Gay Rights Push Shifts Its Focus South and West

 "We can’t allow two distinct gay Americas to exist," said Tim Gill, a Colorado philanthropist. Credit Matthew Staver for The New York Times
“We can’t allow two distinct gay Americas to exist,” said Tim Gill, a Colorado philanthropist. Credit Matthew Staver for The New York Times

The country’s leading gay rights groups and donors, after a decade focused on legalizing same-sex marriage, are embarking on a major drive to win more basic civil rights and workplace protections in Southern and Western states where the rapid progress of the movement has largely eluded millions of gay men and lesbians.

The effort will shift tens of millions of dollars in the next few years to what advocates described as the final frontier for gay rights: states like Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas and Texas, where Republicans dominate elected office and traditional cultural views on homosexuality still prevail.

The new strategy reflects the growing worry within the movement that recent legal and political successes have formed two quickly diverging worlds for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Americans: one centered on the coasts and major cities, and another stretching across the South and up through the Rocky Mountains, in states where gays enjoy virtually no legal protections against discrimination.

 Chad H. Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, spoke about gay rights at Mississippi’s State Capitol last year. Credit Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
Chad H. Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, spoke about gay rights at Mississippi’s State Capitol last year. Credit Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

“We can’t allow two distinct gay Americas to exist,” said Tim Gill, a Colorado philanthropist whose foundation is putting about $25 million into a handful of mostly conservative-leaning states over the next five years. “Everybody should have the same rights and protections regardless of where they were born and where they live.”

The push is likely to encounter resistance. Gay rights groups will be engaging in communities where churches and other religious institutions are tightly woven into daily life, and where efforts to expand civil rights protections to gays are sometimes viewed as an attack on people of faith.

“Mississippi has the highest church attendance per capita in the nation,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “People have strong convictions based on faith. It’s not an opinion. It is their understanding of religious truth. And they are not going to walk away from it just because it’s unpopular.”

The shift is in part a way for leaders of the gay rights movement to reckon with their sudden success in the battle over marriage. A decade ago, just one state, Massachusetts, allowed same-sex marriage. Today it is legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

One early test of the new effort will come in Houston next month, when the mayor, Annise D. Parker, will seek to pass an ordinance forbidding businesses and city agencies to discriminate against residents based on sexual identity, race or gender.

“Texas doesn’t recognize gay marriage, and I don’t see that changing,” said Ms. Parker, the city’s first openly gay mayor. “But people being able to work and pay taxes — it’s a much easier discussion.”

In some states, organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union and groups Mr. Gill helps fund plan to lobby for nondiscrimination ordinances in housing and employment and for legislation allowing gay parents to adopt. In other states, they are building new grass-roots organizations and pushing for the election of openly gay and lesbian officials where there are none.

In a nod to the dominant political culture in the South and West, the effort will rely heavily on outreach to Republicans and clergy, as well as to African-American civil rights organizations. Gay rights leaders are also quietly forging partnerships with major corporations based in Southern and Western cities, hoping to leverage their ties to Republican officials. That strategy proved successful last month in persuading Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona to veto a measure that would have allowed businesses there to deny services to lesbians and gay men on religious grounds.

Those involved in the planning described it as the biggest realignment of gay rights activism in a decade, one that will shift the movement’s focus into territory where there is almost no unified network of support and where gay people are more likely to hide who they are, making them more difficult to reach.

“The prevalence of the closet presents a challenge far greater than what we’ve seen in the other regions of the country,” said Chad H. Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which is opening up field offices in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas in an effort to build stronger ties to schools, religious institutions and political cultural leaders. “You risk being kicked out of your home. You risk discrimination on the job or being fired. You risk rejection at your place of religious celebration.”

 Carla Webb and Joce Pritchett, at home with their children in Jackson, Miss., joined the Human Rights Campaign's efforts. Credit James Patterson for The New York Times
Carla Webb and Joce Pritchett, at home with their children in Jackson, Miss., joined the Human Rights Campaign’s efforts. Credit James Patterson for The New York Times

Gay rights leaders are also worried that future court victories could leave gay men and lesbians in some states mired in a legal paradox: They might be free to marry but could still lose their jobs in the 29 states where it remains legal to fire employees for their sexual orientation.

In some of those places, gay and lesbian couples are more likely to be raising children than in places like New York or California, where same-sex-led families are less common.

The Human Rights Campaign, which is spending $8.5 million and hiring 20 people for its Project One America effort in the South, has conducted extensive research on the day-to-day experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in its three focus states. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed were in committed relationships. And a quarter of gay parents surveyed had no legal relationship to their children because of state prohibitions on gay adoption, including those helping their partners raise children from a previous heterosexual marriage.

Mindful of cultural differences, the Washington-based group is also seeking to adapt to the rural South as it cultivates ties to local church leaders, N.A.A.C.P. officials and educators. That includes holding meetings at local Waffle Houses — but not on Wednesday nights, when many people are in church.

Mr. Gill’s foundation and an affiliated political advocacy group, Gill Action Fund, will engage first in states like Missouri and Texas, underwriting polling, research and lobbying costs and recruiting donors for existing state organizations. Next month, at an annual conference called OutGiving, which draws hundreds of the country’s leading gay donors, Mr. Gill will call on other donors to join the effort. He has invested more than $300 million of his own fortune on gay rights causes.

Other gay rights organizations are also moving to expand their footprint in the South. The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political action committee that supports lesbian and gay candidates for public office, is focusing on states like Idaho and Mississippi, which have no openly gay elected officials at any level, and those like Michigan, which have none in their state legislatures.

The A.C.L.U. has intensified efforts in legislatures across the South and in other states where conservative lawmakers are pushing “religious liberty” legislation to exempt businesses from some anti-discrimination rules. The group and other civil rights organizations persuaded lawmakers in Mississippi to strip some provisions from one such bill last month.

In many ways, the playbook for this effort was written in Colorado, where Mr. Gill, a Denver software mogul, set up his foundation two decades ago.

At the time, the state was dominated by Republicans, the home base of prominent evangelical and conservative groups like Focus on the Family. Mr. Gill and other advocates poured millions of dollars into educational initiatives and liberal nonprofit groups, splitting social conservatives from the state’s business establishment and working to elect pro-gay rights lawmakers.

Today, Democrats control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office. Discrimination based on sexual orientation was outlawed in 2008, and lawmakers approved civil unions in 2013. Mr. Gill’s organization and other groups are now pushing for full marriage rights for gays.

Mr. Gill, who usually shuns interviews, said he was speaking out now to try to persuade others to join the less glamorous state-level advocacy, before a presidential election begins to consume a lot of activists’ time and money.

“I want them to look at the other 29 states where nothing has happened,” Mr. Gill said. “I want them to say, ‘How can we fix this?’ ”

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