News and analysis
October 02, 2015

Gay-Rights Focus Turns to Stopping Violence and Intolerance

Timothy A. Clary, AFP, Getty Images

After the Supreme Court's favorable ruling on gay marriage, Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, is shutting the organization down. He says his staff is in demand from other gay-rights groups.

When the Supreme Court ruled in June in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, it was mission accomplished for Freedom to Marry. The 12-year-old nonprofit, after all, had been founded with the singular goal of marriage equality.

The celebration was joyous. But after the guests departed, its leaders found themselves at the end of the road.

Freedom to Marry has already closed its Washington office, turned off its "donate" button, and started to shed employees. Some were scooped up by other nonprofits eager to benefit from their experience.

"We, as promised, are beginning the wind down," said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry.

Four months after the historic Supreme Court ruling, LGBTQ groups are feeling their way forward in a new political and social environment. Redefining organizational goals is no small task after years of hard-charging work. Several that planned in advance for a favorable Supreme Court ruling are focusing on transgender rights and preventing violence against LGBTQ people in countries like Uganda, where persecution has increased since a law banning same-sex relationships was passed in 2014.

At other nonprofits, there’s concern that the marriage ruling may eclipse issues some leaders consider to be more urgent.

"Nobody who was paying attention thought that marriage equality was even the primary purpose of the movement," said Mara Keisling, founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "I hope nobody thought it was the goal."

Staying Focused

More than a decade ago, Mr. Wolfson set out to build an organization to power a focused, strategic campaign to achieve marriage equality.

"Once achieved, we would shut down," Mr. Wolfson said. "We weren’t just going to flail around trying to keep ourselves in business. I think it was one of the reasons we succeeded."

The idea paid off. But before it did, Mr. Wolfson had to ensure that employees stayed focused in the midst of growing anticipation about the Supreme Court’s decision and weren’t distracted by worry about what to do after the nonprofit folded.

In January, he told employees that they would be paid for at least three months after the Supreme Court decision. During that period, they could adopt flexible schedules and search for other jobs.

Since the ruling, Freedom to Marry has been working with other nonprofits to place its employees so they can contribute to "other good-guy causes," Mr. Wolfson said. Staff members have been in demand. While marching in New York City’s gay-pride parade days after the Supreme Court decision, "I was getting tweets from others organizations saying, ‘If you’re done with your great team, we’d love to hire them over here,’ " Mr. Wolfson said. "We do periodically get emails from headhunters, funders, asking if there’s any of my team interested in doing this or that."

Some employees are taking jobs at a new nonprofit, Freedom for All Americans, which will fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s being housed in the Freedom to Marry New York office until the latter organization closes at the end of 2015.

History of a Movement

Although the nonprofit has ceased raising money and will eventually allocate its leftover funds to partner organizations, there is still work to be done, Mr. Wolfson said. Remaining staff are archiving Freedom to Marry’s efforts, and those records will be donated to Yale University, Mr. Wolfson’s alma mater and a center of gay and lesbian scholarship. They're transforming its website into a repository of the movement’s history. And they're working with University of California at Berkeley to gather oral-history accounts.

"We remain very committed to helping, collaborating, transferring assets and lessons learned to other partners in the movement," Mr. Wolfson said.

Other leaders at LGBTQ groups applauded Freedom to Marry’s commitment to its promise to close.

"I really respect Evan for that decision not to keep a nonprofit going on indefinitely," said Lyle Kan, director of research and communications at Funders for LGBTQ Issues.

New Efforts

Other LGBTQ nonprofits are forging ahead. The Arcus Foundation started to shift its grant making away from marriage equality a few years ago, executive director Kevin Jennings said, and has since focused on international human-rights and domestic social-justice work.

The foundation plans to announce a "major initiative" this fall related to transgender rights, a topic at the forefront of several LGBTQ leaders’ agendas. Although nonprofit work on behalf of the transgender community has been going on for decades, said Kris Hayashi, executive director at the Transgender Law Center, "I definitely have also heard people talk about transgender issues as the next issue after marriage."

Increased awareness about the struggles transgender people face has not translated to more money to organizations that support them, Ms. Keisling said.

"Considering how much interest we have in the public and the media, I would have thought there’d be a lot more interest among foundations," she said.

One obstacle is that foundations that don’t prioritize LGBTQ causes hesitate to give grants to programs that serve the LGBTQ community even when those programs fit within foundations’ health, education, or human-rights missions, Ms. Keisling said.

Finding the Angle

Mr. Jennings agreed and said that all foundations have a responsibility to think about the "LGBTQ angle" to their grant making. He’s worried that the marriage ruling may set LGBTQ movements back by "creating a false impression that this problem is solved."

"I really hope we can see that kind of conscious shift in mainstream philanthropy," he said. "Every issue is an LGBTQ issue. Are you thinking about that when you do your funding?"

Some groups aren’t waiting for a shift, though, and have devised alternative structures and fundraising routes. The Trans Justice Funding Project, for example, was until recently incorporated as a business, not a nonprofit. It allowed the group more flexibility to solicit donations and give small amounts of money to grass-roots efforts without having to abide by foundation or government restrictions. The group is now organized as a trust, and Gabriel Foster, the group’s director, said he’s open to thinking creatively about how to best serve projects that help transgender people:

"We want to be more accountable to our grantees than to our donors."

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.