Blog: Amplify

Here's What Marriage Equality Should Actually Mean to Philanthropy

The year I was born, 1963, being gay was officially deemed a mental illness by the medical establishment. Same-sex relationships were illegal in every state, save Illinois. The federal government maintained a policy that prohibited the hiring of "known perverts,” then referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans.

What a long way we have come to today, the day marriage equality was deemed the law of the land by the highest court in our nation.

This historic ruling offers all of us in philanthropy a moment to reflect on how this occurred and what role organized philanthropy played to bring this change about.

Philanthropy did indeed play a role, largely thanks to foundations established by gay people themselves, such as Tim Gill who founded the Gill Foundation and my own boss Jon Stryker responsible for creating the Arcus Foundation. And we were joined by visionary non-LGBT funders like the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund and the Ford Foundation.

But the sad reality is that – aside from this dedicated handful of foundations – organized philanthropy pretty much sat out on one of the greatest social justice battles of our time.


Some of it was simply plain old-fashioned homophobia, to be sure. Some was the unfortunate siloization that pervades our sector as many funders hid behind the "we don't have an LGBT program" excuse. And some was the fact that our sector is far too risk-averse: remember that marriage equality, whose triumph seemed so inevitable today, was voted down at the ballot box in dozens of states by overwhelming margins barely a decade ago. Many funders looked at this struggle and weren't willing to take the risk.

The sad fact is, as one wag put it, "the revolution will not be funded.” Too often foundations play it safe and don't jump in when they're most needed; when victory looks unlikely, if not impossible. Far too often we wait until the bandwagon has momentum before we make the commitment.

Thankfully, in this case, visionary activists like Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto refused to be discouraged by the early lack of support and persevered on until a critical mass of funders came aboard. We got lucky.

But how many worthy causes never achieve that critical mass, largely due to our own sector's biases, narrow funding guidelines, and low risk tolerance? We may never know.

So while we celebrate today, let's not forget that the struggle for justice for LGBT people is not yet over.

For example, same-sex couples in 29 states can be married by this Sunday and then be fired from their jobs on Monday. All because we lack a federal law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

And other struggles are failing to secure crucial victories because we aren't providing them with the resources they need to gain momentum.

Let's get back to work on Monday and take a chance on one of those "unlikely stories" and maybe – just maybe – we'll be celebrating on the United States Supreme Court steps more regularly in the years to come.

Kevin Jennings is an educator, social justice activist, and author of six books. He is Executive Director of the Arcus Foundation, a global foundation dedicated to the idea that people can live in harmony with one another and the natural world.

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