Q&A with Donor Tim Sweeney: “We change hearts and minds one person at a time.”

Philanthropist and community leader Tim Sweeney generously helped raise funds for Pride Foundation during Executive Director Kris Hermanns recent visit to Billings, issuing a challenge gift of $1000. The house party he co-headlined was packed with more than 60 people and raised over $3,000 to support Pride Foundation’s work in Montana. I know not everyone (myself included) got to learn what makes Tim tick, so I thought I’d follow up with this Q&A, as we all can learn a lot from this impressive Montana-grown leader.

Tim is a Billings native and graduate of the University of Montana. He’s served as Executive Director of the Gill Foundation since 2007, bringing three decades of leadership experience in the movement to advance equality for all Americans. Prior to joining Gill Foundation, Tim worked to build national efforts to support the rights of lesbian and gay couples to civil marriage and provided support for organizations implementing a California law that safeguards the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.

From 1986 to 1993, Sweeney led the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, helping to build the largest community-based HIV/AIDS service, prevention, and advocacy organization in the world. Under his leadership, the organization formed a national coalition to press Washington to pass antidiscrimination legislation. Working with allies, they secured passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Ryan White Care Act. Tim will retire from the Gill Foundation this summer.

Pride Foundation: How old were you when you came out to yourself, your family, and friends? If that took place in Montana, what was that like for you? If not, do you think being in a state like Montana prevented you from feeling like you could be yourself and have a good life here?

Tim Sweeney: I knew I was different very early in my life, when I was six years old (1960). I didn’t have a word to describe my feelings and attractions. The notion of homosexuality or a gay community was not in the culture of my family or my town. I was helped along my journey by my next oldest brother (Mark) who came out before me. As I gradually revealed myself to my closest friends late in high school and then college, I decided that I could not thrive as an openly gay man in Montana, so I moved to San Francisco in 1977. It was very difficult to leave my home and community but I felt I had no choice. My older gay brother had moved to New York City and built himself a great circle of friends and a terrific career in the theater. I was determined to replicate his success in my own way and I did.

PF: What’s your favorite thing to do or place to visit when you come back to Montana?

TS: I love to visit my three siblings and their families, my many dear friends, visit my parents’ gravestone, walk along the Yellowstone River, and hike up at East Rosebud Lake. And eat Wilcoxson’s ice cream bars and hamburgers at the Dew Drop Inn in Absarokee.

PF: Gill Foundation has been a huge supporter of LGBTQ equality efforts in Montana. Tell us about some of the recent grants you’ve made here and the impact they have made.

TS: We have funded or are funding (with our partners in the State Equality Fund) the ACLU of Montana and the Montana Human Rights Network. We are extremely proud of and inspired by their litigation, public education, and organizing programs that seek to establish inclusive non-discrimination protections and recognition of LGBT families.

PF: You are good friends with Pride Foundation’s Executive Director, Kris Hermanns. How did you two meet? What about Kris’s leadership of Pride Foundation stands out most to you?

TS: I met Kris Hermanns when we both served on the Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues board of directors. I immediately appreciated her intelligence, passion, no-nonsense style, sense of strategy, and wonderful humor. She has brought those same qualities to Pride Foundation. We also share the same taste in shirts. And we like to hike together.

PF: Working on LGBTQ equality in Montana can be tough on staff and volunteers. What advice do you have to keep us motivated, especially during this legislative session?

TS: We change hearts and minds one person at a time. Sharing our personal narrative of our hopes, dreams, barriers we face and contributions we make is effective. All the polling shows that as non-gay people know more and more LGBT people and understand us at a very human level, their attitude shifts and they become more supportive.

PF: Could you ever see yourself living in Montana again? Why or why not?

TS: I plan to live in the Bay Area over the long term. But as I slow down at work and eventually retire, I hope that I can spend extended periods of time in Montana with my family and friends and enjoy the state’s beautiful land and culture.

PF: You recently made a very generous gift to Pride Foundation, $4,000 of which will go toward our Ex-Pat campaign to challenge other Montanans who’ve left the state to give back. Why do you prioritize Pride Foundation in your giving?

TS: I admire the many projects that Pride Foundation funds in Montana – services, organizing, public education, community building, scholarships, and the arts. All are part of a holistic strategy to strengthen our communities and gain full legal equality.

PF: Anything else you’d like to share with Pride Foundation blog readers?

TS: Remember your roots and help our next generation of LGBT kids thrive with their families and in their communities.

Caitlin Copple is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer for Montana. You can email Caitlin at caitlin@pridefoundation.org.

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