The Gill Action Fund’s new leader promises to continue the organization’s brand of stealthy, behind-the-scenes activism.
Kirk Fordham, who was named March 1 as head of the Denver-based organization, said in a Washington Blade interview he envisions a “degree of stealthiness” for Gill Action under his leadership in addition to working openly in efforts to advance LGBT rights throughout the country.
“I think it’ll be a hybrid of some deployment of highly trained gay SWAT teams, as I like to call it, and some of us will just be working very transparently with the existing organizations that are already on the ground,” Fordham said.
One of the advantages of Gill Action compared to other LGBT groups, Fordham said, is being able to deploy small teams of activists to regions where “there may be a gap and there may be a need to effect change on a pretty rapid basis.”
“That will allow us to perhaps go into some areas deep into the heartland of this country where there may not have been a lot of focus and activity to advance either non-discrimination or marriage equality or anti-bullying legislation,” Fordham said.
Gill Action — founded by gay billionaire philanthropist Tim Gill in 2005 — has a reputation for secrecy. Fordham will start in his new position April 16.
The group has played a role, without seeking credit, in passing statewide pro-LGBT legislation in various states, including the marriage equality legislation in New York. After an initial 2009 vote on same-sex marriage in the state failed, Gill Action funded a campaign in the state, called Fight Back New York to unseat state senators opposed to marriage equality, which ultimately unseated three senators.
Asked whether Gill Action would seek greater engagement with the media as it undertakes new initiatives, Fordham said the level of public engagement would “depend on the project” the organization is pursuing.
“There are sometimes where it may be to our community’s advantage not to broadcast exactly what our roadmap and our strategy might be on a particular issue or particular state, but I don’t think there’s a desire to speak sparingly with the press because they don’t trust the press or they have a hostile relationship,” Fordham said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s such a strategic decision on perhaps the element of surprise.”
According to a 2008 report in The Advocate, Gill Action in the 2006 election directed $2.8 million in nationwide contributions through its OutGiving program to 68 candidates across 11 states, and 56 of those candidates won. One of the more controversial ads funded by the organization was deployed against former Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, author of the Federal Marriage Amendment. It depicted an actress dressed like her stealing a watch from a corpse in an open coffin, criticizing her for her vote on a tax for funeral homes.
Fordham said Gill Action will take a look at the broader map to determine places other than urban areas and states on the coasts to lay the groundwork “for cementing a better quality of life for LGBT people, even in the most conservative parts of the country.”
“Now that some of the lower hanging fruit has been picked, it’s time to start harvesting in less fertile territory,” Fordham said. “So, I believe, that we have literally millions of people that are living in states that have no protection whatsoever from workplace discrimination, relationship recognition and their schools. And so, I think, we want to start advancing some of those protections in places where they’re most needed.”
Fordham was reluctant to identify any particular areas where Gill Action would focus its attention, saying such decisions haven’t been made yet. But, asked whether Minnesota would be a place where resources could be directed, he said the state would be “high on the list of places that would be on our priority list.”
“My sense is that most Minnesotans are pretty fair-minded folks,” Fordham said. “So I think we’re going to be taking a very close look at that state as a horizon state where there are opportunities to make some progress.”
Assuming the anti-gay marriage amendment that will come before voters in the state in November is defeated, Minesota could be poised to legalize same-sex marriage if the Democrats take control of the legislature. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) has expressed support for marriage rights for gay couples.
Growing up in a Christian and Republican family, Fordham said he also has experience with parents who initially were unhappy about his sexual orientation, but later came to terms with it, and he knows what it takes to change the hearts and minds of people like them.
“When I first came out, they sent me these Focus on the Family books and tapes and magazines,” Fordham said. “They were praying everyday that I would see a path back to heterosexuality. Now that I’ve been with my partner for 23 years, we’ve adopted two kids, they welcome us as part of the family. They’re a perfect case study of how conservative Republicans who happen to be people of faith can come around and change their attitudes.”
Fordham lives in Coral Gables, Fla., with his partner, Mike Cevarr, and their two sons, Lukas and Levi. The family will relocate to Denver when Fordham takes the helm of Gill Action.
A lifelong Republican, Fordham currently serves as CEO of Everglades Foundation, but has had experience working for several GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, even some with anti-gay records. He also worked for former Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned after a scandal involving male pages in 2006. While still a college student, Fordham worked for James Inhofe of Oklahoma, then a member of the U.S. House. He’s also worked for Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida.
Fordham said he “absolutely” plans on reaching out to Republican lawmakers to influence them on LGBT issues and he knows “how to speak their language.”
“Once you move past the first and second-tier states where you have Democratic legislatures and friendly Democratic governors, the list of options starts to get more difficult, we can either wait and hope that someday, those states will have Democratic elected officials that are friendly, or we can start having a conversation with those currently elected Republican leaders in legislatures that have Republican supermajorities,” Fordham said.
Fordham has received congratulations on his new role across the board from groups like the Center for American Progress, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force as well as praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and pro-LGBT Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
Still, skepticism remains that Fordham will be able to bring change within the Republican Party.
Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, said Fordham is qualified for the position, but questions how effective he can be with Republicans on LGBT issues.
“I take issue with this idea that because he’s a Republican, he can influence Republican votes because that’s utter nonsense,” Besen said. “Republican votes that are not coming our way has nothing to do with the arguments we’re making; it has nothing to do with a lack of effort. It has everything to do with the religious right as the Republicans’ most powerful constituency. They will do what’s necessary to please them.”
Although Fordham has worked for numerous Republicans, his most infamous former employer is former Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, who resigned in 2006 amid media reports he sent inappropriate messages to underage pages on Capitol Hill. Fordham was chief of staff for Foley after having worked on his campaign in 1994. While working for Martinez as the scandal broke, he helped broker agreements with the media on the story and testified before the House Ethics Committee on the issue. Foley later came out as gay.
Reflecting on the Foley scandal, Fordham said it was “one of the great crisis-management experiences” of his life and “a disappointment” because Foley was popular and well-regarded in his Republican caucus.
“It’s a perfect example of how someone through some reckless and irresponsible actions can flush down the toilet a promising political career,” Fordham said.
While working as chief of staff for Foley, Fordham said he had no knowledge of his boss sending inappropriate text and instant messages, but knew that he was engaging with pages and younger staffers.
“What I saw was the same kind of behavior you see among some heterosexual members of Congress: spending time socializing with on the floor of the House or in the halls of the Capitol, paying an inappropriate amount of attention to younger staffers or pages,” Fordham said. “Although that kind of behavior isn’t criminal, it’s certainly something that I thought crossed the line for a member of Congress as far as how they ought to conduct themselves.”
Fordham said he told the Ethics Committee everything and the steps “I took to try to influence my boss’s behavior,” saying the report that was produced in the end was favorable to him. According to media reports, Fordham had informed the staff of then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert about Foley’s behavior, but no action was taken.
Although they didn’t speak for a year after the event, Fordham says he now maintains a personal relationship with Foley and they have periodic phone conversations. Foley is based in West Palm Beach, while Fordham resides near Miami.
“I think he’s trying to rehabilitate himself and he’s now engaged in the community up there,” Fordham said. “We talked about the potential of him running for mayor of West Palm Beach. I gave him my best advice, and in the end, he decided not to run. So, I still hear from him once in a while, but I do believe in forgiveness and redemption for everyone, even when they break the public trust and do things that we consider really bad behavior.”