The recent Supreme Court’s decision—or lack thereof—to let stand appeals court rulings granting same-sex marriage in five states, delivered a tacit victory to marriage equality supporters across the country. At stake were the rights of gays and lesbians to marry in Utah, Oklahoma, Indiana, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
However, forasmuch as the court’s silence was golden news for countless gay and lesbian couples, it didn’t immediately resolve the much-contested issue.
“We have seen an amazing surge in the number of states granting marriage equality but at the same time we still have 20 states to go," says Matt Forman, the senior director of programs with the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, which has been a top funder in the marriage equality fight. "We need to continue to work in states to create as favorable a climate as possible."
The Supreme Court’s decision to deny review of the five states seeking the freedom to marry effectively grows the number of marriage equality states from 19 to 30 and includes Washington, DC. But funders aren’t ready to call the fight just yet. Marriage equality opponents can still force state referendums in the remaining states that lack protections for gay and lesbian couples, as well as challenge the due process with which the marriage equality debate has been handled in the courts.
“There are a number of ways this can still play out,” says Forman, who notes that the court’s Hobby Lobby decision reignited discussions about religious exemptions in the debate on marriage equality. “We are doing a scan of threats, resources and gaps to assess which are the best ways to reach people on this issue."
A strategy with which David Bohnett, another veteran funder in the marriage equality fight, agrees.
“We're focused on engaging all those in our community for whom marriage equality has been their first call to activism,” says Bohnett. “We're looking to fund existing organizations who are targeting this growing army of foot soldiers to keep them active and energized for LGBT civil rights and broader social justice issues.”
And what exactly does that support look like? Well, if history is any indication, it means continuing to pump millions of dollars into public education campaigns and litigation to grow the number of states that grant same-sex marriage. In 2012, marriage and civil union advocacy absorbed 11 percent of the funding for LGBT issues, or around $11.7 million, according to Funders for LGBTQ Issues.
But even as money continues to flow into the marriage fight, some funders have been looking beyond that fight for a while now, targeting more resources at other challenges. Most notably, the Arcus Foundation has placed new priority on global efforts to advance LGBT rights (see my post here). And within the United States, Arcus currently does not have any active grants focused on marriage equality in states where the fight continues. It now sees that terrain as well covered by other funders, and has shifted to other challenges.
Bryan E. Simmons, the foundation's vice president for communications, put things this way:
it’s important to remember that marriage equality is only one element of our aspiration as a movement. Even in places where we now have marriage equality, a patchwork of laws and inconsistent culture leave many LGBTQ people subject to discrimination in employment, education, healthcare and personal safety.
Simmons points out that 32 states "do not have discrimination laws covering sexual orientation," and that legal protections for transgender people are especially weak. Which helps explain why the foundation has been making a big push lately to bolster transgender rights. Arcus has also given attention to empowering young LGBT people of color, another group on the margins.
Other funders are shifting attention to parts of the United States where LGBT rights are least advanced. Earlier this year, the Gill Foundation announced that it was pouring $25 million into work in conservative states over the next five years. “We can’t allow two distinct gay Americas to exist,” said Tim Gill. “Everybody should have the same rights and protections regardless of where they were born and where they live.”
Among Gill's grantees is Human Rights Campaign, which recently announced an $8.5 million effort to grow LGBT acceptance in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, placing paid staffers in each state. Gill also funds the Victory Fund, which works to get LGBT people elected to office, and recently announced a strategy to focus on the South, upper Midwest, and the Rocky Mountain states where gay politicians remain scarce.
To many funders, the specific fight for marriage equality is inextricably entwined with the broader battle for LGBT acceptance. David Bohnett, for example, has been saying for years that the more that Americans accept gay people at a basic human level, the more inevitable marriage equality becomes. That view is widely shared among funders, along with the view that anything that advances acceptance, also advances marriage equality. As Byran Simmons says: "We believe that the struggle for LGBTQ equality will be won on numerous mutually reinforcing fronts."
Whatever the case, one thing is clear, as Matt Forman puts it: “This fight isn’t over yet.”