The millionaires club – Money Guide – Cover Story
When Colorado software enterpreneur Tim Gill decided more than five years ago to be out not only as gay man but also as a wealthy gay man, he saw nothing unusual in his position. “If you should be out as a person,” he says, “then when you give away money, you should be out too.” He knew that “people sometimes react to you strangely when you have money,” but he did not realize to what degree that perception informs the behavior of more-closetd wealthy lesbians and gay men. “I guess I was a little naive about why so many wealthy gays were still in the closet,” he says “at least about money.”
The situation Gill discovered is one that can be powerful agents for change, and yet identifying these individuals remains one of the poorly charted areas of the community’s life.
In some ways it should be easy to spot the wealthy among us. Like their straight counterparts, rich gays often drive sleeker cars, live in more palatial houses, and go through life with a reduced sense of worry about basics. They are also the ones whose names crown the contributors’ lists at splashy fund-raisers.
And yet many wealthy gay men and lesbians lead lives that are far from conspicuous. They have to. Some could compromise their inheritance of family money if they are too vocal about their sexuality. Others fear a deluge of charitable solicitations. Still others, sensitive to the community’s public image, are concerned that if they are openly wealthy and queer, it will contribute to the notion, exploited by the Christian right, that homosexuals are already provided for and that to protect them legally would amount to unnecessary “special rights.” For these reasons and other more personal ones, many gays with money say that the idea of coming out as both wealthy and gay fills them with trepidation.
While this might sound like an enviable problem to have, the reticence that can accompany this double coming-out can have serious effects on the community’s fund-raising. The situation also makes it nearly impossible to assemble a gay version of the Forbes 400. For every David Geffen or James Hormel who would be easy enough to place on the list, probably four or five others of almost as impressive means are not openly wealthy, let alone openly gay.
More and more men and women, however, are identifying themselves as both wealthy and gay or lesbian, and of those who have come forward recently perhaps none have done so with quite the force of Gill. Through the Gill Foundation and through the foundation’s OutGiving Project, which is devoted to helping both wealthy and nonwealthy gay people become better donor activists, Gill has become a major player in the world of gay money and its public uses. The OutGiving conference that he hosts every 18 months or so has achieved must-attend status for other resourceful gay men and lesbians, roughly a kind of queer version of the Sun Valley, Ida., power retreat that financier Herbert Allen Jr. throws every summer so that media moguls like Bill Gates and Barry Diller can schmooze and feel important together.
So just who is Tim Gill, and how did he become the quintessential catalyst for gay largesse? He describes himself as someone who was a slightly nerdy child (“I was always the second-to-last picked for gym-class teams, just before the fat kid”) who nonetheless had the courage to come out as soon as he arrived, in 1972, at the University of Colorado, where he majored in applied mathematics and computer science. He is a “media geek” who, when he was laid off from a Denver software firm, had the reckless self-confidence to found his own company m 1981, in part with $2,000 borrowed from his parents, a loan he paid back within three weeks. He’s a 43-year-old entrepreneur whose company, Quark, which is perhaps best-known for its popular pagemakeup software, last year had upward of $200 million in revenues (Gill and Its family own half the business). And he’s an unpretentious man for whom the trappings of success seem welcome but not crucial. In addition to a home in Denver, he has a “little log cabin” in Aspen, Colo., (“little” meaning 13,000 square feet), where he is more likely to be found dining at home with friends and his boyfriend of 12 years, Davol Tedder, a composer and recording artist, than hanging out at power boites like Little Neil’s.
If Gill’s self-image is low-key, his philanthropy is not. His goal is to help remake queer fund-raising into a force as well-organized at local levels as is the apparatus of the Christian right. To help do so, last year alone he gave away — to various parts of his foundation — fully half of the approximately $66 million that he personally earned. Apart from the obvious tax advantages or the enhanced social status that tends to come from making large public gifts, how did he reach this point of vast commitment?
His rise to gay charitable titan started with what Gill, using fund-raising parlance, calls a “triggering event.” For him, it was the 1992 passage in Colorado of Amendment 2, which outlawed the state’s gay-rights legislation. He’d been active in gay groups since college, but the success of the initiative forced him to act. Before then, he says, he didn’t think of himself as having money. “I visualized myself as this person who ate cold cereal for breakfast.”
As Gill’s commitment to philanthropy grew, it became clear that a separate entity was necessary. In early 1995 he established the Gill Foundation, which has an endowment of around $30 million and last year gave away more than $4 million, 70% of which was to gay and lesbian groups. As for the gifts that Gill makes to nongay organizations, he encourages same-sex households to make sure that their contributions are identified as coming from gay individuals or, as some activists have put it, are “stamped pink.” This practice, he believes, makes “straight folks aware that the organizations they know and love also get gay support.”
But this does not mean he is dogmatic about the distribution of his riches. His foundation, for example, which favors matching grants, supports a variety of lesbian and gay initiatives. To qualify, an organization need not share Gill’s own political leanings, which he describes as “more libertarian than anything,” believing that people should be encouraged to “succeed on their own merits.” Both he and his foundation support such mainstream community efforts as a more inclusive military and the extension of the marriage option to gay relationships, although in the latter area Gill himself has understandably complicated feelings. “For me, being married is a $300-million question,” he says, alluding to potential estate taxes on his assets, which he declines to break down and which, in part because Quark is privately held, are difficult to value more specifically.
Gill says what he’s found since coming out as gay and rich is not necessarily what he expected. He expected repercussions for his business, but, except for one Florida company that briefly stopped using Quark (“As though companies have sexual orientations”), there have been no glaring problems. Another thing that surprised Gill was how isolated his activism made him feel. “Living in Colorado, I didn’t know other wealthy gay philanthropists,” he says. To meet some of them, he established the OutGiving Project in late 1995. Its goals, according to the project’s director, Mickey MacIntyre, are to teach gay and lesbian groups how to become better at asking for money, to help gays become more effective donors, and to promote the idea of philanthropy as social action.
In May 1996 the project held its first major donor conference in Aspen. (A second conference was held this past September, and a third is envisioned for May 1999.) The steering committee Gill assembled for the 1996 gathering read like a who’s who of wealthy gays, at least of the nonanonymous type: Jeff Soref, Edie Cofrin, Olive Watson, Henry van Ameringen, and James Hormel, plus activists like Elizabeth Birch and Torie Osborn. “At times the conference threatened to turn into a rich gays’ ego orgy,” one of last year’s participants said, requesting anonymity. “But mostly it provided an excellent chance to network and learn.”
One of Gill’s advisory committee members for the first conference, Leonie Walker, has been useful to OutGiving on the inherited-wealth questions that many participants deal with. Walker, 40, has a textbook background of privilege: childhood in Manhattan, finishing school at Miss Porter’s in Connecticut, college at Sarah Lawrence. “Having grown up with wealth,” she says, “I took it for granted, but I also felt guilty for having it — it separated me from everyone else.”
Like many wealthy gay people, particularly lesbians, her guilt only increased after she came out and began to be active in the community’s organizations. “There was a kind of antimaterialism left over from the gay movement’s early days,” she says, “this idea that you couldn’t be an authentic dyke if you were wealthy because wealth associated you with all the institutions we were trying to change.”
Walker credits her longtime partner, physician Kate O’Hanlon, with helping her achieve a balanced attitude about money and lesbian activism: “Kate helped me redefine what having `resources’ meant. Some people have time or expertise as a resource. I happen to have money as well, and donating it intelligently is how I can be resourceful.” Walker was also helped by the difference in her and O’Hanlori’s backgrounds. “Kate was raised middleclass,” Walker says. “Her attitude is: I work hard — I want a comfortable house.” The couple does have a lovely house, in Portola Valley, Calif. That abode, a new car, and the ability to take luxurious holidays abroad are, Walker says, essential for her sense of well-being — which she finds necessary to her life as an activist. “I don’t think deprivation is the answer. I would rather work for a change within the capitalist system.” To hear capitalism criticized by politically correct lesbians, she adds, is “boring and useless.”
While Walker represents many of the issues of the inherited-wealth strain of rich-gays activism, Tina Podlodowski, 37, is a “Microsoft millionaire,” one of the software giant’s so-called Class of 2000 — roughly the number of early employees who received enough stock to be rich once the company took off. She makes it plain that being a member of that class by no means implies that she’s as wealthy as Bill Gates, although, she says, “you wouldn’t know it judging from some of the requests for huge donations that I get.”
Podlodowski also makes it clear that her resources allowed her to leave Microsoft in 1992, after having worked there seven years, to pursue a family (she and her partner, Chelle Mileur, have two young adopted children) and a political career as “the big out dyke of Seattle.” Though she has since been elected to Seattle’s city council, she has not forgotten gay concerns, particularly the needs of gay families with children.
“Women in this culture have not been encouraged to learn how to manage their money,” Podlodowski says, “so it is not surprising that rich dykes have had trouble in that area, particularly those who come from inherited wealth and never gained the hands-on experience that’s helpful for managing money.” Gill’s OutGiving conferences, she stresses, have been helpful in “getting a dialogue going about how wealth can and should be managed in the queer community.”
Such a dialogue, as Gill himself emphasizes, is essential if rich gays are ever going to shed their image as excessive hedonists or humorless radicals and work for change. “The Christian right loves to paint us as people who have so much money, we couldn’t possibly need legislative protection,” says. “Meanwhile, they’re busy tapping into their own pockets of wealth to make sure that we never achieve, let alone maintain, our civil rights.”
COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group