WASHINGTON -- In an era when opponents of gay marriage have less and less political power, Sean Fieler has staked out a position as the leading funder of efforts to turn back the tide of marriage equality.
Fieler, president of the hedge fund Equinox Partners and the Kuroto Fund, has spent more than $4.6 million on state and federal political campaigns and super PACs since 2010, and millions more on anti-gay marriage groups and organizations that produce questionable studies of same-sex relationships. He and his wife, Ana Fieler, have also started funding anti-transgender rights efforts across the country.
A devout conservative Catholic, Sean Fieler is unabashed in his opposition to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He once argued in The New York Times that gay marriage “promotes a very harmful myth about the gay lifestyle” because “it suggests that gay relationships lend themselves to monogamy, stability, health and parenting in the same way heterosexual relationships do. That’s not true.”
While Fieler’s name remains relatively unknown to the general public, he’s emerged as a major player in the movement. “Sean Fieler is a good man,” Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage -- arguably the most influential anti-gay marriage group -- wrote in a mass email to the group’s supporters in September 2012. “An investor and philanthropist, he supports dozens of good causes, including NOM's work to protect marriage.”
“Sean could have kept his support for marriage private,” Brown continued. Instead, he “refuses to be silenced or intimidated.”
Conservative pundit Bill Kristol introduced Fieler at a 2012 summit hosted by the American Principles Project, on whose board Fieler sits, by declaring that he is “someone who will play an increasing role in our public life.”
In fact, Fieler’s public policy interests range from reviving the gold standard to opposing abortion. But it is his position as one of the few donors publicly increasing their investment in the gay marriage opposition, just as Americans are increasingly embracing marriage equality, that makes him stand out. Fieler declined to comment for this article.
A Washington Post/ABC poll in April found that 61 percent of Americans support legalizing same-sex marriage. Through judicial or legislative action, 37 states now allow it. And the Supreme Court could extend same-sex marriage to the entire country in June when it's expected to rule in Obergefell v. Hodges.
Meanwhile, groups like NOM have seen a precipitous drop in donations. The Mormon Church ceased funding anti-gay marriage work after the backlash to its role as a primary backer of NOM’s Proposition 8 campaign in California in 2008. Members of the church were responsible for millions in donations to that effort to ban same-sex marriage and constituted the vast majority of the grassroots volunteers. Another major Proposition 8 donor, foundation chief John Templeton Jr., died in May from brain cancer. Templeton and his wife had donated more than $1.6 million to NOM and other Proposition 8 advocacy in 2008.
The retreat of anti-gay marriage funders has left Fieler as one of the very few still aggressively pushing that agenda. “He’s very proud of his check-writing, where most of these donors have either stopped contributing or gone underground in their contributions,” said Fred Karger, a former Republican strategist turned gay rights activist who has tracked NOM over the last seven years.
Fieler supports NOM, as well as efforts to defeat Democratic lawmakers who back gay marriage. Perhaps more notably, he’s spending money to try to push the Republican Party to put conservative religious issues front and center again, and investing millions to defeat Republican candidates who either support gay marriage or appear squishy on the issue.
Much of Fieler’s activism flows through a series of nonprofits and a super PAC that funnel money into elections, policy debates, controversial social science studies and groups advocating against gay marriage in America and gay rights worldwide.
He is chairman and chief underwriter of the American Principles Project and American Principles in Action, a pair of nonprofits founded by Princeton professor Robert P. George. A Catholic co-founder of NOM and the leading intellectual voice opposing gay marriage, George is the mind behind the legal argument that the essential purpose of marriage is procreation. “The plain fact is that the genitals of men and women are reproductive organs all of the time -- even during periods of sterility,” he has written.
The rise in popular support for gay marriage can be traced to a shift in the view of marriage from a procreation pact to “mere sexual romantic companionship,” according to George. He sees this trend stretching from the spread of no-fault divorce to the rise of "promiscuity" and cohabitation since the 1960s. All of this will ultimately lead down the slippery slope to legalized polygamy and more, George argues. When then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) made his infamous argument that acceptance of gay marriage would lead to “man on dog” relationships, George wrote an extended defense in National Review titled “Rick Santorum Is Right.”
George has called for a fight to restore what he calls the traditional Catholic view of marriage. And Fieler, a father of four, has funded George’s nonprofits, although the total amount of those contributions is not known since the groups are not required to disclose their donors.
The American Principles groups also promote the work of anti-gay marriage activists like Maggie Gallagher, another NOM co-founder, and Luis Tellez, head of the anti-gay Witherspoon Institute and of the Princeton chapter of the ultra-conservative Catholic sect Opus Dei. Fieler also sits on the board of Witherspoon and, through his personal foundation, has donated more than $230,000 to the group. A spokeswoman for both Principles groups declined to comment.
Following the GOP's 2012 loss of both the White House and a number of Senate seats, American Principles in Action released a report urging the party to continue pushing conservative social issues. To win, the nonprofit argued, candidates must embrace a principled stance against gay marriage and abortion.
“[B]ecause Romney and his associated PACs had pledged to run no ads on social issues, President Obama never had to pay the price in Ohio, Virginia, or elsewhere for embracing gay marriage. He could please the Left and be confident that the GOP would not make an issue of it,” the report says.
Two years later, the vast majority of Republican elected officials at the federal level remain opposed to same-sex marriage. But there is a growing movement encouraging GOP candidates to, if not change their view entirely, at least de-emphasize it as a campaign issue. There is also a shift among Republican voters toward support of same-sex marriage. A May 19 Gallup poll found 37 percent of Republican voters support gay marriage, more than double the share a decade ago.
Karl Rove, the architect of President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign that called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, has even stated that the party might one day accept a presidential candidate who favors it.
Fieler forcefully rejects this thinking. “When it comes to what are euphemistically referred to as the ‘social issues,’ we promise not to talk about life and marriage, the literal future and irreplaceable foundation of our society,” Fieler said at an American Principles Project event in 2012, referring to Republican efforts to downplay those debates. “To win, we need but to make one change -- to emphasize, rather than run away from, our principles.”
His political involvement at the federal level has mostly been conducted through the super PAC American Principles Fund. Fieler is by far the group’s biggest funder, donating more than $1.1 million since 2013. The group’s director is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, daughter of religious conservative presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
American Principles Fund’s biggest splash came in the brief 2014 Republican Senate primary campaign in Wyoming. Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, was seeking to oust incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).
The super PAC ran an ad hitting Liz Cheney, whose sister Mary is gay and married, for prior supportive statements she had made about same-sex marriage. “In Wyoming, Cheney campaigns as a conservative,” the ad’s narrator says. “In Washington, she appears on MSNBC to campaign against a marriage amendment and support government benefits for gay couples.” Cheney’s response that she was actually opposed to gay marriage opened a family rift, with her sister and her sister's wife publicly denouncing the candidate and declaring they wouldn’t be spending Thanksgiving with her. Cheney dropped out of the race three months later.
Fieler has donated to a range of other super PACs as well, including $50,000 to a super PAC supporting then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign, which featured one of the most strident anti-gay ads ever. Another $50,000 contribution went to the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. And he’s donated $460,000 to Women Speak Out, which was launched by the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List.
Fieler has also invested heavily in state contests. He has backed anti-gay marriage politicians like Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and onetime Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, and he has donated more than $350,000 to state Republican Party groups.
In New York in 2011, he spent nearly $30,000 to defeat Republican state senators who had supported legislation legalizing gay marriage. Fieler accused them of having “folded under pressure from the gay lobby.” The Fieler-backed candidate defeated pro-gay marriage Republican Roy McDonald in one primary challenge that year.
In 2013, Fieler was the top donor to City Action Coalition, a religious-right super PAC active in New York City council elections. A report by Gay City News found that the majority of City Action Coalition’s spending targeted just three candidates for defeat: Rosie Mendez, Ritchie Torres and Carlos Menchaca. All three candidates are gay, and all three won.
Beyond his electoral spending, Fieler has donated millions to anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage advocacy groups, mostly through his Chiaroscuro Foundation. The nonprofit group, named after a Renaissance painting style favoring high contrast between dark and light, has received more than $19 million from Fieler since 2010.
Most of the foundation’s contributions have gone to Catholic, anti-abortion and anti-birth-control organizations, but some funding has gone to anti-gay groups as well. The foundation has directed at least $220,000 since 2010 to the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a nonprofit that advocates against LGBT rights at the United Nations. C-FAM backed the anti-gay laws in Uganda that have been denounced as criminalizing homosexuality and deployed lawyers to help defend Belize’s anti-gay laws. It voiced support for the anti-gay laws adopted by Russia in 2013 and encouraged the United States to adopt such policies.
Another recipient of the Chiaroscuro Foundation’s money is University of Texas-Austin sociology professor Mark Regnerus. In 2012, Regnerus released an infamous report claiming to show that same-sex parents negatively impact their children. The study -- which defined same-sex parents as those who had, at some point or other, engaged in a same-sex act -- was widely panned and rejected by the American Sociological Association, American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics.
The Witherspoon Institute (where Fieler serves as a trustee) funded that study. Regnerus also received $250,000 for his Austin Institute from the Chiaroscuro Foundation in 2013, after the controversy over the report. The Chiaroscuro Foundation donated another $237,500 to the Witherspoon Institute that year.
As American attitudes on sexual orientation and gender identity have been shifting overall, Fieler has also moved on to fighting the acceptance of the transgender community and has called upon Republicans to campaign against transgender rights. This is more fertile ground, Fieler argued recently, because “unlike the gay lifestyle, the transgender lifestyle has not been, and perhaps never can be, normalized. Americans still believe that a man, even a man who thinks he is a woman, is still a man.”
Fieler has already put his money to work against transgender rights in California. After the governor signed legislation giving transgender students the right to use the restroom of the gender with which they identify, Fieler pumped $200,000 into a 2014 ballot initiative campaign to impose strict new rules on transgender bathroom use. The so-called Privacy for All Act would have overturned the transgender students’ rights law and allowed people who felt their privacy was violated by transgender use of a restroom to file suit against the operator of that restroom. It would even have allowed those who chose not to enter a restroom due to their own discomfort with possibly encountering a transgender individual to file suit against the restroom owner.
The initiative ultimately failed to gain enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, and Fieler was forced to pay a fine for failing to properly report his donations to the anti-transgender rights effort.
But the battle isn’t over. Privacy For All, the group that had been backed by Fieler’s largesse, is planning another ballot initiative campaign for 2016. This time, it will call on California voters to pass an initiative requiring government buildings to allow restroom access based only on biological sex.
Similar bills have been proposed in other states across the country. Most have failed to pass.
Still, Fieler believes that if religious conservatives want to roll back the advance of gay marriage and other LGBT rights, they’ll need to start in the restroom. As he put it in Newsweek last month, “principles of the Republican Party that would result in a return to America’s founding vision should hold more appeal for the American people than principles that will result in men in women’s bathrooms.”
Every week, HuffPost Must Reads features a behind-the-scenes look at how longform journalism is made. We go under the hood. Why did the writer take that unexpected angle? How hard was it to get that source on the record? We're here to tell that story. Learn more