With that in mind, he assembled a bipartisan team of political operatives and tested his theory in 2004, quietly targeting three antigay Colorado incumbents; two of them went down. Through the combined efforts of a host of progressive interest groups, including many supported by Gill, Democrats captured both chambers of the legislature for the first time in forty years. Gill’s decision to back Democrats in Colorado was the only choice that would produce the gay-tolerant leadership he’s pursuing. But ten years from now, he told me, he hopes he’ll be able to give evenly to Republicans and Democrats.
Convinced his approach was sound, Gill decided to go big. When I visited his headquarters last fall, liberals were working alongside conservatives on a list compiled by his top consultants—one a national Democratic consultant, the other a former Karl Rove protégé—of seventy races in which a key antigay candidate was vulnerable or the outcome of a race was likely to affect control of the legislature. The list included state legislators, governors, and judges, not just Republicans but Democrats as well—like Philip Travis, the Democratic legislator leading the push to overturn gay marriage in Massachusetts.
From the standpoint of an entrepreneur, Gill saw opportunity and believed he could amplify his return on investment. Last spring, he sponsored another conference for wealthy gay donors, only this one designed to steer money to the right political races instead of the right nonprofits. His pitch was simple: Instead of waiting for a political savior to fix everything, consider donating to these races, where you’ll have more effect at a fraction of the cost. As Trimpa later characterized the rationale for such an approach: “We live in a post–Will & Grace society. Americans believe and understand that gay people are everywhere, and most view them in a mainstream context. But this is a recent development, and the political world has not yet caught up—it’s lagging behind. The day will come when all of this is aligned, but we’re not there yet.”
In the 2006 elections, on a level where a few thousand dollars can decide a close race, Gill’s universe of donors injected more than $3 million, providing in some cases more than 20 percent of a candidate’s or organization’s budget. On Election Day, fifty of the seventy targeted candidates were defeated, Danny Carroll among them; and out of the thirteen states where Gill and his allies invested, four—Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Washington—saw control of at least one legislative chamber switch to the Democratic Party. (In Massachusetts, Travis decided to retire rather than seek reelection.) The national climate, which was strongly anti-Republican, helped bring about this transformation. But Gill’s stealth campaign was both effective and precedent-setting. For the first time, in a broad and organized way, gays had taken the initiative in a sweeping multistate strategy and had mostly prevailed.
The history of gays as open participants in American politics is a relatively brief one, though it contains clear antecedents for what Gill is attempting to do. In the 1950s, the homophile movement first sought social acceptance for gays and lesbians through a handful of small, politically cautious organizations like the Mattachine Society, which sponsored newsletters and discussion groups and lobbied to end police raids targeting gay activities. The Stonewall riots and the gay-liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s worked toward securing the legal protection afforded by federal minority status, to diminish discrimination and blackmail. The devastating rise of AIDS in the 1980s halted momentum toward the political mainstream and helped solidify gays’ status as victims in the public mind. The failure of state and federal government to respond to the crisis, however, prompted gays for the first time to organize to provide the care and services others would not. Explicitly gay philanthropy grew from a few million dollars a year in the early 1980s to around $100 million in the early 1990s, as independent, privately funded organizations came into being.