The Oct. 11, 2009 National Equality March on Washington for LGBT rights closed its books with about $90,000 in surplus funds, according to organizers and records released by a non-profit financial services group that managed its funds.
March organizers, led by San Francisco gay activist Cleve Jones, had hoped to use the surplus funds to launch a new grassroots organization intended to promote LGBT activism in each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts.
But the new group, Equality Across America, dissolved one year later after organizers engaged in protracted disputes over a governing structure and strategies for carrying out its mission, activists familiar with the group said. Its once enthusiastic volunteer organizers gradually withdrew their support, and a succession of coordinators came and left, creating instability and uncertainty, observers said.
“As disappointed as I am that the group was unable to move forward together, I remain really proud of the work that they did and the way we handled ourselves in that march,” Jones said.
“This may be the only national march we’ve had that didn’t end with financial disputes and bills unpaid and lawsuits and missing money,” he added.
In October 2010, the Tides Center, the San Francisco-based financial services organization that managed the funds for both the march and Equality Across America, said it decided to dissolve EAA due to the group’s “lack of dedicated staff and unified direction.”
After conferring with the remaining “parties who continued to show interest in EAA,” Tides officials announced they would donate approximately $70,000 in funds remaining from the march to three LGBT organizations in equal amounts.
Among the groups to receive the funds were GetEqual, the direct action LGBT organization founded in March 2010 by the National Equality March’s two co-directors, Robin McGehee and Kip Williams.
The remaining two-thirds share of the funds went to an LGBT youth scholastic achievement award fund operated by the Colin Higgins Foundation and to the Face Value Campaign, a group that conducts research and educational campaigns to overcome “social stigma against LGBT children and adults.”
McGehee and Williams resigned from Equality Across America less than two weeks after the march due to irreconcilable disagreements with Jones, the two told the Blade. Jones said their departure led to a split in the coalition of activists and groups associated with EAA that was largely responsible for its demise.
McGehee and Williams dispute that assertion, saying others who operated EAA over the next several months were responsible for its dissolution due to internal bickering over its governing structure and mission.
Jones, meanwhile, said he stepped down from his leadership role in Equality Across America shortly after McGehee and Williams resigned. He told the Blade this week that he made it clear months before the march that he would turn over the helm of the new organization to other LGBT activists and organizers.
Jones said McGehee and Williams appeared to be more interested in “doing their own thing” with GetEqual than supporting what he called the “team” of activists and organizers of the march who aspired to move forward with Equality Across America.
“Given the fact that Robin and Kip had pulled out and launched GetEqual made it very difficult” for EA organizers to continue, Jones said.
He said he learned later that McGehee and Williams had met privately with gay businessman and philanthropist Jonathan Lewis, who later promised them hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to launch a new group that became GetEqual.
McGehee and Williams said gay D.C. political consultant and former Clinton administration official Paul Yandura approached them on Lewis’ behalf during the week of the march. They said Yandura informed them that Lewis admired their organizing skills and offered to provide them with funding to create a new LGBT organization to carry out the mission of the march.
Yandura told the Blade Wednesday that Lewis would not have objected if McGehee and Williams worked with Jones to use the funds for Equality Across America, but he said Lewis wanted the two to lead the new group.
According to McGehee and Williams, they informed Jones about Lewis’ funding offer and Jones rejected the offer, saying he wanted to “go in a different direction” with EA,” Williams told the Blade.
Jones disputes that claim, saying Williams and McGehee gave him an “ultimatum” on the night of the march that he commit to hiring Williams in a two-year contract to head the Equality Across America project.
“When I told them I could not do that on such a short notice, that I didn’t have the authority to do that, they left,” said Jones. “Then they immediately began telling people that I had fired them, which was ridiculous.”
McGehee and Williams said Jones made it clear to them that they would not have a role in Equality Across America if they didn’t embrace his vision for the new group. They said their departure was based solely on a philosophical disagreement over the mission and role of the new group.
McGehee said she and Williams both informed Jones that while they agreed with the need for organizing in congressional districts, they believed a “435 district” plan would not be the best strategy and use of limited resources for the period between the October 2009 march and the November 2010 congressional elections.
“We, like many others we talked to, believed this was a window that would soon close and we should use all of our resources to pressure the president and the Democratic leaders in the Congress to do more than what they were doing” for LGBT legislation, including repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” McGehee said.
McGehee said the congressional district project should be taken up in some form but she and others working with her believed a highly visible direct action approach, involving non-violence civil disobedience arrests, was the best approach for the 2010 election cycle.
Yandura said Lewis, a multimillionaire philanthropist who was becoming impatient with the White House and congressional Democrats wanted the new group to “shake things up” before the congressional elections, when many expected the Republicans to gain more strength in Congress.
When McGehee and Williams were unable to reach an agreement with Jones, they submitted a plan to Lewis for the creation of GetEqual, which Lewis agreed to support through grants totaling $450,000, said Yandura.
He and Williams told the Blade they expected GetEqual and Equality Across America to work side by side in pushing for LGBT equality.
“My thought was the more the merrier,” said Yandura.
He, McGehee and Williams said the fact that Equality Across American began to falter and later dissolved had nothing to do with GetEqual or McGehee and Williams’ departure but most likely was due to internal disputes over strategy and leadership.
Activists familiar with the EAA, including Jones, said the plans to establish special “Congressional District Action Teams” in all 435 congressional districts never got off the ground.
Jones said the 2009 LGBT equality march had an important impact in motivating young people in the LGBT community to become involved in activism and politics. He said a new generation of activists spawned by the march would do the work in their homes states and districts ultimately would have an impact on members of Congress.
Activists involved in Equality Across America, meanwhile, point to a series of regional conferences that EAA put together in the spring and summer of 2010 to train grassroots LGBT organizers. A report about the conferences posted on the EAA website, which was still online as of last week, said the conferences strengthened the LGBT movement in many parts of the country by generating new activists.
The Tides Center refused a request by the Blade to release a finance report for the march and Equality Across America.
Christine Coleman, Tides’ director of communication, said the group considers such documents confidential.
Jones said he recalls that the march cost about $154,000 to put on. McGehee put the cost at $178,000. The two agreed that most of the funds for the march came from a few large donors, including gay philanthropist and Human Rights Campaign board member Bruce Bastian ($100,000); and GOP former congressman Michael Huffington ($25,000); and a grant from the LGBT supportive Arcus Foundation ($50,000).
The two said about $20,000 of the $90,000 surplus most likely went to expenses for organizing the Equality Across America conferences in several cities. They said part of the $20,000 also may have been used to cover the Tides Center’s fee for managing EAA’s finances and business records.