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Equal Opportunity for All?

March 11, 2009

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In addition to helping found both Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues and Funders Concerned About AIDS, Michael has served as the chair of the Council on Foundations' Committee on Affinity Groups and as president of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers. He and his partner Ralph have been together for more than twenty-seven years.)

Supreme-court It's a sad commentary that many of the civil rights struggles of the last century still mar the fabric of American democracy. Nowhere is that more evident than in the battle raging across the country over the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women who seek the same legal benefits of marriage currently available to heterosexual couples. Ground zero for that battle is the state of California, where by a narrow margin the state's residents passed the anti-gay-marriage legislation known as Proposition 8 last year.

Historically, a number of foundations and corporations have been in the forefront of providing the resources needed to advance the rights of constituencies which have not traditionally benefited from the promise of the American dream. Along with immigrants' rights, LGBT rights is the newest frontier for organized philanthropy -- though, of course, neither issue is new. Sadly, LGBT issues and openly "out" individuals were not welcome at the philanthropic table for many years. In fact, it was not until well after the Stonewall riots in 1969 that grants to LGBT organizations even began to appear on foundation grantee lists. Indeed, as late as the mid-1970s, one well-meaning foundation in Philadelphia went so far as to mask the identity of two lesbian and gay organizations in its docket so its trustees wouldn't know the true identity of the organizations or the purpose of the grants made to them.

The closet for LGBT members of the philanthropic community was also tightly shut. I recall when what was then known as the Working Group For Gay and Lesbian Issues showed the groundbreaking documentary The Word Is Out at a Council on Foundations annual meeting. Even though the turnout was sparse, what was most remarkable was that those few in attendance made sure to leave the room before the lights came back on at the end of the film so as to avoid suspicion that they were anything but straight.

Philanthropy has come a long way since those days. But the lack of resources over the years for organizations to engage in vitally needed research, polling, public education, and related efforts designed to advance the cause of LGBT people has hurt. The Fund for Human Dignity, the first national organization committed to educating the general public on LGBT issues, folded in 1990 due to lack of funding support. Would the outcome of today's Prop 8 debates be different if foundations and corporations had been at the table earlier?

My point is not to bemoan what could have been but to address what still needs to be done. Here are some concrete suggestions for the philanthropic community:

  • Award grants within your priority areas that are relevant to LGBT efforts and organizations
  • When jobs on staff open up, conduct outreach through appropriate media outlets to reach LGBT candidates
  • If you haven't done so already, put in place employment discrimination policies that include phrases like "sexual orientation" and "gender identity”
  • Support efforts to promote your work environment as "gay-positive" through internal and public statements and policies
  • Make sure your health insurance policies cover the partners of your LGBT employees
  • Speak out in support of LGBT rights in your publications and in public forums

Foundations and corporations can do much through their practices and public communications to expand equal opportunity for all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, both here in the United States and around the world. The time to act is now.

-- Michael Seltzer

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Posted by Bruce Trachtenberg  |   March 12, 2009 at 07:29 AM

Bravo, Michael. Well said, to the point, and excellent suggestions.

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