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Philanthropist, Linda Ketner

Linda Ketner
Photo courtesy of Ray Ng

About a year after she came out, Linda Ketner attended her first meeting of a gay organization in her home town of Charleston, South Carolina. She found herself in the backroom of a local steak house with a dozen others and thought, "This is not where I want to be."

So, at 43, the civic leader and grocery store heiress set about finding people to help her envision a healthy environment for lesbian and gay people in South Carolina--a place where many remain in the closet. She started asking around to find intelligent, emotionally healthy gay people and invited eight of them to help her develop a strategic plan for what became the Alliance for Full Acceptance in 1998.

With the Gill Foundation as its first backer besides Linda herself, the Alliance put up billboards and developed advertising to raise awareness that gay and lesbian people are the people next door. Along with death threats and hate mail came outpourings of thanks and eventually a cohesive organization that has raised consciousness across South Carolina. "As goes the south, so goes the nation," Linda points out. "Money spent here is an investment in your future, wherever you live."

Realizing that religious fundamentalism posed their biggest political challenge, the Alliance founders reached out to the religious community. "All of us had a deep spirituality, and real pain that went along with it over the religious madness that really tears the soul out of a lot of southern gay and lesbian people," Linda says, noting that an ex-priest and an ex-nun were among the Alliance founders.

The Alliance founders invited clergy to a weekend workshop, which evolved into a faith-based coalition that champions respect for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

The Alliance has also provided training in sexual and gender orientation to hundreds of teachers, guidance counselors, and police and sheriff's officers. Attitudes change measurably during the training--in part because stereotypes are shattered, Linda says. "After spending the day with us, they feel they know us and open their minds. We have a minister who is transgender and she makes the biggest difference with these people because she is wildly charismatic," Linda explains.

For years before she came out, Linda was deeply involved as a philanthropist fighting racism and homelessness. She was terrified when it came time to make her sexual orientation known. "I didn't know if I would fall 800 or 8,000 feet," she recalls. "But it was the single most important thing I've done for myself. It was flying instead of falling."

Linda found a way to knit myriad parts of her life together and grew as a philanthropist as she reached out to other donors. She says early support from the Gill Foundation opened other doors, and Gill's OutGiving donors inspired the South Carolina network of philanthropists to grow.

The philanthropy led naturally to political involvement as Linda and others saw initiatives that threatened their way of life.

Linda brought together leaders of every lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organization along with important allies to develop the South Carolina Equality Coalition that fought an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment last fall.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement in South Carolina has also realized the importance of extending its collaboration beyond its relatively small community. "Because we see social justice as our wider goal, we have other allies in the social justice fight," Linda says. For example, the Alliance marched with the NAACP in an anti-violence march and sponsored a table at the group's dinner. The NAACP, meanwhile, recently put an openly gay man on its board, which Linda says would have been unheard of just two years ago.

Part of the success of knitting together various networks and progressive movements stems from Linda's own history. Before she inherited stock in the company her father built from a small business into Food Lion, she grew up without wealth.

Linda spent her first six years in a small town called Faith. When she realized as child of five that there were separate water fountains called "white" and "colored," she made it a point to drink from the "colored" one.

Linda says she has struggled for years with people who want to ignore or abuse two documents she cherishes. "I think if everyone saw the world as I see it, based on the Constitution and the Bible, there would be no discrimination, period, the end," she says.

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