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Marketplace

For gay rights groups, victory could come at a price

Nova Safo Jul 28, 2015
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Since the Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling a month ago, gay rights advocates have been shifting the conversation to discrimination. A new bill in congress, introduced late last week, would ban discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity.

At the same time, same-sex marriage opponents have been talking about religious accommodations for those who don’t want to participate in same-sex marriages, such as bakers who do not want to make wedding cakes for gay couples.

These developments come at a critical moment for gay rights advocates. There are concerns that they might have trouble fundraising, now that their biggest battle is over.

“Marriage equality is such a galvanizing issue, and people came to us and said ‘I want to be a part of that movement,'” says Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois.

Since the Illinois state legislature legalized same-sex marriage two years ago, Cherkasov says fundraising has gotten tougher. “We have to work harder right now for every single dollar that we raise,” he says.

“There’s palpable fear across the LGBT movement that people are going to think … that somehow the fight is over,” says Matt Foreman, program director at the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. The San Francisco-based foundation is one of the top donors to the LGBT movement.

Foreman expects fundraising will drop after the marriage victory. The question is by how much.

“There’s a lot of work going on … to try to figure out how to sustain our movement,” Foreman says. “One is research into what motivates both current and prospective donors.”

The Washington D.C.-based Freedom To Marry is one of the groups to which Foreman’s foundation gives money. A few weeks after the same-sex marriage ruling, the group’s founder, Evan Wolfson, announced that he is shutting down the organization, which, by its own estimate, had raised almost $60 million during its existence to campaign for same-sex marriage.

“There’s been some admiration for the idea of an organization being able to say: ‘We achieved our goal. We’re going to shut down. We’re not just going to muddle around and try to figure out what else we can do,'” Wolfson says.

But he is quick to say that while shutting down is the right move for his group, because its one goal was same-sex marriage, other gay rights groups should continue to address other areas of discrimination and to be sure they are getting their message out.

The day of the same-sex marriage ruling, many gay rights advocates not only celebrated the ruling, but pointed to other discrimination as their next battle front. Cherkasov, of Equality Illinois, has a similar message.

“In the majority of the country, it’s legal to fire a gay person the morning after he gets married and brings a picture of his husband to his desk,” Cherkasov says.

Whatever the cause, pivoting to other battles is important if a movement and the organizations connected to it are to survive, says Douglas McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, who has spent decades studying political and social movements.

“The standard thing is for an advocacy organization that achieves its goal to kind of rebrand itself,” McAdam says, adding that there are plenty of cautionary examples throughout history of organizations that don’t.

For example, the main goal of the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s was the right to vote. Once that was achieved, “the movement did not identify new goals to continue to mobilize people and motivate fundraising,” McAdam says. It took decades more before women’s rights were being talked about again, in terms of equal pay and other discrimination, he says.

Evan Wolfson is optimistic about the gay rights movement’s future. He says the good news is that gay advocacy groups are now in a better position for the battles ahead than when he started Freedom to Marry in 2001.

“The marriage conversation has brought many more people into our work, and into our movement, and into the discussion. So there are even more people to reach out to and help them understand why we need to keep going and do the next step and the next step,” Wolfson says.

Those new people, he says, can be the source of new fundraising.

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