When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that states cannot prevent same-sex couples from marrying and must recognize their unions, celebrations erupted across the country. Supporters took time to cheer the decision, but those who focus on issues affecting LGBT individuals went right back to work.
They are people like Courtney Cuff, president and CEO of the Gill Foundation. Started in Denver in 1994 by software entrepreneur Tim Gill, the foundation is one of the country’s biggest funders of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equal rights efforts. It has distributed $322 million to organizations and programs supporting its goal of achieving equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression.
Much of the foundation’s recent work has concentrated on fighting discrimination on the job and in housing, Cuff said in an interview in her office at the foundation’s headquarters in LoDo. Sitting on a red suede sofa rather than behind a desk, she was warm and approachable, with a broad smile and her face framed by close-cropped brown hair.
The Supreme Court decision gave many people the mistaken notion that problems encountered by LGBT individuals were solved. “Getting the marriage ruling was a big step, but you can be married one day and fired the next,” she said.
“We have turned our attention to areas in the south and heartland where we need to educate people and where there is still a lot of discrimination,” said Cuff, who grew up in Athens, Georgia and went to Davidson College in North Carolina.
At Cuff’s urging, Gill staffers take a bold approach. “We work with might seem to be odd bedfellows: businesses large and small, and faith leaders,” Cuff said.
Cuff’s home state is an example. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal in 2016 vetoed a bill that would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their “sincerely held religious belief” and fire employees who didn’t conform to those beliefs. Deal was supported by such companies as Disney, Apple and Time Warner. “He is not a governor who goes out on a limb. He is a conservative Christian,” Cuff said. “But he heard from a lot of people and said that he wanted the state to be open for business.”
Among the local organizations the foundation supports is One Colorado. Gill gave the One Colorado Education Fund $225,000 in 2015 to use in educational programming, research, and to “mobilize a community of LGBTQ people and straight allies, and develop campaigns to build public support for fairness and equality.”
Daniel Ramos, executive director, said the funds have trained 10,000 educators on the laws, policies and best practices for bullying intervention and combatting harassment.
With the foundation’s help, One Colorado has become a statewide advocacy organization working on a range of issues from employment to health, Ramos said. “The ability to find a health care provider—either for mental or physical health—may not be easy, particularly one who will offer culturally responsive care.”
Tim Gill began his efforts in Colorado and continues to look for both business opportunities and ways to improve life in the state. He founded the page-layout software company Quark, Inc. in 1981, and in 2015 co-founded JStar LLC, a smart home technology business.
Gill is the company’s chief technology officer and supports education in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math. Through the foundation’s Prosperous Colorado program, which is partnering with business and government, they spent $400,000 to build smart labs for grades K-12 that opened Sept. 14 in the Englewood School District. The district contributed more than $125,000, and Creative Learning Systems (SmartLabs) added $25,000 in value.
It’s yet another way Gill spreads his philosophy of “giving a hand up, not a hand out,” Cuff said. If kids learn about technology and creating with it, they’ll be more likely to seek education and jobs in the field.
Cuff, who worked for the Western Conservation Foundation and National Parks Conservation Association before joining the Gill Foundation in 2013, has also launched some of her own initiatives. She worked with the National Park Service to identify a list of sites significant to the history of the LGBT movement that will be recognized as National Historic Landmarks. The Stonewall Inn in New York City was designated a national monument in 2016.
Cuff will be leaving the Gill Foundation this fall to join the Hopewell Fund, which assists social entrepreneurs in quickly launching new projects. She will bring the same tenacity to her new job she used with her staff at Gill. “I relentlessly push to achieve things that might look like they can’t be achieved,” she said.
Tim Gill called his outgoing CEO “a strategic, creative and fierce leader,” and noted, “Among her many achievements, Courtney has led the charge as the movement and our grantees shifted from marriage to nondiscrimination, spearheaded an effective southern strategy building remarkable alliances with businesses and people of faith,” and helped to create and launch Freedom for All Americans.
While the Gill Foundation pushes on, their work may never be complete, Cuff acknowledged. “It’s not something you can put a bow on and say it’s done, but progress is being made in many areas.”
Cuff’s time at the foundation has also been significant for personal reasons. She and her wife, Jessica Newman, were married in California in 2013 and have had two children since then. Cuff recalled that when she heard the Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision, she was with her young son, “and tears of joy were streaming down my face because I realized he will grow up knowing marriage equality is the law of the land.”
Mission: The Gill Foundation is one of the country’s largest funders of efforts to achieve full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It makes tax-deductible grants to nonprofit organizations that advance equality through research, education, developing policy recommendations and working within the legal system. The foundation also makes grants to 501(c)3 organizations in Colorado to lower barriers to economic opportunities. It works for change to public policies at the state level and collaborates with other philanthropists and funders. The foundation doesn’t accept unsolicited grant requests.
Colorado Programs: Through A Prosperous Colorado, the foundation works in four areas: LGBT advocacy and services; STEM education: financial services to promote fair lending practices, access to safe capital and financial literacy; and public broadcasting.
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Suzanne S. Brown is a writer and editor who contributes to a variety of Colorado publications, including Mountain Living and The Denver Post.
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