A rally against HB 757 in 2015.

Meet the gay multimillionaire who funded fight against Georgia anti-LGBT ‘religious freedom’ bill

When Georgia Voice chose the People of the Year last December in our annual year-end wrap-up, we went with who we called “the bill killers.” It was all of the people who had a hand in defeating House Bill 757, the anti-LGBT “religious freedom” bill that sucked up all of the oxygen during that year’s legislative session and made Georgia the focal point of the nation for 41 long and anxious days.

We included in that group of bill killers LGBT and progressive groups and activists, faith leaders and groups, the business community, LGBT and Democratic lawmakers (plus a few Republicans), Gov. Nathan Deal and you – Georgia’s LGBT community and allies who showed up at rallies, called and wrote lawmakers and spoke out about the bill to their employers and faith leaders. Those were the front-facing people involved in the fight, but as often happens in these situations, there are people behind the scenes strategizing, cutting massive checks and using their positions of power to the community’s advantage. And Rolling Stone is out with a must-read profile on the man who played that role in the effort to kill HB 757 – Quark founder Tim Gill.

The gay, publicity-shy 63-year-old Coloradan has, according to Rolling Stone, poured $422 million of his fortune into LGBT rights causes over the last three decades, most of which through the Gill Foundation, which he started in 1994. Per the story:

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.”

But just as importantly, Gill saw the need to keep fighting after marriage equality became the law of the land in June 2015. His next goal is getting LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination laws on the books nationwide within the next 10 years.

Gill also saw the vital need for help for LGBT people here in the South.

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.”

LGBT groups and leaders in Georgia knew there would be a backlash to the marriage equality decision here in the Peach State, and it didn’t take long for it to arrive in the form of HB 757. Enter Gill and Georgia Prospers, the latter of which we mentioned in the year-end wrap-up and several other articles but not the quiet donor holding the purse strings.

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.”

As we all know by now, the bill passed both chambers of the Legislature but was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Deal. Rolling Stone called the veto that day last year at the tail end of March “the first major victory for what Gill calls his Southern strategy.” The election of Donald Trump and his subsequent, seemingly weekly anti-LGBT appointments to his administration has apparently got Gill more fired up.

“We’re going into the hardest states in the country,” he said. “We’re going to punish the wicked.”

It should be noted that Gill’s relationship with LGBT groups hasn’t always been rosy.

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.”

This is all just a taste of the profile. We recommend checking out the full version as you get ready to warm up those grills and light those fireworks this weekend.

(h/t AJC)