Internet crowdfunding sites have been used to raise money for everything from movie productions and medical bills, to a $55,000 potato salad.
But for people trying to collect coin to post bail, most of the popular crowdfunding sites are hesitant to get involved with anything involving criminal charges. In fact, many fundraising campaigns launched to raise money for bail get shut down hours after getting posted on the web.
Now a team of LGBT activists and web developers are trying to change that. They've recently teamed up to launch a crowdfunding site specifically focused on raising money for LGBT and gender nonconforming people locked up in jail, prison, or immigrant detention centers.
“We wanted to support the work of queer and trans activists who are already doing imperative grassroots work, especially in communities of color and low-income communities,” said Grace Dunham, a writer and activist who is part of the team behind the new crowdfunding site Support.fm.
“I lay no claims to this being our brilliant idea,” Dunham said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “It's much more about observing extremely transformative work that's already being done by activists and thinking about ways to support that work.”
Dunham, 24, is part of the young team behind Support.fm, which has partnered with other activists to build a platform that could change the way community organizations raise money to help people in jail. But first they need to raise funds themselves to make their project a reality.
Dunham and the Support.fm team are still in the early stages of creating Support.fm, and hope to raise $50,000 to bankroll its launch. But the idea is already backed by several LGBT and immigrant rights groups in California and Arizona, as well as a Massachusetts-based group that has chapters around the country.
Support.fm launched its own crowdfunding campaign last week and has since raised about $4,000—nearly 8% of their goal. Dunham said the team “will work at whatever pace we get money," but adds, "Ideally we would have a working beta site six months from now.”
Defense lawyers and scholars say the nation’s current bail system routinely punishes poor people. Unable to come up with the funds to post bail, many poor people end up spending more time in jail than they have to, with less access to friends, family and legal resources.
It can also be especially hard for incarcerated LGBT people to raise funds due to stigma.
“The reality is that LGBTQ people are more likely to be disconnected from their family of origin because of homophobia and transphobia,” said Rev. Jason Lydon, director of Black & Pink, a group that raises money to bail out members of the LGBTQ community and people who are HIV-positive, regardless of gender identity and sexual preference.
Plus, detention can be a much more horrible situation for LGBTQ people due to higher rates of physical and sexual violence in prison. Some jails also routinely place LGBTQ individuals in what they call "protective custody," or solitary confinement to avoid physical altercations. But the psychological affects of being in isolation can be just as severe.
“[Support.fm] is exactly what we need at the moment,” said Jennicet Gutiérrez, an organizer with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, a Los Angeles-based groups that works to get LGBT detainees out of immigration detention centers.
A 2011 Task Force survey of 6,450 people who identify as transgender and gender non-conforming found that those who were unemployed were 85% more likely to have spent time behind bars, compared to 24% who were employed. Black, Native American and Latinx transgender people are jailed the most often, the study found.
By comparison, about 5% of general U.S. population will do time behind bars in a state or federal prison during their lifetime, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The Task Force survey found that members of the transgender community have an increased number of interactions with police officials because they are disproportionately affected by violent crimes and higher rates of homelessness, and have fewer job opportunities. Many are also targeted by police just for being a transgender person in public.
Immigrants rights activists working with Support.fm—which is being developed by three white members of the LGBT community—said the project is a good example of allyship and different communities coming together.
“This is where the LGBT community can come together in order to get people out detention,” said Familia's Gutiérrez. "We’re really collaborating with each other.”
Dunham said the Support.fm team is about creating an LGBTQ movement that doesn't leave anyone behind, especially queer and trans people "who are targeted by police because they are black, Latinx, and indigenous, because they are disabled, because they do sex work, and so much more.”
Crowdfunding usually comes with a steep cost for users.
GoFundMe, one of the more popular crowdfunding sites, takes a 7.9% cut of the funds raised, plus an additional 30¢ for each donation. That means that if someone is trying to raise $10,000 on GoFundMe, the company will keep at least $790 to help pay for processing fees.
Support.fm will be different, Dunham says. It will be free for users and won't skim profits from successful campaigns.
“We are also building long term partnerships with donors," Dunham said. "When we seek donor support, we are also asking that donors stay connected to Support.fm and stay connected to the work of our partner organizations and groups.”
Support.fm will also be different in that it will not shut down or block any fundraising campaigns, even efforts to raise funds for individuals charged with more heinous and severe crimes. The site's creators say they will let the internet's community of donors decide whether to contribute or not.
That's a much more laissez faire approach than most crowdfunding sites, which routinely end fundraising efforts that they deem controversial. GoFundMe made national headlines last year when it shut down a campaign that would have helped an Oregon bakery pay for state fines they got when they refused to provide a cake for a gay wedding. And earlier blocked an effort to raise bail for a group of activists who were arrested for protesting near a California immigration detention center that holds gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants.
GoFundMe does allow some campaigns to collect money for bail, but the company’s terms of service states they do not permit “campaigns in defense of formal charges or claims of heinous crimes, violent, hateful, sexual or discriminatory.”
YouCaring, another popular crowdfunding site that bills itself as the more “compassionate crowdfunding platform,” states on its website that it does not “permit fundraising campaigns for legal defense, litigation, bail bonds or other legal matters.”
Support.fm says it is responding to a need voiced by LGBT activists across the country.
“We unanimously heard that no existing crowdfunding platform was a reliable place to raise bail money quickly and securely,” Dunham said.
Groups will be able to host campaigns for a specific individual or for general community funds that can be pulled from in urgent cases when someone is arrested or in need of support.
“The familiar tropes of crowdfunding sites—timelines, deadlines, and penalties if you don't reach your goal—will have no place on Support.fm,” Dunham said.