Interview with Lorri Jean
LGBT rights advocate
Lorri L. Jean (LAW ’82) is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center. She was the lead plaintiff in Gay Rights Coalition of Georgetown University Law Center v. Georgetown University, a landmark federal lawsuit that compelled the University to give the gay rights group equitable access to benefits as a student group because of the sexual orientation protections of the D.C. Human Rights Act.
She now serves as CEO of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, the world’s largest LGBT organization with more than 300 full time employees serving over a quarter million people each year, a position she has held since 1993 with a short break while serving as executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force from 2001 to 2003. Before 1993, Ms. Jean spent ten years as an attorney for FEMA, where she was the highest-ranking openly gay or lesbian person in the federal government until her retirement from government office.
John Flanagan had the chance to chat with Ms. Jean about her life, the landmark discrimination lawsuit, and her work as an activist for LGBT rights.
Tell us a little about where you grew up. In what kind of family were you raised and what experiences do you think most defined your childhood and adolescence?
When I was very young – I was born in Idaho – my folks were farming in both Arizona and Idaho, and so by the time I was getting into the school I was the eldest of three.
We grew up in Arizona on a farm and I think that one of the most pivotal experiences of my childhood arose from when my dad got into the business of raising pigs.
It was during the Nixon Administration and, to make a long and complex story short, the Nixon Administration wanted to eradicate cholera from the United States, which was a disease that pigs got and cost the sector a lot of money.
So the feds and the state came up with an agreement whereby when herds got cholera they would just kill the whole herd and the feds and the state would split the cost to reimburse the farmer for the value of the animals that they killed and the hope was this would eradicate cholera.
And so we got cholera in our herd and that the time we had the largest herd west of the Mississippi, which was about 5,000 head. When the feds and the state came in and looked at it, the state said, “Well, we don’t have any money to pay our half of this,” and so then the feds said, “If you’re not paying it, then we’re not going to pay it.”
But they still wanted to kill our herd, but without abiding by the payment rules, and they ultimately choked us out of business. We lost our farm, we lost our home, and it was deeply traumatic and it was all coming to a head when I was in eighth grade.
That’s when I decided something was very wrong with how the laws worked in our society if the government could do to us what they did and make us lose everything. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.
With time, my sense of, and my reaction to that injustice applied to many other injustices that I witnessed, whether that was the way that women in our society were treated, how people of color were treated. I particularly saw it with African Americans and Latinos where I was growing up and with Native Americans.
Then when I came out and realized that I was a lesbian, it was pretty natural for me to take my activist heart and my negative reaction to injustice and benefit my own community.
I’ve read that you came out as lesbian in 1979. What motivated your decision to come out when you did and what do you most vividly remember from that experience?
It was in 1979, my last semester in college, that I realized I was a lesbian. I had not really realized up to that point.
And I came to that recognition and it was very traumatic for me for a short period of time. I ultimately found peace with it and over the proceeding months realized that most people who were gay or lesbian – the B or the T wasn’t in our consciousness back then, at least not much – hid it and they were ashamed of it.
I didn’t feel that there was anything to be ashamed of and ultimately I realized – this took a little time of course – that hiding was sort of the antithesis of honesty, integrity, and certainly unhealthy. So I ultimately felt like, “Well, if I have the courage to be out, then maybe that can help other people feel encouraged to be out.”
When I got to Georgetown, while there were quite a few gay men and lesbians who were attending there, hardly any of them were out. Some of them might be out in very limited contexts, but I would say there were only three people that were actually open about their sexual orientation, including me.
So it was my first year when the only gay man who was out – the other two were me and another lesbian – came to me and said, “Well, I think we should form a gay and lesbian law student group.”
What did you know about Georgetown’s position on LGBT rights before you arrived? We see a lot of stories about gay, lesbian, or transgender students at relatively conservative universities who are agitating for acceptance and then they fall under criticism for not recognizing the character of their university before they arrive. How would you respond to that criticism?
One of the things that was very interesting that came up in the litigation, actually, was that the catalog that I got from Georgetown when I was considering going to law school did not even mention that it was a Catholic institution.
I don’t even know if I realized if it was a Catholic institution. I’m not Catholic, it wasn’t in the law school catalog that I got, and this was actually introduced in evidence in the very first trial at the D.C. Superior Court level. And certainly there was nothing about LGBT anything in these catalogs.
More to the point, when we were organizing the LGBT student group, it never occurred to us that this would be an issue because I, for example, was involved in the Women’s Rights Collective, which was an approved student group at the Law Center that was regularly involved in pro-choice activities and that was never an issue. So it never occurred to us that because the Catholic Church, a separate entity from Georgetown University, had an issue with homosexuality that that might determine whether a student group that was fighting for equal civil rights would be a problem.
Do you think it would matter if it were explicitly stated at the outset?
Well, you know, the Georgetown case is a lot more complicated because Georgetown received huge amounts of government funding, including from the District of Columbia, which required compliance with D.C. law.
At the time, the District of Columbia had one of the strongest human rights ordinances in the country which included sexual orientation. What we said at the time was, “Look, Georgetown can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to use religion and now say it for the first time, when you didn’t say it to the women, when you didn’t say it to any of the other groups that might have been doing things that were not consistent with Catholic Church doctrine, if you’re going to let that govern, then you can’t have it both ways, you can’t also then get all this government funding.
I guess I feel like if they advertised that this was an organization that did not in any way support LGBT rights and did not welcome LGBT students, then, I don’t know, maybe it would be different. But I sort of feel that the nature of progressive change is that people within institutions are the most effective change agents.
So maybe somebody reads that and they go there, but what happens to the student who didn’t read it or what happens to people who didn’t realize it applied to them and suddenly then it does? Does that mean they never get to advocate for what’s right?
By that theory, black students would have never been able to advocate civil rights on their campuses because they should have known what the environment was when they went there. Women couldn’t have advocated. That’s the antithesis of academic freedom if you ask me.
You asked for University recognition and support for your group. Were you expecting the University to endorse the organization or simply to allow it access to certain benefits?
There was no endorsement that was given by the University to any student group, and so we thought we’d just get the approval through the normal process.
In fact, we went through the entire law school process and got all the approvals from the student bar association, the faculty senate. It never was an issue. Our group was completely approved, and then it went to [University President Fr. Timothy Healy] for what everyone presumed was just going to be rubber stamp approval.
When we started this group, we never thought there was going to be an issue with it. We never for one moment anticipated a controversy and then suddenly after we’d gone through all the approvals – we were just following all the bureaucratic red tape – Fr. Healy vetoed it and it shocked everybody.
During the actual trial, and at various levels of this litigation, we always made it clear that we didn’t expect University endorsement because they didn’t ever give it to anyone else. What we did expect was equal treatment among all the student organizations, which included the ability to use rooms for meetings, there was a small stipend that was given to recognized student groups, they provided office spaces for student groups – you know, those sorts of things.
Once Healy vetoed it, though, we were shocked into this adversarial posture.
Would you say that you had a wide base of support within the general law school community at the time?
You know, I don’t think we really knew that, but there were lots of student groups that didn’t have the broad-based support of the law school community.
There was this really conservative law student group, it was a group that existed in law schools across the country, and it certainly didn’t have the support of most of the community, and the affinity groups might not have.
There were things like the Black Student Union and the Women’s Rights Collective. There was the National Lawyers Guild, which was sort of the lefty-liberal law student group. That never seemed to be a rationale for what got approved or what didn’t.
How would you describe your legal strategy? What made you think that you had a viable case when Fr. Healy denied you?
Because the human rights ordinance in D.C. was so strong and because of all the funding that Georgetown had gotten from the D.C. government.
We felt that, “Hey, you have to comply with D.C. law and D.C. law says that you can’t discriminate against us.” Frankly, when we first decided to get a lawyer, we thought naively that the University would change its course rather than go through litigation. They would realize, “Hey look, these students aren’t going to take this lying down and the law is clear.” So we thought it’d never actually go forward.
We thought that the mere threat of a lawsuit would be enough. We underestimated the homophobia of members of Georgetown’s staff and board and the internalized homophobia of Fr. Healy. He was a closeted gay man and well known to be. I always felt like that fact led him to pursue this with far more vehemence than he likely would have otherwise.
I’ve never heard that about Fr. Healy before? Where had you heard that?
We knew people who had been in relationships with him. He was pretty well known in some quiet circles of gay men.
Did you know that when you went to go seek his approval?
I did not know at the time that it had to go to Fr. Healy to get approval. We went through all the steps at the Law Center and that’s all that we thought had to happen. Then suddenly it was vetoed from on high. As you know, the law school’s all the way across town, so I don’t even know if we realized it had to goto Fr. Healy for approval.
Clint Hockenberry, who was my co-plaintiff, and I and an undergrad we recruited to join us went into this because the undergraduate organization was trying to get organized at the same time.
Clint might have known Fr. Healy was gay, but I didn’t until after all of this happened. Then afterwards everyone was talking about how hypocritical it was that this gay man was doing this.
How did you know to use the Human Rights Act? It was a new thing in D.C. at the time. Had it been really tested before that?
Certainly not in this context, but it was a big deal for gay or lesbian activists and lawyers. We knew what a big deal that law was and it had been a fight to get it through and passed.
There had been other fights we had lost. For example, sodomy [law] repeal in the District: the District had repealed it and then Jerry Falwell got his followers raising hell with members of Congress and they didn’t allow the District to repeal [the sodomy law]. There were so few things that were happening at the time, so few successes, that those that we had achieved were very well known.
And, I guess I would say, because we knew that law existed, I do think that there was some naïveté on our part. We thought that, because the law so clear, that once Georgetown realized that, “Hey look, we’re not going to roll over, we’ve got a law that prohibits this kind of thing,” that they would follow the law.
That’s when it became clear how strongly some people at Georgetown felt about being anti-gay, even though they had never done the same thing to women’s groups on the issue of abortion and choice.
Did you experience any pushback from administrators or students while you were litigating? Did you ever feel intimidated?
There came a point, and by this point – I can’t remember if this was my third year or whether it was it was my second year because it’s been so long now and this went on for nine years – that the administration tried to blame a significant tuition increase on us and to suggest that tuition had gone up because of the cost of the litigation.
And then when they did that, of course there were a bunch of students who said, “Oh, come on, that ‘s complete malarkey!” but there were some students who then began to confront some of us in the halls and say, “Hey guys, look what you’re causing! I can’t afford this!” So, there was that.
And then Fr. Healy himself pressed us. I saw him at the law school and went up to him and tried to engage him about how important it was to stop fighting this, to settle it, to let us be. Then he poked me in the chest and told me that he would blackball me and that I would never practice law in that town if I didn’t give up.
So, of course I felt completely intimidated, but again I was so young and naïve that I didn’t stop to think whether he could make good on his threat.
Were you surprised to see this case make it all the way to the Supreme Court? How did you all feel about the ruling? Do you think it could have gone further or that it set about the right tone?
There were so many things that happened to us in this case that were surprising. For example, we never though that we’d lose at the first level and we did and it was shocking.
So then we had to have a big conversation about whether to go forward because we didn’t want to set an appellate court precedent that would hurt similar organizations all over the country because it was such a landmark lawsuit and we were very conscious of its ramifications.
So we decided ultimately to go forward and then we got some help. We had this sole practitioner that had been a government lawyer who over the course of this litigation left his federal position after being inundated by the machine that was Williams & Connolly, the firm that Georgetown had hired. One of their named partners was of course a very famous Georgetown alum. We ultimately got the pro bono help of a highly respected appellate lawyer and then we finally had some ability to have a little bit more of an even playing field.
Once we won on the [appeals court] panel level, then we went to en banc review and we couldn’t believe that Georgetown was going to take this all the way and, as you said, we went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Of course the Supreme Court never heard the case; we had motions back and forth and ultimately Georgetown settled.
I just learned last year that allegedly Fr. Healy was a significant player in convincing the board to settle the case at that level. I don’t know if that is true or not, but that’s what I was told. There was a scholar who wrote a whole piece about all of this litigation who wrote that in his book.
To answer your question, were we surprised that we made it all the way to the Supreme Court? Yes, we definitely were. And I frankly was relieved when Georgetown settled the case because I did not have confidence that this was the Supreme Court that would have upheld our rights.
Was that the Hardwick court [which held that same-sex relations were not protected under the constitution]?
[Bowers v. Hardwick was decided] in 1986, so that was around the same time. We of course didn’t settle this thing until 1989.
Moving to the work you do now as the CEO of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, what do you think is the most pressing issue facing the LGBT community in the United States?
Well, that’s a tough question to answer, and I don’t think I can answer it with solely one thing.
From a legal perspective, it is that we still do not have equal protection under the laws of this country.
There are still many states where it is legal to fire us from our jobs for our sexual orientation or our gender identity and we don’t have any federal laws that protect us. So we are not yet included as we should be under our civil rights laws and, so far, the opinions of the United States Supreme Court on LGBT issues have been narrow.
Other than that, it’s that we are living in a society where the vitriolicly intolerant minority has a disproportionately loud voice.
The anti-LGBT industry, which is predominately fueled by religious political extremists, continues to hold enormous sway over our elected leaders even though the vast majority of Americans now, it is quite clear, do not share that view, even on marriage. There have been a number of national polls where the majority of people believe that same-sex couples should have the ability to marry – far more people than believed that interracial couples should be able to marry when that became the law.
Every day here at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, I see the consequences of hateful rhetoric from conservative politicians and extreme political leaders.
I see the consequences on people, whether it’s children whose parents have kicked them out of their homes because their preacher has told them they shouldn’t tolerate homosexual or transgender kids and who are then on the street and have nowhere to go, or whether it’s people who suffer from substance abuse problems because they have such poor self-esteem because of what they’ve been brought up to believe about themselves.
So the consequence of that group of people and their rhetoric is a tangible, tragic human cost.
What is the issue that most divides the LGBT community?
You know, things have really been changing rapidly.
Twelve years ago I would have said marriage because there were huge swathes of the population in our community that felt that we should be pushing for that, they weren’t sure that they even wanted it. But I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
One of the things that divides our community today is how much support, if any, we should be giving to politicians who continue to say we should be treated as less than. There are people, like me, who draw a fine line and say, “I may have to vote for people who don’t support full equality, but I won’t give them a dime.” There are others who will say that this is just one issue, so they’ll support those people.
For example, some of the Log Cabin Republicans will support candidates who are clearly anti-gay. They might argue that Obama is anti-gay. Certainly he does not support our full and complete equality, so that’s why I didn’t give him a dime. But it’s not part of his platform that we are sinful and evil and to be denied equal rights, whereas there are some Republicans and Democrats who believe that.
I guess that’s one issue, but I’m sort of feeling like our community on the key civil rights issues is fairly together these days. You know, there used to be a big debate about transgender rights, and HRC [Human Rights Campaign] really bore a lot of the brunt of that, but they’ve come along now too.
The Ninth Circuit Court recently overturned Proposition 8 [which banned same-sex marriage in California], but, on the other hand, issued a narrow ruling that was agnostic as to whether same-sex couples has the absolute right to marriage. Do you think that this kind ruling could potentially be counterproductive?
It’s certainly not the sweeping decision that we got at the trial court level and that I think our constitution actually requires, but I also thought it was a strategically brilliant decision given the current Supreme Court. So I don’t really think that it has the potential to backfire.
I view progress in our civil rights movement in the same way that I see that it has happened in other civil rights movements that I’ve studied or participated in, whether it be the women’s movement or the African American civil rights movement: progress is incremental.
Sometimes we get huge leaps forward and sometimes we take little steps forward and sometimes we take steps backwards, but our progress, our ultimate momentum is inexorably forward. So I think that that decision was a victory even though it was not the sweeping decision I would have liked.
What would you say are the essential media, rhetorical, and strategic tools of an LGBT rights activist?
For media, I would say social media has become a huge tool in our arsenal because we can reach so many people so quickly.
I think the reaction to the passage of Proposition 8 in California was a perfect example. The community got incredibly angry all over and when I organized the very first march and demonstration in front of the Mormon temple here in Los Angeles and word spread about what was happening via the Internet, and there were demonstrations in front of temples across the country and the world. That’s an example of things that could never have happened before.
And I also think of China because we have a China partnership. The LGBT movement in China is just getting started. They’re in their first decade, and as they were getting started they had decades of strategies and tactics and progress to view on the Internet, even though they couldn’t see it in their country. They could see what was happening around the world and it has impacted them. So I’d say that’s the most important media tool.
From a rhetorical perspective, I think that our greatest strength is coming out and talking to colleagues, families, and neighbors about who we are and our lives.
Now the vast majority of people in the country all have someone in their lives who they know who is LGBT. That was never the case before. When I was growing up, you would ask people and nobody would say they knew anybody who was LGBT. Now virtually everybody will say that they know someone. Being able say, “We’re your friends, we’re your family, we’re your neighbors,” I mean, that’s incredibly powerful.
Strategically, I think that the way the fight for the freedom to marry has proceded has been fascinating to watch.
It’s been very strategic because we haven’t just gone at it in one way. We’ve fought it in the legislature. We’ve fought it in the courts. When the first plaintiffs wanted to start pushing the marriage case in Hawaii, everybody was against them doing it. As a result, that moved forward domestic partnership rights.
So, every step of the way, even though there have been some big internal disputes about it, we’ve tried to cover the waterfront. If we couldn’t get “the whole enchilada,” we’ve just pushed for what we could get, never losing sight of the ultimate goal, which is full and complete equality under the law.
On that note, it looks like same-sex marriage activists in Maine are taking the issue back to the ballot to try to overturn a 2009 voter-initiated ban. Do you think that this strategy weakens their position by submitting a rights-based question to the so-called “tyranny of the majority?”
I wish that it were illegal across the country to put civil rights issues up to a popular vote. In some states, it is.
So, in some respects, I think that it’s true that when we say they shouldn’t be on the ballot but then we try to use the ballot to regain our rights, it’s not the best scenario. On the other hand, when you’re living in circumstances where that’s your only option, then maybe people have no choice.
My bigger issue is whether the work has been done on the ground in Maine to change people’s hearts and minds to ensure that we can win because I don’t think we should be going back to the ballot unless we know that our chances of victory are good. The consequences of a loss are just so devastating.
We still have not figured out how the fight the extremely successful rhetoric of the right wing. They have, from the very beginning, from the very first anti-marriage vote when Hawaii gay marriage was first going forward, realized that anti-gay ballot measures were a way to raise tons of money and recruit their constituents to the polls and thereby achieve a far broader conservative agenda.
They were winning by scaring people that their children were going to be in danger if whatever the issue was went forward. If you look at the ads that were done in Hawaii in the mid-nineties, and then you look at the notorious “princess” ad in Prop 8 in 2008, they were essentially the same.
We have not yet figured out how to counter that fear mongering that children will be in danger if we are given equal civil rights. I think we’ve got to solve that problem more effectively before we throw tons of precious resources and time into a proactive ballot measure. We don’t have a choice when we’re under attack; we have to fight back. In terms of being proactive, though, we need to be a lot more judicious in what we do.
In the spirit of being proactive, there’s a group called Faith in America that holds that, because religious groups have been so active in these anti-gay ballot measures, we need to engage them. Is it important to engage people of faith?
We definitely have to engage people of faith and leaders of faith. We did that in a huge way in the Prop 8 battle in California, but it’s still a tough row to hoe because the language of religious bigotry sounds better and is more susceptible to sound bites than is the language of religious acceptance.
Still, even the media plays into this. There are numbers of times that I will talk to media and they want me to come on and debate a LGBT rights issue against a minister. I ask them, “Why haven’t you gotten a pro-LGBT rights minister to do this?” Well, they don’t even think of that. They always think about religious people as being against us, when in fact there is a huge number of religions and religious leaders who are with us.
It’s something we must do, that many of us are doing, but it’s not an easy task. I think if individual activists are people of faith themselves and they attend church or synagogue or – I was going to say mosque, but we have yet to make inroads; there are a few Muslim leaders that are accepting of LGBT people, but hardly any – we need them in their own congregations to be talking to their religious leaders, to speak up, and to be vocal about equal civil rights for everyone under the law.
The Human Rights Campaign, which you mentioned a while ago on the transgender issue, has come under criticism for being overly centrist and enabling the Democratic Party and the president in their lackluster support for LGBT issues, particularly marriage. How do you balance the need for radical change with working within the present legal and political infrastructure? What is the role of civil disobedience and protest in the LGBT movement?
I think that all successful social change movements have people who are working on the inside and people who are rattling chains from the outside. That is, civil disobedience at the far left of the continuum to quiet insiders at the right end of the continuum.
In fact, I feel that one of the weaknesses of our movement today is that we have lost that “in your face,” radical contingent. It simply does not exist in a significant degree anymore. Where we did have such a contingent in a very significant way was in the first decade of the AIDS epidemic when ACT UP was formed and Queer Nation was formed and organizations like that who, literally, demonstrated, did die-ins, who used all kinds of civilly disobedient tactics to bring attention to the issues and to bring about systemic change.
One of the things that happens when you have that strong radical component to your movement is that it makes the people in the middle seem so much more reasonable. Our movement continuum now is much more out of balance. What people were asking for twenty years ago which was, in some respects, much more in the middle of the continuum, begins to look like a far left demand because there is no far left anymore.
What are some examples of older rights claims that have become more fringe?
One example is mainstream civil rights.
When our movement first started to look at a civil rights bill, we basically wanted to be included in the same way that other communities were included, like in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Basically it was an omnibus civil rights bill applied across the board to employment, to housing, to public accommodations, to other things. That’s the kind of omnibus civil rights bill that was being pushed.
Then, in the early nineties, under the Clinton administration, the response to that was, “No, that just can’t happen. You need to reel it back in and ask for something less.” And this was where there was a great dispute internally among the insider groups at the time. Ultimately, that was when it was agreed to create the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and only seek employment protection.
The theory was that this would pass that year and then we could go back for all the rest. Well, it didn’t happen that year and it hasn’t happened yet. Now employment discrimination has become the new ceiling! I think that’s quite unfortunate. There have even been some proposals in Congress to limit the scope of that and to exempt all kinds of employers who were never exempt from past civil rights laws!
When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, religious institutions were not exempted from complying with that! They were not allowed to engage in racial discrimination. Of course they could in their own priesthood and stuff like that, but when they were doing business, like in hospitals, they could not discriminate. Now there are proposals in Congress to exempt religious institutions from the law with respect to gay and lesbian people, bisexual and transgendered people!
That’s a good example of how what in the past would have been unthinkable has now become the presumption.
Over the past few years, student LGBT activists at Georgetown have been pushing for gender-neutral housing to accommodate transgendered students. What kinds of strategies should they use to confront the administration and achieve their goals? [Editor’s Note: Gender-neutral housing is actually meant to accommodate all LGBT people, not just transgendered persons]
I think that they should look at the efforts that were done in the past with integrating housing in other ways. Co-ed housing would probably be the most analogous. Follow some of the same tactics and strategies that were used then.
The problem is that transgendered students are such a tiny minority in our society that they can’t do it without a lot of help. Allies have to step in and assist. But, you know, sometimes you have to start small. Maybe you get campuses to agree that they’re not going to make all the housing gender-neutral, but they’ll allow people to opt in.
You never stop pushing for the whole thing, the full civil rights that you want, but sometimes you accept incremental progress. Well, you don’t accept it necessarily, but you see it as incremental progress that will get us closer to where we need to be. Like Kennedy’s saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Sometimes we’ve all fallen victim to that.
You mention in a video about the LA Gay & Lesbian Center that your organization has been involved in other social issues, such as fighting against the Vietnam War-era draft. How do you see an LGBT community center’s role in engaging social justice issues when its own community may hold diverse views on these matters?
Here at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center we take positions on a wide variety of issues and sometimes of our constituents have been unhappy. My position is that LGBT people are everywhere: we are undocumented immigrants. We are IV drug users. We are people of color. In every other community, we exist.
On the one hand, those issues are LGBT issues. Even if they may not be LGBT-specific, they certainly impact members of our community. On the other hand, we are a small minority too, and we cannot win the ultimate battle we want to win without the support of our straight friends and allies. If we’re going to want our allies to stand up for us on issues that are important to us, then we need to be there for them on issues that are important to them.
We can’t afford to be the equivalent of isolationists on our issues. In California, when we’ve had challenges against affirmative action, when we’ve had some of these anti-immigrant initiatives, the LA Center has been there with our allies fighting for some of these issues because we know that not only do they impact many LGBT people, but we need our friends to be with us when its our turn.
For you, LGBT issues intersect with many others such as class and race. How far down the line of subsidiary responsibility do you allow yourself to go in balancing the need for funding with the ethical issues of soliciting donations from large institutions such as Wells Fargo that may harm certain constituencies?
We’ve occasionally had interesting debates on these issues. For example, years ago Coors Brewing Company started funding LGBT activities across the country: sponsoring events, sponsoring pride celebrations, becoming sponsors of various LGBT organizations. This was not without controversy because Coors had a very bad reputation in our community because of some things that they had done in preceding decades. They were very anti-gay.
When Coors came to us, we ultimately did take their money, but it was one of the most divisive things on my executive team because there were some people saying, “How can we take their money given all the bad things they did?” They’re pariahs in our community. I wouldn’t drink a Coors beer in a bar for two decades because of what they did.
Then other people would say, “Wait a minute, what’s the incentive for corporations to change if they can never be forgiven?”
Then there’s the more difficult argument, and this may be what you’re asking. They say, “Well, should we be taking money or should we promote corporations such as Coors whose primary shareholders are leading supporters of conservative anti-gay politics?”
The more down the path you go with that, the more difficult it gets. I don’t ask my private donors where they got their money, so maybe they have it from investments or family businesses that I would object to.
Generally speaking, with some exceptions, my view is that, so long I don’t agree to any strings when I take that money–strings that would violate our ethics or require us to do things that we don’t believe in, I’m going to put that money to a lot better use than the corporation would and help people who really need it.
Then again, there are a few organizations that, generally or for the moment, are so noxious that I wouldn’t take their money. I probably wouldn’t take Playboy money if it were offered, although that certainly dates me. And I wouldn’t take money from the KKK if it were offered, but from big banking institutions, whether they’re good ones like Wells Fargo or ones with horrible reputations like AIG or Goldman Sachs, I’d take it so long as I wasn’t selling out to do so.
I understand that’s a difficult question, so I appreciate your response.
Really, where is the clean money? Some say government isn’t clean money, but government funds most of the social services that we do. It’s a complex question and almost no one ever asks me, so that was very interesting!
Do you think that there will ever be a day when the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center’s work as a specifically LGBT organization will be finished and you will take on a broader role?
I yearn for that. I don’t think I will live to see it. Nothing would make me happier than to work ourselves out of business, but as long as we live in a culture that treats LGBT people badly, there will be a need for an organization like us. We have to help people rebuild their lives. We have to help them build their self-esteem. We have to help create this strong community that will fight for a fair, equal, and accepting place in our society.
There are particular programs that may come and go as a result of progress, but until we crack the nut society-wise, I think we still have a lot of work to do.
That’s all of my questions. Is there anything else that you’d like to tell our readers to expound on some of the topics that we’ve touched on?
I guess I would say that I have had very negative feelings about Georgetown University for many, many years. On the one had, my law school experience was so expansive and I met lifelong friends and it set me on a path that has been one of the most rewarding lives I can possibly imagine.
On the other hand, the University itself behaved very, very badly with regard to LGBT people and hurt a lot of individuals. And the University has never apologized for what it did, which one would think would be the Catholic or Christian thing to do.
That’s amazing and I imagine that there are many alums or parents of people sending their kids to Georgetown that don’t know that, but it represents enormous progress and a recognition that, to some degree, all of us are entitled to equal human dignity and respect and I feel very proud to have laid the foundation that ultimately has led to that and I look with great interest to see what the future will hold.