Leaders of the Gill Foundation say times have changed, much progress has been made in the fight for LGBT equality, and its priority in this tough economy must be giving grants. So its Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, a fixture in Colorado Springs for 15 years, will close its local doors by the end of 2011.
The news came as a shock late last week even inside the organization. Mary Lou Makepeace, the former Springs mayor who has headed the Gay & Lesbian Fund's local office for eight years, says she understands the reasoning. But she also says she wasn't consulted and didn't know the change was coming.
And it's a big change — one that signals the end of an era, as Regina DiPadova can tell you.
In 1991, DiPadova founded Inside/Out Youth Services as a county program offering support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. It was one year before the battle surrounding Amendment 2, an initiative born in the Springs that would have banned any laws meant to offer gays and lesbians the same protections as other citizens. Inside/Out became a magnet for growing hostility toward local LGBT people.
"It was dangerous; it was scary, frightening," DiPadova says. In those days, her answering machine was flooded with threatening messages — not just aimed at her, but at the children she counseled. Some were death threats; she remembers being afraid to ride her bike back and forth to work.
A few years later, with the conflict still red-hot, DiPadova transitioned her group into an independent nonprofit, and moved into a building with several other LGBT nonprofits, including the brand-new Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado.
A big impact
In the mid-1990s, the Gill Foundation had just been founded by multimillionaire and Denver gay man Tim Gill to give grants to LGBT nonprofits. Gill created the Gay & Lesbian Fund as a foundation branch to help nonprofits in general. He purposely placed it in the heart of the Christian conservative movement, Colorado Springs.
Grants were readily available then, but recipient organizations had to have anti-discrimination clauses that included LGBT people, and they had to prominently hang a "Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado" banner at grant-funded events.
At first, there weren't many takers. Last year, more than 100 applicants had to be turned away.
"It was incredible the way that people at first had a hard time saying 'gay and lesbian,'" says Carolyn Cathey, El Paso County Democratic Party secretary and LGBT activist. "It was so funny. It was like, yep, that's exactly what Tim Gill wanted, was he wanted people to have to say 'gay and lesbian' out loud."
Makepeace says, "I think the legacy, as it were, is it moved Colorado Springs from the epicenter of Amendment 2 to a community that has active dialogue, and that LGBT people and other people can have a voice in this community."
People like DiPadova say they liked just driving by the office at 315 E. Costilla St., and seeing "Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado" emblazoned across the front. But inside, it was a lot more. The center hosted thousands of meetings — all for nonprofits, all for free. Most of it was low-key, but important, work. Some of it, however, was a little more memorable.
"One of my favorite memories is the first time I saw county commissioners and City Council candidates there speaking to the gay community," Cathey says of a meeting years ago. "I mean, that was huge."
Time for a change
The trek to equality, of course, isn't over. Recent vandalization of Gay & Lesbian Fund highway signs, an apparent hate-based beating of gay soldiers, and another round of city leaders refusing to support the Pride Parade seem like echoes from the past.
But Gill Foundation CEO Tim Sweeney points to bigger victories to suggest "we're winning the war."
Two decades ago, a poll found that most Coloradans didn't know a gay person. The Gill Foundation notes that a 2010 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll found that a majority now do, and 62 percent believe being gay or lesbian should be accepted. The poll also found an even split on support for gay marriage, with 74 percent in favor of some legal recognition.
"You don't need 100 percent to persuade in a movement, you need 51 percent and we're there in Colorado," Makepeace says. "And we're darn near there in Colorado Springs."
That, and a pressing need for more grants, led to a decision by Sweeney and Gill's board to absorb the Gay & Lesbian Fund into its Denver headquarters. It saves up to $1 million a year that can be shoveled into grants.
They haven't decided the Costilla Street building's fate. Sweeney says the local staff of nine will be laid off and given severance packages. Makepeace has also been offered a position as senior adviser but hasn't decided whether to take it, saying she won't leave the Springs.
The closing comes at a time when the foundation's endowment, which stood at around $310 million pre-recession, has dropped to $240 million. Still, Sweeney says the Gay & Lesbian Fund will renew every 2011 grant in 2012, including many in El Paso County.
"We are going to keep an extremely strong presence in El Paso County and Colorado Springs," he says.