CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As a child in the 1950s, Wesley Mancini learned painful lessons first-hand about intolerance and the failure of people who preach morality to practice it, lessons in which the focus of his charitable giving is rooted.
Growing up in Connecticut with a single mom and spending his days with nuns in a parochial school starting at age two, Mancini was taught “the difference between right and wrong,” he says.
But at age six, after they found him jumping rope with girls at the school, the nuns forced him to wear a girl’s uniform and “go from class to class to be humiliated,” he says.
“Organized religion is teaching intolerance and hatred, in a sense, as opposed to welcoming everybody with open arms that we’re all god’s children, which is what I would think you would learn in church, that we’re all god’s children,” he says.
Reinforcing the conflict Mancini saw as child between his sense of morality and the way people actually treat one another was his initial resistance to his realization as a college freshman that he was gay.
“It was what you didn’t want to be because you were ridiculed,” he says.
But he quickly embraced his sexuality, he says.
Then, in 1996, having built a successful career in Charlotte as a fabric designer, Mancini got a painful reminder that society can be slow to embrace people who are different.
A local production of Angels in America, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about gays in America, fueled community uproar and prompted the Arts & Science Council to tell local theater groups it no longer would fund productions with a “challenging theme,” a code word for gay themes, Mancini says.
“At that point it hit me that someone’s got to do something about this,” he says.
So he began to develop plans for the Wesley Mancini Foundation.
Launched in 2000, the foundation provides funding for projects that foster the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals as full participants in the Charlotte community.
The foundation has contributed over $91,000 to those causes, including four grants totaling $10,300 it awarded in December.
Over the years, some groups have received as much as nearly $16,000 through multiple grants.
And last year, for the first time, members of the foundation board joined Mancini in making contributions to the foundation, for a total of roughly $10,000.
The change reflects the fact that Wesley Mancini Ltd., Mancini’s company, has downsized significantly in the face of increasing competition from Asian textile-makers.
And with a three-year-old Gay and Lesbian Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas that supports many of the same groups the Wesley Mancini Foundation supports, Mancini says, his foundation is rethinking its giving strategy.
The climate for gays has improved but still has a long way to go, Mancini says.
“People are more out now than they used to be, not afraid to have it known they’re gay in the workplace, although there are still quite a few people who are,” he says. “And we still are in the Bible Belt, and that is a major challenge.”