In 25 years of pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the struggle for LGBTQ rights, one of Denver software entrepreneur Tim Gill’s favorite memories is a battle over a giraffe statue in Sterling.
In 2001, Gill’s foundation offered a $5,000 grant to the northeastern Colorado town to preserve the wooden statue. The catch? The town had to display a plaque acknowledging the money came from the Gay and Lesbian Fund of Colorado. The ensuing quarrel generated letters to the editor with headlines such as “Gays cleverly advance agenda” and “Homosexuality is an abomination to God.”
That was exactly the plan.
“You get that kind of dialogue going and people start talking about things, and thinking about things,” Gill said during an interview last month in his Cherry Creek office. “And they figure out this is an OK thing.”
The gay descendant of a long line of ranchers and farmers, Gill used the profits from the sale of his software start-up to become the country’s largest individual donor to efforts fighting for the rights and inclusion of LGBTQ people. Twenty-five years after using his money to establish the Gill Foundation, he has invested more than half a billion dollars into political campaigns and philanthropic efforts to secure LGBTQ equality across the country and watched Colorado grow from “the Hate State” to a place where the rainbow gay pride flag hangs from the Capitol.
His money and patient leadership reshaped LGBTQ advocacy across the country and played a crucial role in starting and sustaining some of Colorado’s largest advocacy organizations, longtime activists said. From marriage equality to anti-discrimination laws, Gill has had a hand in swaying public opinion, shaping policy and shifting LGBTQ advocacy from a grassroots volunteer movement to a professional field.
“Tim Gill is the single individual that has had the largest impact on the progression of LGBTQ rights across the country in the last few decades,” said Sheena Kadi, deputy director of One Colorado, who has worked with the Gill Foundation in multiple states.
Working as a public face to a large foundation does not come naturally to Gill, a deep introvert and self-described geek who’d rather be coding than giving speeches, shaking hands or talking to reporters. He’s well-known in LGBTQ activist and Democratic political groups, but is able to walk Denver without attracting attention.
At 65, Gill still has boundless energy. During the winter, his tall, lanky frame can be seen hurtling down ski slopes on his snowboard. Left to his own devices, he would work 11 hours days every day at Josh.ai, the luxury smart home technology company he founded in 2015 after failing to retire the first time he tried.
Gill grew up in the western suburbs of Denver, where his father worked as a surgeon and his mother was a homemaker. His parents and grandparents, who were farmers, were all Republicans. After graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder, he borrowed $2,000 from his parents in 1981 to form Quark, a software company that soon raked in millions in profit.
Then in 1992, Coloradans passed Amendment 2, which changed the state constitution to forbid any local governments from outlawing discrimination based on sexuality.
Gill was outraged. And rich.
Two years later, he founded the Gill Foundation with a $1 million gift. In 2000, Gill sold his 50 percent stake in Quark, which was making about $500 million a year at the time, and invested the majority of that money in the foundation. He then shifted his work to “part-time philanthropist, part-time snowboarder,” he said. The skills that served him well as an entrepreneur — a tolerance for failure and a desire to try something new — translated well to his activism.
Since then, the foundation, Gill and his husband, Scott Miller, have invested more than $500 million to LGBTQ causes. With that money, Gill could have bought half ownership of the Colorado Rockies, or 18 of Aspen’s most expensive luxury mansions currently listed on Sotheby’s International Realty.
Gill’s money has influenced campaigns at every level of government and buoyed organizations working on almost every significant LGBTQ issue: AIDS, marriage equality, discrimination, bullying, health care. Much of the foundation’s work focused on changing laws and constitutions state by state.
Gill brought new ideas to advocacy, such as incorporating people of faith in the fight for rights and is credited with professionalizing the LGBTQ advocacy field and encouraging large institutions to follow his lead and donate to the cause, longtime activists said in interviews with The Denver Post.
“We felt like we were rolling a rock up a mountain,” said Kate Kendell, former executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “And having the Gill Foundation’s support made it feel like there was an army behind us helping us roll it up.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 granted same sex marriage across the country — one of the foundation’s primary goals — Gill then focused on states where discrimination against someone for their sexuality or gender identity remained legal. Donors and organizers from those states have helped fund the efforts for marriage and legal rights elsewhere, he said.
“So it’s our obligation to go back to those states and make sure that they have the same rights that we enjoy here in Colorado,” he said.
But that hasn’t always been the case in Gill’s home state. For the past 25 years, Gill has had a front-row seat to the seismic shifts in the rights and acceptance of LGBTQ people here.
A test ground no more
Gill had never been shy about his sexuality. After coming out in college, he volunteered with a campus gay rights group. Before he married, he would drop a reference to his boyfriend in casual conversation or speeches on purpose. But two decades ago, he always weighed the risk of doing so.
“On a chairlift once, I wondered, ‘Is this guy going to push me off the chairlift if I say he’s sitting next to a gay guy?’ ” he said.
For years, Colorado served as a test ground for Gill because of its mixture of political opinions. Beyond campaigns to change specific laws or influence individual political races, Gill’s long-term goal was to shift broad public opinion.
Politics are the final step in change, he said. First, you have to change public opinion and educate lawmakers about the issues.
In 1996, the foundation created the Gay and Lesbian Fund of Colorado, which gave money to libraries, symphonies, statue preservation funds and other cultural mainstays with the caveat that the organizations state who gave them the money. The foundation also paid for ads and public service announcements about the lives of LGBTQ people.
“If you accepted money from the NAACP, that’s not a political contribution,” Gill said. “But fascinatingly, money from the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado was a political thing.”
Gill and three other superdonors — Pat Stryker, Rutt Bridges and Jared Polis, now governor — also are credited with creating a political machine that in 2004 helped Democrats win the Colorado legislature for the first time in decades. Part of the goal was to have enough Democrats to stop anti-gay legislation and push for more protections.
Although much of his focus has recently shifted to other states, the Gill Foundation still gives annually to key LGBTQ organizations here, two of which credit their existence to him.
The foundation’s money was crucial to the creation of One Colorado, the state’s largest LGBTQ lobbying organization, executive director Daniel Ramos said.
“The success of One Colorado is really because of the vision that Tim had, that for us to really change the narrative of LGBTQ people and our experiences, that we had to tell our stories,” Ramos said.
Gill’s money also kept the The Center on Colfax afloat during financial troubles in the mid-1990s. Since then, The Center has grown to one of the largest LGBTQ community centers in the Rocky Mountains and serves more than 47,000 people a year.
“The Gill Foundation was the factor that allowed The Center to come back from the brink of financial oblivion,” said Phil Nash, The Center’s first executive director.
Change is palpable here, Gill said. Along with the 2018 election of Polis, the nation’s first openly gay governor, and Brianna Titone, Colorado’s first openly transgender state legislator, the state’s mainstream culture has shifted. During Denver PrideFest last month, a rainbow gay pride flag hung from the state Capitol for the first time.
“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 said.
But amid all the large victories, it’s the small moments that resonate the most with Gill. Such as when a transgender man walked up to Gill in 1996 after a speech for the National Press Photographers Association and thanked him for publicly talking about his sexuality in front of the crowd. The man had feared coming out to his colleagues, but they seemed to accept Gill, the man said, which gave him hope.
“That’s just one of the touch points along the road to equality that I’ve been privileged to live through,” Gill said.
A long fight
Despite all of his success, Gill suffers from deep self-doubt, he said. It’s part of what motivates him. It makes him work harder and longer because he feels he could fail at any moment.
“I kind of like my poor self-image,” he said. “It’s kind of useful.”
Gill laughed when asked what impact the election of President Donald Trump has had on his work.
“Donald Trump has probably blown up millions of dollars of work of ours and other people,” he said.
Immediately after the election, the foundation engaged more than a dozen people to Washington to try to stave off rollbacks of LGBTQ protections, including the administration’s ban on transgender people serving in the military and changes that would rigidly define sex in federal law.
“And we’ve lost pretty much all of those,” Gill said. “Or we’re in the process of losing them.”
But Gill is hopeful. Although he feels that the Republican Party is shifting further right, he thinks it could swing back to a moderate center again.
If that does happen, Gill plans to still be having the difficult conversations necessary to making change. He has no plans to retire anytime soon, he said. He still has so much work to do.
“The LGBTQ movement has no Martin Luther King. We never have. And we probably never will,” Gill said. “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.”