered to look would find an oddly large number of donations from Malibu, Denver and New York for a state Senate race in Iowa. Gill’s team operated under such secrecy – avoiding the media and guarding its playbook – that the Advocate, a widely read gay magazine, titled its 2008 story on Gill Action the gay goodfellas.
In 2006, its first election year, Gill Action defeated 50 of the 70 candidates it targeted, including the Republican speaker of Iowa’s House of Representatives. Four of the 13 states where Gill Action directed its funds saw at least one legislative chamber flip from Republican to Democratic control. Democrats everywhere did well in 2006, buoyed by strong anti-Bush sentiment nationwide. Still, Gill saw the results as proof that the strategy was sound.
At the same time, failure was encouraged. One of Gill Action’s first hires was Bill Smith, a young Alabama-born independent political consultant who had learned the trade working for, of all people, Rove. After coming out in the early 2000s, Smith grew disaffected with the direction of the Republican Party and joined Gill Action after a stint working for the Log Cabin Republicans. Before his first post-election debrief with Gill, Smith worried his 71 percent win ratio wasn’t high enough. “I’d been working for people in the business community before I did politics, and that’s not that good a number,” Smith says. “Tim said, ‘Huh, this is pretty good, but we probably should have a lower rate, because we should be trying some harder races.’ I thought, ‘This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in politics.‘ ”
Gill spent the next decade racking up victories on the path to marriage equality. Even at the lowest points of the push – for instance, when the New York state Senate unexpectedly voted down a marriage bill in 2009 – Gill never flinched. Smith, who had run the New York campaign, was nursing a beer in a bar in Albany, filled with dread as he texted Gill about the defeat. Years later, he still remembers Gill’s succinct reply: “That’s sad. What’s next?” (Gill and Smith would form the Fight Back New York campaign and unseat three senators who voted against gay marriage, clearing the way for the Marriage Equality Act, which made New York then the largest state to allow LGBTQ people to marry.)
In such moments, Gill can seem to approach his activism with the cold rationality of a scientist, a series of problems to be worked out by trial and error. (In the tech world, there’s a name for this sort of mentality: cowboy coding. Miller, Gill’s husband, told me that the Wikipedia entry for cowboy coding “describes Tim quite perfectly.”) But those close to Gill say his analytical side is anchored to an unyielding sense of fairness and justice. “He really believes and expects that everyone should be treated equally,” says David Dechman, a friend and early Gill Foundation board member, “without regard to sexual orientation, without regard to anything.”
By its nature, the focus on nondiscrimination requires an element of political compromise. Gill had teamed up with several wealthy Republican donors during the marriage fight – hedge-fund investors Paul Singer and Daniel Loeb – and the three men agreed to reboot Freedom to Marry, the linchpin of the marriage campaign, as Freedom for All Americans, which would be the face of the nondiscrimination push. “Before we met, I only knew his reputation as a very effective and significant Democratic donor,” Singer tells me. “I hadn’t necessarily envisioned a partnership with him, but I was impressed when I discovered his commitment to bipartisan action.”
Gill’s inclusiveness doesn’t always sit well with other mainstays in the movement. Last summer, when the Gill Foundation threw its weight behind a Republican-sponsored compromise bill in Pennsylvania that extended LGBTQ protections to include housing and employment but not public accommodations, Rachel Tiven, CEO of Lambda Legal, blasted Gill’s approach as a “sellout,” and the ACLU successfully lobbied to kill the bill. The Gill Foundation responded by temporarily cutting off funding to the ACLU, explaining in a statement that “it doesn’t make sense to have our philanthropic dollars being used to fund an effort at odds with our overall strategy to protect as many people as quickly as possible.”
What all parties could agree on, however, was that the 2016 results were gutting. A few weeks after Trump pulled off the most improbable presidential win in history, I visit Gill in Denver. Like many, he believed that Hillary Clinton, who Gill had raised money for, would win. He sounds resigned to the fact that the next four years will be far tougher than anyone had expected. The people surrounding Trump are the stuff of nightmares for the LGBTQ community – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has donated heavily to anti-gay causes; as a congressman, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price voted for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and called the Obama-era protections for transgender people “absurd”; and Vice President Pence is, of course, the archnemesis of the LGBTQ movement. Gill tells me, “I don’t expect massive progress on gay rights in this administration.”
But the news wasn’t all bad on election night. Gill Action finished the year with a 52 percent win ratio – a respectable figure for what was, in many ways, an awful year. Gill was especially heartened by the results in North Carolina, where Democrat Cooper won in part by campaigning against the state’s HB2 transgender bathroom law. Gill Action had invested heavily in North Carolina, and Gill saw Cooper’s win as proof that his Southern strategy of highlighting the economic blowback to laws like HB2 works. “The spectacular thing is that we managed to do that in a year when Trump took that state by four points,” he says.
I ask Gill if Trump’s election changes his thinking about the larger direction of the movement. Gill and his team might focus even more on the state level, as opposed to federal politics, he says, but that isn’t much different from their strategy of the past two decades. That said, he stresses, he hasn’t abandoned hope on working with the Trump administration. “Everybody else’s needs don’t go away just because you have a Republican administration or Democratic administration,” he says. “We have to continue to fight and use whatever tools we have to make as much progress as we can.”
In the near term, that means fending off direct attacks on LGBTQ people. In February, a draft executive order that constituted an all-out assault on gay rights leaked out of the Trump administration. The order, described by legal experts as both “staggering” and “sweeping,” would have gone beyond any RFRA law, allowing practically anyone to discriminate against LGBTQ people on the thinnest of religious grounds. Evidently, the effort was abandoned within the White House: People close to Gill repeatedly declined to say what role, if any, he played in killing the order. Cuff says, “Tim’s perspective has been: Let’s engage, let’s have conversations, let’s take the president at his word that he embraces the LGBTQ community, and let’s make sure that we help show him the way to do that.”
It also means taking the long view – even with your allies. In March, now-Gov. Cooper signed legislation that claimed to repeal North Carolina’s HB2 but also put in place a ban on municipalities passing their own nondiscrimination ordinances. LGBTQ and civil-rights leaders saw the bill as a betrayal. When I ask Gill about it, he says the restrictions on local governments are “outrageous” and “hopefully will be found unconstitutional.” The law, he adds, reminds him of why he first got into activism: to oppose Colorado’s Amendment 2, which also sought to handcuff local government from protecting LGBTQ people. “We are going to fight this law in North Carolina,” he says, “and keep fighting everywhere until LGBTQ people are fully protected in every single state.”
Before he dies, Gill tells me in Denver, he plans to spend every last dollar in the foundation’s coffers in pursuit of full equality. He figures he has 15 to 20 years left. By then, Gill will be in his eighties, Miller in his fifties. But, he says, “I have no illusions that there’s an endgame.” The Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and the ACLU still exist. “These problems never go away,” he says. “You have to educate every single generation about this and make sure it doesn’t creep back into our society. There’s no sense in which the job is ever done.”