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After a Gay-Rights Victory, a New Challenge for Grantmakers

July 04, 2013

(Michael Seltzer is a distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs at the City University of New York and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. A version of this commentary was published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier in the week.)

Supreme_Court-Gay_MarriageTwo days before the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which occurred on the streets of my neighborhood, Greenwich Village, the Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the Constitution and that states have the right to pass same-sex marriage laws.

While the decision came on the heels of a Supreme Court decision that dealt an unconscionable blow to voting rights, the court's decision on same-sex marriage will go down as one of the most significant and historic civil-rights victories in our lifetimes.

It also is a moment for philanthropy to reflect on its power to further social justice. Nonprofits, with the support of foundations, paved the way for the decision. But individual donors and foundations have more work to do to help ensure full equality for all Americans, regardless of race or sexual orientation.

It was Stonewall, after all, that led to the birth of hundreds of grassroots nonprofit organizations dedicated to working on behalf of gay people victimized by flagrant discrimination and outright hostility.

In Philadelphia, where I lived in the 1970s, the first LGBT organizations to open their doors included the Eromin Center (an acronym for "erotic minorities"), which provided mental-health services; CALM (Custody Action for Lesbian Mothers), which assisted lesbian mothers caught in legal battles over custody of their children; and the Gay Activists Alliance.

A handful of foundations -- including the Philadelphia Foundation, the van Ameringen Foundation, and the People's Fund (today the Bread & Roses Community Fund) -- provided support to these organizations. Yet nationally, grants for gay and lesbian organizations were few and far between, and most such organizations scraped by on donations from individuals.

In the mid-1970s, a number of foundation professionals who had come out -- including Terry Lawler, Katherine Acey, and myself -- got together at a Network of Change-Oriented Foundations meeting and formed what would become the Working Group for Funding Lesbian and Gay Issues to address the glaring absence of foundations from the struggle for LGBT rights.

Foundations have traveled a long road since those early days. In 1987, the Paul Rapoport Foundation broke new ground when it opened its doors as the first private endowed foundation to focus on lesbian and gay issues. In time it was joined by the likes of the Denver-based Gill Foundation and the Arcus Foundation, which was founded in 2000 to promote lesbian and gay equality around the world. According to Funders for LGBTQ Issues, by 2011 close to four hundred foundations had awarded some 3,078 grants totaling $123 million to LGBT organizations and projects.

Led by Evelyn and the Walter Haas Jr. Fund, which awarded its first grant in support of a freedom-to-marry campaign in 2001, many of those grants supported efforts to make same-sex marriage legal. Other grantmakers formed partnerships designed to maximize their impact. By 2013, foundations that comprise the Civil Marriage Collaborative -- among them the Open Society Foundations -- had invested close to $17 million in freedom-to-marry campaigns, supporting grantees in twenty states and the District of Columbia. Paul DiDonato, program officer and director of the Civil Marriage Collaborative, says that "Foundations have been instrumental in funding efforts to advance the debate on marriage equality and change hearts and minds on this critical issue of fairness, justice and equality."

As a result, nonprofits were able to develop and carry out innovative, multi-pronged public-education initiatives that relied on the latest research to figure out which approaches would work best. Foundation money helped support public education, research, polling, message development, coalition-building activities, and efforts to mobilize citizens and influential leaders to push for change.

Local foundations also have made a difference. Late last year, the trustees of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation took the extraordinary step of adopting a statement in support of same-sex marriage.

The Supreme Court's momentous decision notwithstanding, foundations still have an important role to play in supporting the next phase of the fight for gay rights: twenty-nine states do not protect lesbian, gay, or bisexual workers from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. And thirty-seven states have not yet made same-sex marriage legal.

Fortunately, other players have emerged and joined the fight. In November, the Ford Foundation, the second-largest foundation in the United States, announced a ten-year, $50 million effort to secure equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Surina Khan, director of the foundation’s gender-rights and equality program, explains the foundation's thinking. "We believe that LGBT rights are fundamental civil rights. We have chosen to fund statewide and national efforts to improve the lives of LGBT people, promoting greater inclusion, acceptance, and respect for LGBT people—and indeed for all people."

And J. Bob Alotta, executive director of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, notes that the work to secure civil rights is far from finished: "We have funded in forty-three states and eighty-one countries and have learned that we must not draw neat lines around decades or movements and say, 'Done’. Our work is not done. We are erasing the torture of our ancestors, the toil of our predecessors, and our best imaginable selves if we do not rise up immediately and demand justice. We have no choice but to physically stand where the law today refuses to go. But I am so, so proud of all the people who have brought this day to fruition. And I deeply believe in the promise of tomorrow."

-- Michael Seltzer

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