Tim Gill pushes his chair back from a conference table, faces the cluttered whiteboard behind him, and grabs a blue dry-erase marker. He’s at home in this room—in the Cherry Creek headquarters of his latest technology startup, a voice-activated home-automation company called Josh.ai—but he’s grappling with a hypothetical: How many people in Colorado know who Tim Gill is? It’s a question the very private man hasn’t spent much time considering, so he doesn’t really know how to answer. Still, as with most matters small and large, he starts by drawing up an equation.
“I have so little data on which to do the math,” Gill says. “Let’s figure this out. How many people are in Colorado? Five million?”
More from our December 2019 Issue
- 3 Local Whiskey Distillers That Make Holiday Wishes Come True
- The Best Colorado Events: December 2019
- Where Our Food Editors Are Eating, December 2019
- We Can’t Believe This Isn’t the Real R2D2
- A Decade in Denver: 10 Trends That Defined the 2010s in the Mile High City
- How a Colorado Couple Quit Booze and Found New Highs in the Mountains
- Wild West
It’s actually a little higher, but that doesn’t matter much. He writes 5,000,000 on the board, then pauses for several seconds. The marker hits the whiteboard again, squeaking now as it draws a smaller figure below the first.
“It seems utterly reasonable to me that 5,000 people know me, as the lower bound,” he posits. Gill’s vocabulary is precise, the jargon of a mathematician. “I probably have 500 to 700 people who are friends,” he says. “And then you add in politicians, who I think probably pretty much all know me. A few media people. Some businesspeople.” He then subtracts the outliers—children who are too young to know his name and older people who may have forgotten it. “I’m not sure I could even get to one percent,” he concludes, adding, “50,000 people know who Tim Gill is? That seems outrageous.”
To the tall and lithe 66-year-old, who is still wearing workout clothes this Monday morning in September, the idea that 50,000 people in Colorado know his name is clearly absurd. But if you were to actually consider what he’s done in and beyond Colorado, it’s somewhat confounding—unfair, even—that there wouldn’t be at least 50,000 people who know who he is. Gill made hundreds of millions as a technology entrepreneur, and he’s giving much of it away. He transformed the publishing industry. He upset a political ecosystem, and he forever altered the gay rights movement in America.
You could argue he’s had a broader impact than the current occupant of the governor’s office and the previous governor, too. So how is it possible, by Gill’s calculations, that less than one percent of Colorado’s population actually knows who Tim Gill is?
In August, at the headquarters of Josh.ai, two young coders who are dressed like extras from a Silicon Valley episode compare the Mile High City to California’s tech hub. “Dude. There’s something about the altitude,” one says. Nearby, Gill is oblivious, deep in his own world. It’s unclear what he can hear. He doesn’t notice anyone leaving or entering the room.
Aside from a still-packaged Honey Stinger energy chew, pieces of disassembled computer hardware, and a small bowl of dog treats, his unremarkable white desk is no different from the ones at which more than a dozen young coders sit nearby. Gill stares at his computer monitor with a singular focus. His left index finger, perpetually extended, works in a cycle, moving from his keyboard up to his chin and out to the monitor, where it isolates a line of code before returning to the keyboard. His right index and middle fingers, equally alert, don’t waver from their ready positions.
“What?” he whispers to himself. Moving closer to the screen, his face scrunches: “Is that even possible?”
He pauses. His fingers peck at the keyboard. He pauses again and seems satisfied: “OK,” he mutters before moving on. He repeats this barely audible process for half an hour as he solves more Josh.ai bugs.
The technology is based on Gill’s childhood wish to be able to talk to his home—and to have it perform tasks in return. Now, he’s coding lines that will, say, direct blinds to lower on the east kitchen window. Or dim the lighting in the living room. Or tell the TV to play a snowboard film. (Gill is an avid boarder and logs over 30 days each season.)
Gill’s interest in solving problems and writing code started early. He was born in Indiana in 1953, but his family moved to the Denver area when Gill was in third grade. His father, a plastic surgeon, and his mother, who stayed home with Gill and his two sisters, raised the kids in Applewood, a yet-to-be-developed area that offered plenty of opportunities for exploration. He loved science fiction, in all its forms, and experimentation (he froze grasshoppers and tried to bring them back to life). And he dreamed of one day talking to his house.
He also excelled at math. In 1971, as a high schooler in Jefferson County, he’d already taken college-level calculus classes, so when his senior-year math teacher handed out the entire semester’s worth of homework, Gill took it home and completed it in one weekend. The idea, of course, was for students to gradually tackle the assignments over the course of several months, but Gill wasn’t like most students.
At one point, demonstrating more prowess than apathy, he laid out an assignment completely backward, each word and digit assembled in reverse, right to left. “I had been practicing writing backward anyway, because kids do weird things,” he says. “So, the question became: Can I do an entire math assignment backward?”
It made no sense for a burgeoning mathematician like this to sit in a class for which he’d already finished all the homework, so his teacher arranged for Gill to spend his course time on Wheat Ridge High School’s computer, an ASR-33 Teletype terminal located in the second-floor physics lab. Not only would it serve as a foundation for everything he’d one day build, but it also was the perfect way to corral a precocious young mind.
Having learned basic programming skills, Gill set off in the fall of 1972 for the University of Colorado Boulder before transferring to CU Denver, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics. Meanwhile, he worked at a number of tech startups and ultimately landed a job at Hewlett Packard in Fort Collins, where he was employed as a coder throughout the late 1970s. Eventually, he joined another tech company but was laid off when the enterprise lost money.
It wasn’t until 1981 that Gill started his own software company, which he named Quark. Within a decade he would revolutionize the publishing industry. Before the introduction of QuarkXPress in 1987, Macintosh programs like Aldus PageMaker were able to combine text and images into layouts for simple publications such as office newsletters, but not much more.
Gill’s technology proved that desktop computers could replace the high-end typesetters and color-separation systems then required to produce professional-quality magazines and newspapers. It was a game changer. By the early 1990s, QuarkXPress was being used by many of the world’s major publishers.
It’s the type of accomplishment that warrants a Wikipedia page and earned the developer the kind of cash that could buy several yachts or erect self-aggrandizing monuments. For Gill, solving a problem for the publishing world was just the start. He would find another use for his money.
Gill was angry—so he made a call. It was 1992 and Colorado voters had just approved Amendment 2, a ballot measure outlawing special protections for the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community in any public arena, which meant municipalities and state agencies could not create nondiscrimination policies for those groups. The amendment was the brainchild of Colorado for Family Values, a conservative activist group led by Will Perkins. The Colorado Springs car dealer seized on the growing evangelical movement in his hometown, and he rallied conservative voters who believed homosexuality was akin to moral deviancy.
Perkins pushed Amendment 2 to victory, earning Colorado the “hate state” distinction and galvanizing anti-gay movements in places such as Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. But the amendment’s passage had an unintended effect. It spurred Gill to action.
Gill called Norwest Bank Colorado, which held about $20 million of Quark’s cash and Gill’s personal wealth. He wanted to know if the bank’s gay employees were protected by an internal policy. They were not. Gill made a threat: If Norwest didn’t get a nondiscrimination policy on the books, he’d withdraw all $20 million. Within weeks, the bank complied, and then 39-year-old Gill realized his wealth could influence more than technology markets.
This is a pattern in Gill’s life. When his community—when his very identity—is attacked, it pierces him. He is not often brought to anger, but, as his husband, Scott Miller, explains today, that changes when gay rights are threatened. “We’re actually really quiet people,” Miller says. “But—excuse the language—if you fuck around with the LGBT community, you will face Tim Gill’s wrath.”
To be clear, Gill is not a millionaire motivated purely by exacting revenge and inflicting pain on those who attack him. As Miller puts it: “[Anger] is just the catalyst. Anger is the spark that starts a pretty amazing process in Tim Gill’s life.” In the early 1990s, the spark was lit by Will Perkins. But even then, it took a man named Fred Ebrahimi to persuade Gill to do more.
Gill hired Ebrahimi in the early 1980s to help run Quark. While Gill focused on what he enjoyed doing (coding and managing the product), Ebrahimi assumed the role of CEO and ran the sales and marketing departments. Working closely with Gill, Ebrahimi helped grow the business into a corporation worth hundreds of millions.
Ebrahimi, Gill says, also pushed him into philanthropy. After Amendment 2 passed, Ebrahimi told Gill to publicly announce he was going to devote $1 million to teach people that discrimination was wrong. Gill would go on to do just that, and more. At the time, Gill was no grant-maker. He was a coder, a tech executive trying to keep Quark at the top of a competitive market. He didn’t actually know how to endow a foundation, how to infuse and fortify the gay rights movement with his wealth. Though the Supreme Court would ultimately overturn it, Amendment 2 was a variable Gill hadn’t accounted for, and it had changed the equation.
Around the same time that he called Norwest, Gill also made a speech at a Quark users conference in which he revealed his intention to fund efforts to promote equality and LGBT rights. It would prove to be strategic. Those attending the conference were primarily media professionals, and when Gill finished speaking, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times approached him. The paper published a story, and word began to spread.
In 1994, after more than a year of giving away money to nonprofits with little planning or structure, he filed papers to incorporate the Gill Foundation. After he sold Quark for a reported $500 million to Ebrahimi in 1999, Gill gave more than $200 million of it to his foundation. “Once he made that announcement [in 1992], every existing and nascent LGBT organization in the country started wondering: Who is this Tim Gill guy? and wanted to get a check from him,” says Katherine Pease, the inaugural executive director of the Gill Foundation.
To date, 25 years after the Gill Foundation was established, it has granted more than $360 million to organizations around the country, primarily to gay rights causes. But it also has funded broader efforts: to curb payday lending, to launch STEM labs in Colorado schools, and to support an endowed professorship for HIV research at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. In total, Gill has donated more than $500 million of his own wealth (Gill won’t disclose his personal net worth) over the past quarter century. He is now the largest individual donor in the history of the LGBT movement. But as his political opponents from the past decade know well, it hasn’t all been charity.
Perched a mile above sea level, Colorado’s state Capitol building looks colossal from the outside. Inside, though, the basement rooms—where committee hearings are held to determine which bills die or thrive—are tiny. They’re meant to hold a few dozen people. Certainly not a few hundred.
In March 2004, then 50-year-old Gill was quasi-retired. With some free time, he had built a social networking site for the LGBT community called connexion.org (similar to early iterations of Myspace and Facebook). It never really took off, but it had helped Gill create an online community of more than 100,000 people.
This was bad news for the Republican Party in Colorado and, specifically, for state Representative Shawn Mitchell. The legislator was sponsoring a bill that would, in essence, ban the discussion of gay and lesbian issues in schools statewide, which pissed Gill off. So, he started a movement using connexion.org to get “a couple hundred of his closest friends” to storm the Statehouse when the bill went before committee.
The plan worked. The hearing was moved to a larger room upstairs and, ultimately, Mitchell amended the bill with less severe language. But Gill didn’t see that as a complete win—he’d heard too much anti-gay rhetoric during the debate. “Shawn Mitchell is really who got me into politics,” Gill says. “Before that, I was just doing minor political contributions.”
Gill’s foundation work would continue, but at the urging of Democratic lobbyists like Ted Trimpa, he’d funnel his personal wealth in a new direction. Over the next several months, Gill was connected with three key allies in Colorado, all of whom, like himself, were wealthy, ambitious Democrats: current Governor Jared Polis, Pat Stryker, and Rutt Bridges. The supergroup would later be dubbed the “Gang of Four” for its role in altering Colorado politics and transforming political strategy across the country.
In the summer of 2004, before anyone really knew what they were up to, they made a plan. They would identify seats in the state House and Senate they wanted to flip and direct vast sums of money to help elect their preferred candidates. They almost always supported Democrats, but in particular, the group targeted Republicans like Mitchell who they thought stood in the way of their progressive priorities.
Rather than throw their wealth into big-ticket races at the national level, they focused on Colorado with the hope of getting a bigger return on their investment. They formed tax-exempt 527 organizations. They deployed their money in such a calculated manner—creating a network of donors almost impossible to trace back to the source—it would be years before state Republicans understood what had happened to them. “It was probably the most sophisticated political machinery in any state at that time,” says former state Representative Matt Knoedler, a rare Republican who was targeted by the Gang of Four and still won in 2004.
Knoedler felt confident about his odds of victory against Democrat Pete Mazula. But then, in September, he found out that power brokers in the Democratic Party had targeted his race. Over two weeks, his opponent received $70,000 from the Gang of Four, about twice as much as Knoedler raised in his entire campaign. “The financial advantage that Tim Gill and his allies put behind candidates happened almost overnight,” says Republican strategist Dick Wadhams. “It caught Republicans totally off guard.”
Mailers arrived in mailboxes in Knoedler’s district painting him as a callous conservative extremist. One of the mailers, he recalls, suggested he was opposed to people receiving health coverage for cancer. “I was personally prepared for it, but I’m not sure my family was,” Knoedler remembers. “It was very scary. They were saying things about me that I didn’t believe to be true. They were implying that I was just a bad person.”
Though Knoedler pulled off a narrow victory, he was one of the few. Using tactics like those employed against Knoedler, the Gang of Four succeeded in helping Democrats take control of both chambers of government in 2004. Today, Knoedler says he holds no ill will against the people who went after him—if anything, he is impressed by what he saw—but Wadhams believes Gill and his allies were too aggressive. “They made Matt into this right-wing nut job,” Wadhams says. “I really think they went too far with a lot of that stuff.”
The Gang of Four mostly dissolved by 2006 (Polis pursued elected office on his own), but the precedent was set. Having seen what could be done in his home state, Gill led a charge nationwide in subsequent election cycles. He isolated legislators in places like Iowa who were threatening LGBT rights and worked to oust them. He helped efforts to legalize gay marriage in places like Massachusetts, Iowa, and Delaware. And he formed what was called the Gill Action Fund, a political giving organization separate from the Gill Foundation.
Before long, national publications like the Atlantic were chronicling his work, because Gill was unlike most political donors in the mid-2000s. “He was motivated by something specific,” says Rob Witwer, a former Colorado state representative who detailed the Gang of Four’s strategy in his book, The Blueprint, co-written with Adam Schrager. “His agenda was not just about beating Republicans, but beating anti-gay Republicans.”
Witwer argues Gill ushered in a new era of the philanthropic donor. “He wasn’t giving money to be a big shot and get invited to black-tie dinners and pass bills that would help his company,” Witwer says. “He had big-picture beliefs, and he wanted to change society…. He decided to change the world through legislatures.”
“Nine minutes,” Gill says.
That’s precisely how long it took Gill and Miller to complete the New York Times crossword puzzle on Monday. It’s six days later, a Sunday night in September, and the couple is having dinner at a Cherry Creek restaurant, where they are regulars. Dinner together—without the distraction of smartphones and technology—is a daily ritual, as is completing the Times’ crossword. Gill and Miller are a little less forthcoming about how long it took them to complete the Sunday puzzle that morning.
“Two hours and twenty-two minutes,” Gill finally admits, as a sundae melts in a bowl on the small table between them. It’s a full 46 minutes longer than their Sunday average. The couple can be forgiven if they weren’t firing on all neurons that morning. Over the past months, they’d been grappling with two compounding losses. Gill’s dad had been suffering from complications related to diabetes, and on August 29, he died at age 93. In July, their nine-year-old Bernese mountain dog, Phipps, died after nearly a year of intense chemotherapy. (The couple spent thousands of dollars trying to keep her alive; they created a makeshift veterinary clinic in their home, administering IVs and pumping fluid and air from her lungs.)
Together, the two spent the summer grieving. Miller left his job as a consultant with Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in Philadelphia so he could be with his husband. Both losses were expected, but the couple is still healing. Gill, for instance, made the mistake of attending a 30th anniversary showing of Steel Magnolias, in which Julia Roberts’ character dies from diabetes complications. “That was not good. It brought up Dad, it brought up Phipps,” Gill says. “As Oprah would say, I had a very ugly cry.”
Gill’s relationship with his parents had taken years to evolve and repair. When he arrived in Boulder for his freshman year of college in 1972, something happened that couldn’t be solved with an algorithm or simple arithmetic. Gill had a boyfriend, and he feared telling his parents. He remembers their response when he called on a weekend in December: “We knew when you went to college you’d be more susceptible to that kind of thing.”
Gill and his parents went through “several years of trauma” around the issue (they made him see a psychiatrist), but eventually his mom and dad softened. His mother even went back to school to better understand it all, earning a master’s in psychology and accepting her son’s sexuality. When Gill met his future husband about three decades later, that kind of thing was a nonissue for the family.
The origin of Gill and Miller’s romance is disputed by the couple to this day, but it goes something like this: Miller had never heard of a man named Tim Gill when, at age 23, the Western Slope native walked into a Denver coffeeshop in 2002. As Miller tells it, a good friend recognized Gill and introduced Miller to a tall, handsome man 26 years his senior. Miller was struck by the interaction. Gill has no recollection of it ever happening.
Two months later, on Thanksgiving night, the men met again, chatted briefly, and made plans to get coffee on Friday morning. On Sunday, the two attended a matinee showing of Mamma Mia! at the Denver Performing Arts Complex—something Miller recalls fondly as being “as gay as it gets.”
In 2009, after dating for seven years, the couple exchanged wedding vows in Massachusetts, where then Governor Deval Patrick administered the ceremony. Soon after, the newlyweds purchased the 33,000-square-foot Phipps Mansion from the University of Denver. The couple lives at the 6.5-acre estate, where they’ve only recently started hosting events. One of the first was a September fundraiser for Biden’s campaign.
Despite occupying one of the grandest mansions in the city, Gill and Miller don’t want to be defined by their home or their wealth. They’re private people. They admire each other. They support each other. They protect each other. The work they’ve done and the money they’ve spent have made them targets, and when they receive death threats—as they have in the past—Miller gets rattled.
After all, he’s often the gatekeeper of Gill’s private life and the architect of his public image. He doesn’t want Gill’s name sullied—or worse. Gill, though, mostly looks past the threats and negative rhetoric. He’s got enough competing for his attention already.
Back in the Josh.ai conference room this September, Gill puts the blue marker aside. He doesn’t really care how many people know his name anyway.
Doesn’t he think about his legacy? Gill says no to that question. But surely there’s something he hopes people will remember about him, right? Gill pauses. “I think what is uncommon is that I contributed such a high percentage of my wealth to philanthropic and political causes,” he says. “When you make it super big in tech, you don’t need the money that you’re given. Yes, you could go out and buy yachts. But any way I can inspire the next generation to take over and make massive contributions from the money they’ve made, that would be a great legacy.”
Arguably, Gill’s already done that. He’s built a community of philanthropists through his biennial OutGiving conferences—where, since 1996, hundreds of people, like billionaire philanthropist Jon Stryker (Pat Stryker’s brother), have learned how to support the LGBT community. And it’s not as though his work has gone unnoticed. Entire book chapters are devoted to telling his story. In October, Polis gave him the Governor’s Citizenship Medal for Vanguard Legacy—the highest honor he could bestow upon his old friend.
Some of the most important figures in LGBT history even consider Gill among the movement’s leaders. “The impact of Tim and his foundation has been profound,” says Mary Bonauto, who served as lead counsel before the Supreme Court when Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. “He’s absolutely altered the direction of the movement.”
If people don’t recognize him, it’s likely because Gill doesn’t give a damn about being recognized. It’s a calculation he’s used to making: Getting credit simply isn’t worth the time or money spent on self-promotion. “Notoriety has its uses sometimes, but I don’t need to be artificially built up,” he explains. “I’m not going to spend any money trying to make [my legacy] one thing or another.”
What he doesn’t say, though, is that he already has. He’s given more than $500 million to make the world a place where gay people can live without being persecuted. And he’s not going anywhere. When gay people are attacked, he shows up. He funds nonprofits and bankrolls candidates, and as long as his foundation exists—it’ll last another 10 or 15 years before the money is gone—his impact will be felt across the country.
For that influence to be noticed, no one actually needs to know his name. One of Gill’s closest friends, investor and former Gill Foundation board member Gregory Craig, explains it like this: “He wants to accomplish a goal. He’s not doing this because he wants Tim Gill’s name out there stamped in granite for the next 300 years.”
And the Gill family knows something about that. Gill’s great-great-uncle, William H. Gill, once had his name engraved on almost every public building in a town he plotted along the Union Pacific rail line, about eight miles east of Greeley, in 1909. The namesake town is still there, but it isn’t much to behold these days. Tim Gill himself hasn’t been back to the place for decades. A yellow bus sits rusting in front of the boarded-up school. There’s an active Hispanic church, La Iglesia Del Dios Vivo, which advertises twice-weekly services, and an empty Lions Club community center. Barely 100 years after the buildings went up in this town, there’s little to say about William H. Gill’s legacy, just that once upon a time there was a man named Gill.
But towns like that wither away. Buildings crumble. Weeds and then trees reclaim their rightful places. Tim Gill, on the other hand, has ensured his legacy will endure.