Photographer: Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek
Civil Rights

America’s Gay Corporate Warrior Wants to Bring Full Equality to Red States

Even if the Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage, Quark founder Tim Gill believes there's still work to be done.

In 1992, Tim Gill was living a Rocky Mountain version of the familiar tech dream. A sci-fi buff and self-described “pathological introvert,” he’d earned degrees in applied mathematics and computer science from the University of Colorado at Boulder and then, in 1981, founded the publishing-software company Quark in his apartment, with a $2,000 loan from his parents. When Quark took off, Gill became rich. He eventually sold his stake for half a billion dollars. But in 1992, he was merely the multimillionaire chairman of a successful tech company.

Gill was also gay. This aspect of his life, too, had a kind of dream-like quality. He came out to his parents as a teenager and was immediately accepted. In college, he joined a gay organization and started speaking to classes, “having all of nine months’ experience under my belt at being gay,” he said recently, at his offices in Denver. In his early career, comfortably ensconced in the tech world’s creative class, he rarely encountered prejudice or hostility. His gayness was never an issue.

Then, in 1992, Christian groups in Colorado began pushing a ballot measure, Amendment 2, that would prevent nondiscrimination ordinances against gays and lesbians and repeal those already in effect in Denver, Boulder, and Aspen. “It was a shock,” says Gill. What was more shocking, though, was that some of his own employees supported the ban, openly and at work. One of them even placed a “Vote ‘Yes’ on Amendment 2” sign on her desk. “Everyone has the right to their opinion, of course,” says Gill. “But I was astonished people would vote against the rights of the person signing their paycheck.”

Feeling he had to fight back, Gill donated several thousand dollars toward defeating the measure. “The political consultants said, ‘Oh yeah, we can win this,’ ” he says. But they lost. (The Supreme Court later declared Amendment 2 unconstitutional.) The ratification of anti-gay sentiment in a place where Gill had felt comfortable and accepted was so upsetting that it set him on a path to become ever more deeply involved.

Gill loathed politics. So he turned to philanthropy, establishing the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, which donated to libraries, symphonies, and even the Star Trek exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. If people saw gays and lesbians supporting the same things everyone else did, he reasoned, they’d become more welcoming. Over the next decade, his foundation gave away $100 million.

Then, in 2004, Karl Rove, worried about George W. Bush’s reelection prospects, persuaded Republicans across the country to introduce state ballot initiatives outlawing gay marriage. Rove calculated that although many conservatives were cool toward Bush, they would show up to vote if they believed “traditional” marriage was under assault—and would pull the lever for Bush while they were there. On election night, 11 states passed marriage bans—to Gill, a devastating gauge of his ineffectiveness. “That evening was Tim’s political awakening,” says Scott Miller, his husband.

Photographer: Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek
Gill and his husband, Miller.

Gill became radicalized. “I got depressed and angry,” he says. “But, in the end, my response was to say, ‘Well, how am I going to fix this? These were political defeats. The way you fix political defeats is through politics. And so I thought, ‘These people are in office. We can’t have that. How do we go about undoing it?’ ”

He approached the problem as an engineer, seeking to understand a complex system and how it could be rewired. Over the next two years, he assembled strategists, recruited other gay philanthropists, joined with activist groups, and became the nexus of an aggressive new political force. They focused on state races, rather than national ones, to maximize their effect. Gill arranged an annual “OutGiving” conference for donors to coordinate their targets. To maintain the element of surprise—and because the image of a network of rich gay philanthropists swooping in to influence local races might be counterproductive—they often operated by stealth, waiting until the final weeks before an election (so Federal Election Commission filings wouldn’t reveal them until afterward) and then flooding pro-gay candidates with dozens of individual donations that could collectively tip a race. This strategy allowed Gill to “punish the wicked,” as he liked to say, and establish more favorable conditions to advance gay rights.

When I first met Gill in 2006, gay marriage was legal only in Massachusetts, and he and his allies were targeting a second state. They’d just tipped the Iowa legislature to the Democrats, anticipating that Iowa’s Supreme Court would legalize gay marriage (it did), and they were determined to stop any legislation that would override the decision (they did). At the time, the road to full marriage equality seemed to stretch far beyond the horizon. Gill’s organizations, and most others in the movement, were hoping to grind out a steady series of victories that could one day serve as the basis for the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage.

That moment could arrive much sooner than anyone anticipated. Political and legal victories have brought same-sex marriage to 37 states. On April 28, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments and is widely expected to issue a ruling legalizing gay marriage this summer. For people like Gill, who’ve worked years for this moment, the victory so close at hand is a source of giddy anticipation. It also raises a big question: What comes next?

Gill and a bipartisan group of major donors will reveal the answer at the OutGiving conference on April 30 in Dallas, but they’ve given Bloomberg Businessweek a preview: They’re launching a campaign, modeled on the marriage effort, to pass nondiscrimination laws in the dozens of states that don’t have them. And they’ll also try to halt or unwind “religious freedom” acts like those that raised a furor in Indiana and Arkansas because they could allow businesses to deny services to gays and lesbians. They’ll coordinate these efforts through a new organization, Freedom for All Americans, with the goal of building momentum toward federal action. This fight could prove more difficult than the last one, since the states lacking these protections are spread across the South and parts of the Midwest—culturally conservative areas dominated by Republicans.

The campaign won’t lack for resources. OutGiving brings together the movement’s wealthiest donors, collectively worth billions. Gill says he’s spent $327 million already and will spend more. The new organization is prepared to spend $100 million in the coming decade. Although persuading elected Republicans won’t be easy, he’s counting on two new forces to help the cause: major Republican donors, including billionaire hedge fund founders Paul Singer and Dan Loeb, who are full partners in the new endeavour, and corporations and business leaders, such as Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Tim Cook, whose public support for gay rights—and in Cook’s case, outspoken criticism of Indiana’s law—has helped frame the national debate. Business, these donors believe, will be the vanguard for gay rights in red America. “One of the things that made us successful on marriage,” says Gill, “was that we could call everybody together and get the brightest minds in the movement to devise a strategy that everyone could execute. It worked far better than we could possibly have imagined. Now we have to do the same thing for nondiscrimination in the South.”

A victory on marriage will present gay-rights advocates with a curious challenge. Their campaign has been so high-profile, its recent momentum so swift, and the cultural shift so dramatic that a favorable ruling is certain to be recognized as a landmark advance for civil rights. Activists worry that the public will interpret this to mean that gays and lesbians have secured the same rights and protections as everyone else, when, in fact, that isn’t the case. Race, gender, and ethnicity all have federal protection from discrimination—but sexual identity doesn’t. “If the Supreme Court decision goes as we’re hoping,” says Miller, “it will leave a situation in most of the country where you can get married and fired for it the same day, or get kicked out of your apartment, because 29 states—32 if you’re transgender—don’t have nondiscrimination laws.”

Dorothy Gambrell/Bloomberg
 

The first challenge will be persuading people that this problem exists. “The reaction you get in focus groups when you tell people there are no federal or state protections against discrimination is disbelief,” says Patrick Guerriero, a political strategist who’s worked with Gill. “They literally don’t believe it. They can’t imagine that we’ve come this far on marriage, but you can still be fired just because you’re gay. It seems fundamentally un-American.”

Winning blanket protections against discrimination is also trickier than securing a national right to marry, because no single court decision can deliver the full range of protections missing from housing, employment, and public accommodations. Passing a federal law would be an easier fix. But as Indiana’s religious freedom law demonstrates, this plan will encounter plenty of resistance. Efforts are under way in many states not just to maintain but also to expand statutory provisions that allow for discrimination.

To build momentum for a federal law, Gill and his allies have come up with a plan similar to the one they developed a decade ago for gay marriage. Certain that federal recognition would never come until a majority of states moved first, they embarked on what they dubbed the “10-10-10-20 Plan”—the goal of getting at least 10 states to grant marriage rights, 10 more to grant civil unions, and 10 others domestic partnerships by 2020 to convince Congress or the Supreme Court that society had reached a tipping point.

Their lack of faith in Congress endures. “The whole strategy is piecemeal because we can’t rely on the federal government to do anything,” says Gill. Instead, the campaign will concentrate on five states with some of the largest LGBT populations that lack protections—Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Texas—and build out from there. To date, legislatures there have resisted nondiscrimination laws. But supporters have gained a foothold. More than 300 cities and counties, many of them large urban centers, have passed local ordinances, almost half since 2010. Gill believes that supporters in cities such as Houston, Dallas, and Austin, which already have protections, can eventually persuade legislators in Texas and other states to come around.

It won’t be easy. Just as Colorado conservatives tried to do with Amendment 2, Texas Republicans want to overturn these existing protections, claiming they shouldn’t supersede state law. “Conservative Republican control has allowed them to dilute that urban strength,” says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Utah offers a more promising example of what Gill and his allies might achieve. In March, after working with gay-rights groups and the Mormon Church, legislators passed a pair of compromise bills that together protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing and employment, while allowing religiously affiliated institutions to keep certain freedoms in choosing whom they hire.

Of course, the most vivid case—Indiana’s—was anything but amicable. Yet Gill seemed delighted by how it had unfolded. By obstinately pushing the religious freedom law even amid a public outcry, Indiana Governor Mike Pence did something Gill’s donor alliance might have spent tens of millions of dollars trying to achieve: He alerted people across the country to a form of discrimination few of them had ever conceived of, thereby helping to fix the problem Gill’s strategists had identified in their focus groups. “It was really wonderful that this negative reaction came on the national stage,” says Gill. “It was an essential part of the education process for the American public: Something people had not even bothered to think about, they now had to think about. The engineer in me thinks you should think about a problem, decide what’s fair and equitable, and that’s your solution. But people don’t do that. They make emotional judgments.” He added, smiling, “I actually could congratulate the governor of Indiana on elevating the conversation to the national stage. He’s been spectacular.”

Ultimately, gay-rights advocates will have to shift from a strategy of confrontation to one of persuasion if they hope to enlist Republican legislatures. That’s why business stands to play such a critical role. Plenty of recent evidence suggests corporations and chief executives can succeed where gay-rights activists have not.

In New York, personal lobbying by right-leaning figures in the financial world, including Singer and Loeb, helped advance a marriage bill through the Republican-controlled Senate and into law in 2011. Their appeal to Republicans was that supporting same-sex marriage is consistent with the conservative belief in individual liberty and freedom from government interference. “I bring it up in almost every conversation we have with Republicans,” says Loeb. “We think this will be good for the country and good for the Republican Party.”

New York was the first place where local and national advocacy groups collaborated, with Gill’s outfit working with people on the right to carry out a joint strategy that became the model for subsequent states and the basis of the upcoming nondiscrimination drive. “It’s a new approach to be this aggressively bipartisan from the outset,” says Margaret Hoover, president of the American Unity Fund, which supports pro-gay Republicans.

In other places, economic considerations have been more effective than appeals to individual liberty. The backlash to a religious freedom bill that Arizona’s legislators passed in 2014 was driven by the business community. “Those kinds of measures taint our state’s reputation as being an open and accepting place,” says Steven Zylstra, who heads the Arizona Technology Council in Phoenix. That’s particularly damaging for states such as Arizona that are trying to establish themselves as technology meccas.

Last year, when Toyota Motor decided to move its U.S. headquarters from California to Plano, Texas, a conservative Dallas suburb, company employees asked the Plano City Council to pass a nondiscrimination law so gays and lesbians could relocate without sacrificing the protections they have in California. The council agreed and passed the law, despite objections from the Liberty Institute, a Plano-based Christian group that threatened to file suit. Several large employers with headquarters in Plano, including Frito-Lay and PepsiCo, wrote letters of support for the policy.

“When I came out here, I had to learn how to talk Republican,” says Jeanne Rubin, a Philadelphia transplant who’s vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of North Texas. “Business has been more in the forefront on this issue than the rest of the public sphere, and business is what can bring everyone else along.”

Even so, establishing beachheads in red states hasn’t been without setbacks. On April 7, residents of Springfield, Mo., the state’s third-largest city, repealed a nondiscrimination law that had been on the books for six months. They did so despite public support for the measure from almost 200 businesses. A statewide measure similar to the one that was repealed remains under consideration in the legislature.

It could take a while for outfits like Freedom for All Americans to figure out how to talk about nondiscrimination laws in a way that resonates with Republicans. Gill notes that marriage advocates spent years fruitlessly arguing for the same “rights and benefits” as straight couples before they hit upon a better message. Although issues such as “hospital visitation rights” polled off the charts, framing marriage as a collection of rights sounded alien and therefore threatening to undecided voters. Only when marriage was presented in the context of love did this perception change.

But Gill is confident that, whatever the message, the gay-rights movement has already discovered its best ambassadors in the South. “A gay activist going into the legislature in Alabama is going to have zero effect,” he says. “The ACLU is a wonderful ally, but their ability to talk to people in the Alabama legislature? Zero. It’s about who is best to deliver the message. You want the people who are important in Alabama to be the ones who are your spokespeople. And that’s going to be the businesses.” 

Lauren Etter contributed to this report.