Tim Gill–One Man Can Make a Difference

Photo: Forbes.com

DENVER—“Just because you’re conservative doesn’t mean you’re anti-gay.”  Or so says Tim Gill, who was born into a family of staunch Coloradan Republicans, so he should know. When he came out as homosexual to his parents in his late teens, while they may not have been thrilled, he wasn’t rejected. Instead, his mother took two classes in Psychology, while his father, a surgeon, embraced his love for son over his sexual orientation.

What Gill learned from that experience and others was that someone couldn’t change people’s minds on a subject without first educating them on it. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, majoring in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science, he joined the college’s gay liberation club and got his first exposure to activism. But homosexuality was a low priority for Gill, or at least it was up until 1992 when his beloved home state did the unthinkable.

That was the year that Colorado became known as the “Hate State” for passing the innocuous-sounding Amendment 2. The law altered Colorado’s constitution to legalize discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. It was a slap in Tim Gill’s face that was heard around the world.

It’s not like Tim Gill hadn’t heard about Amendment 2. It had been all over the news for months. But then again, so had he.  Much as he disliked publicity, Gill was now a big shot in his home state. In 1981, he started his own company Quark, Inc., with $2,000 in funds borrowed from his parents, and created a software program for publishers that ultimately became known as QuarkXPress. During its 11 years in business, it became the dominant desktop publishing software in the world, and by 1992, Tim Gill had become a self-made millionaire many times over. He was routinely on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, always making sure that the magazine clearly stated that he was gay.

He hadn’t even given Amendment 2 much chance of passing despite its lead in the polls, feeling it was too hateful and discriminatory ever to become law. But that was before he passed the work station of a Quark employee and spotted a tent card on top of the desk proudly proclaiming its support in favor of the amendment.  Since everyone at Quark, Inc. knew he was gay—proudly gay at that, the level of support for the amendment ultimately astonished him. Fifty-three percent of Colorado voters approved of discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.

It was a call to action for Gill who, two years later, created the Gill Foundation, funded with $1 million of his own money. Rather than hanging a Pride Flag on the front door and starting to push an LGBTQ agenda down the throats of his neighbors, the programming genius applied a little of his business savvy to the problem of unexpected hate. 

He needed a branding message that would resonate with everyone, regardless of their political party or sexual orientation. Taking a slice of inspiration from the Declaration of Independence, where “all men are created equal,” Gill gifted his foundation with a mission statement with which no one could find fault.

“The Gill Foundation’s mission is to secure equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.”  The key to Gill’s brilliant breakthrough was to include all Americans in his mission. Even more remarkably: he actually meant it, treating everyone as equals, everyone with the same respect. Without mentioning any LGBTQ-specific issues, he somehow bought them right along for the ride, and positioned them to receive all the benefits of his influence and money.

Two years later, in 1996, the Gill Foundation had established itself as a legitimate entity with friends in high places, but without specific relevance to those Coloradans who voted for Amendment 2. It was then that Gill created the Gay and Lesbian Fund of Colorado and made sure those 53% in favor of discrimination had it pushed right in their faces.

The Gill Foundation created the Fund to give away money to struggling symphonies, theaters, libraries, preservation groups and other cultural institutions.  But, there was only one catch. To qualify for the millions that Gill was prepared to donate,  Colorado’s cultured would have to acknowledge the source. There was to be a plague, a big plague, in which the words “Gay and Lesbians Fund of Colorado” was featured. 

As it turned out, giving away money in Colorado isn’t all that easy when that very spendable cash comes with homosexuals, Gill quickly found out.

He loves to relate the story of the tiny town of Sterling, Colorado, which has an amazing collection of sculptures carved on dead cottonwood trees by artist Brandon Rhea—twelve of them in total called “Colorado Treasures.” And when one of the sculpted giraffes needed saving from rot, Gill stepped in with $5,000, with the condition that the Gay and Lesbian Fund of Colorado got the credit.

While the town agreed, the public outrage was heard across the state. “Homosexuality is an abomination to God” one letter to the editor of a newspaper began.

Gill’s reaction was typical: “You get that kind of dialogue going and people start talking about things and thinking about things,” he told the Denver Post. “And they figure out this is an OK thing.”

The problem as Gill saw it was that 70 percent of Coloradans claimed to have never even met any gays or lesbians. Reasoning that you can’t understand or be friends with people you don’t know are gay, or have never met, he set about raising the awareness of the community, one donation at a time. In addition, the Gay and Lesbian Fund of Colorado started taking out billboards around the state introducing the gays and lesbians in the area. Neighbor to neighbor. They paid to produce public service announcements which did exactly the same thing.

It was hardly an overnight transformation, and there were thousands of steps in between, but inroads were being made as folks all across the Centennial State began to realize that the LGBTQ community was everywhere among them. They discovered they knew gays and they knew lesbians, they knew bisexuals, and maybe even a transgender or two….they just had never known what their sexual orientation really was. Assumptions, that’s all. Now, they were discovering that they were “people” just like everyone else. As simple as the concept was, it was new to many in Colorado.

When the Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1996, defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, it was yet another wake-up call for Tim Gill, who felt he had to do more to spread the word that “gays are people too.”  Although reinforced when his own state’s Amendment 2 was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court several month’s earlier, the frustration the Gill was feeling roiled at the sentiment of the Republican Party platform that same year—the first to specifically mention sexual preference.

“We oppose discrimination based on sex, race, age, creed, or national origin and will vigorously enforce anti-discrimination statutes,” the official Republican Party platform stated, while adding: “We reject the distortion of those laws to cover sexual preference, and we endorse the Defense of Marriage Act to prevent states from being forced to recognize same-sex unions.”

Gill knew very well that his gay orientation was not a “preference.” (Would anyone “prefer” to be gay and discriminated against relentlessly?) But the end of the decade, Gill determined that his mission was clear. He would not only protect the few gay rights that existed, but he was also about to spend his entire fortune to ensure human rights for everyone.

As if to prove the point, in 2000, Tim Gill sold his entire interest in Quark, Inc., which was then making half-a-billion dollars a year, and turned his attention full-time to his Foundation and it works. (Or as Gill would later say “part-time philanthropist; part-time snowboarder, for his love of the sport.)

Gill looked at the country much like a business plan, broken down by states—each with special needs and each with its own unique LGBT community. Yet Colorado—his state—remained foremost in this mind.  In the next four years, he hired a political advisor, Ted Trimpa—a leading Democratic strategist, lobbyist, and political consultant; and assembled what would later be labeled “The Gang of Four,” a group of multibillionaire Democrats including Pat Stryker (sister of billionaire Jon Stryker, already profiled by LGBTQ Loyalty), Rutt Bridges (geophysicist and programmer) and Jared Polis (a partnered gay with two children) who co-founded the free Internet greeting card company bluemountain.com. 

Together, the group is credited with changing the face of Colorado government. “There was never any policy discussed. There were never any issues discussed,” Polis, who was the chief strategist, later said. “This was simply a group of people who believed that all of our issues — and regardless of what they were, what our differences were — would be better represented in a Democratic majority.” They quietly donated millions through 527 tax-exempt groups—organizations with sleepy names likes Coalitions for a Better Colorado and Alliance for Colorado’s Families. While few actually heard of them, they were working to get out the vote. Through targeted advertising and door-to-canvassing, the operation bulldozed its way into the history books with Colorado Democrats winning back control of both House and the Senate for the first time in three decades.

What Gill learned above all else was that the push to fund gay and lesbian groups only served to illustrate just how diverse the LGBTQ population was, and how at odds their various organizations had become–each with its own narrow window of purpose.

Corralling them and forcing them to get along became the first assignment of legendary AIDS activist Rodger McFarlane, who was hired as the Gill Foundation’s executive director in 2004. McFarlane, all six-foot, seven inches of him, had jump-started the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 when few would provide care for those ill with HIV. So getting the Human Rights Campaign to play nice with the ACLU, Lambda Legal, and PFLAG among others was simple by comparison. Gill managed to get the various groups’ leaders together in the same conference room in Denver, and, in cage-fighting style, McFarlane locked the door and made them talk to one another until a cohesive plan was in place.

The resulting consensus was that political fights needed to be faced head-on, a position with which Gill was uncomfortable. Rather than going to battle personally, Gill created Gill Action Fund as a separate entity to work in legislative, political and electoral realms. He further refined a cross-country donor network called OutGiving, hallmarked by a conference held biennially, with special emphasis on presidential election years.

Gills philosophy stay focused on state campaigns, where you didn’t need millions to win an election. As he told the Denver Post, “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 said. “They’re better laboratories, they’re more diverse and they’re a cheaper date.”

And speaking of dates, Gill had been romancing his own special man Scott Miller, a UBS wealth advisor, 25 years his junior, since 2002. After six years of monthly date nights, Miller proposed to Gill, who gleefully accepted as most thought he would. What was less expected was the size of the wedding, a 20-guest affair held on April  11, 2009 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

“We had a beautiful view of the rain,” said Miller. “In a lot of cultures, raining is a good sign.”

The irony was that the Denver couple couldn’t be married in their home state, for at the time only Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and Iowa allowed same-sex partners to wed. More ironic still that Tim Gill would have donated in each state’s campaign for the right to wed.

The following year, the pair would buy the iconic 33,000 square foot Georgian-style Phipps Mansion as their permanent residence for a reported $9 million. It has 14 rooms including three baths, plus an indoor tennis pavilion on the first floor, with seven en-suite bedrooms with sitting rooms on the second floor. They occupy the mansion with staff and their two Bernese Mountain dogs, Maggie and Phipps, with Miller now co-chairman of the board of directors of the Gill Foundation.

Scott Miller and Tim Gill celebrate the purchase of their estate: Denver Post

It was during the Obama Administration, of course, and all things seemed possible. Gill’s campaign for marriage rights for the LGBT community, with the strides made in LGBTQ rights reaching a crescendo with the Supreme Court giving its stamp of approval to same-sex marriage in the 2015 Obergefell v Hodges case.

President Barack Obama reacted as expected stating, “Today, we can say, in no uncertain terms, that we have made our union a little more perfect.”

Meanwhile, Mary Bonauto, the lawyer who had successfully argued the case, told Rolling Stone Magazine, “Without a doubt, we would not be where we are without Tim Gill and the Gill Foundation.” As supreme a compliment as an LGBTQ advocate can get.

Yet, as happy about the decision as Tim Gill was, he still saw life through the mind of a businessman. Today’s victory reveals tomorrow’s challenge.

For Gill, there were major battles yet to win. While the cheering was still echoing from the LGBT community, Gill turned his sights on gaining complete non-discrimination of any kind against anyone in the United States.  Stressing that one out of three gays and lesbians lived in the Southern states, he pledged to take the lessons learned from the Freedom to Marry campaign and retool it as Freedom for All Americans.

Many were stunned when Gill reached out to two Republican donors, hedge-fund investors Paul Singer and Daniel Loeb, for political influence in the fight for same-sex marriage. And the trio remained equally as strong in the challenge for nondiscrimination.

Even as Republicans were pushing for Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) to counter gains made by the LGBTQ community, Gill took aim at Georgia where a personal rights-to-worship approach was being pushed in the form of House Bill 757. The bill was written to allow faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violated their “sincerely held religious beliefs” and preserve their right to fire employees who weren’t in accord with those beliefs.

Gill responded by helping to fund Georgia Prospers in January 2016 and hired the former Republican State Senate majority leader Ronnie Chance to front the organization. Within days, major corporations with business in Georgia responded by joining the anti-discrimination group. Among them were Coco-Cola, Marriott Hotels, Delta Airlines, and Google, plus Disney, Apple, Time Warner, Intel, Salesforce and a hundred more.

Even with that kind of business pressure against the legislation, it still passed, only to be eventually vetoed by Governor Nathan Deal, who said, “I don’t think we need to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia.” 

Half a billion dollars in donations later, the snowball that Gill began rolling downhill in 1992 continues to grow right into Colorado politics of 2019 when Jared Polis became the nation’s first openly gay governor and Brianna Titone, Colorado’s first openly transgender state legislator. It is apparent throughout the state, that Gill’s work has transformed the state’s mainstream culture. His satisfaction may not be complete, but the smile that crossed Gill’s face when the rainbow flag flew from the state Capitol for the first time during this year’s Pridefest was definitely heartfelt.

“It just feels, and there are probably geographic exceptions to this, but that in most places in Colorado being gay is not really the same issue it used to be when I was a young lad,” Gill told the Denver Post at the time.

To some Tim Gill is a superhero. To others, he is a sharp businessman. Yet, according to one-time Gill Foundation board member David Dechman, “He really believes and expects that everyone should be treated equally without regard to sexual orientation, without regard to anything.”

Not even the election of Donald Trump with his anti-gay policies and racist comments could stop Tim Gill from pushing past the threat. Refusing to retire, and refusing to believe that equality will not eventually come, Gill is ever the optimist.

“The LGBTQ movement has no Martin Luther King. We never have. And we probably never will,” Gill told the Denver Post. “So it’s not going to be grandiose gestures and big speeches and things like that that secure us equal opportunity. It will be the hard work of thousands and thousands of people over many, many years.”

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