Leaders of Change

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com August 13 2013 4:00 AM ET

From tackling issues like bullying and economic justice to blazing trails in the battle for same-sex marriage and transgender equality, nonprofit organizations have been effecting positive change for LGBT people for decades. 

The Advocate spoke with leaders from several LGBT nonprofits about the groundbreaking work thier organizations are doing on behalf of our community and how each one of us can help make a difference in the pursuit of justice for all.

 

Rea Carey
Executive Director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

Presiding over one of the oldest LGBT organizations in the country, Rea Carey knows the world is vastly different since her organization, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, launched 40 years ago. But Carey is also aware that even with “don’t ask, don’t tell” fading into memory and marriage equality gaining traction, her work is far from over.

“Every day I know there are still so many people in our community getting knocked down, who don’t have physical or emotional safety or any semblance of equality in their lives — people who can’t be out at work, at church, or in the families,” Carey says from her home base in Washington, D.C. “We must not slow down.”

Carey’s advocacy began when she cofounded the organization Gay Men and Lesbian Opposing Violence in the ’90s. When Carey became the Task Force’s executive director in 2008, she used her background battling hate crimes to lobby the government for LGBT-inclusive legislation that provided federal resources to investigate and prosecute violence against queer people. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed in October 2009, becoming the nation’s first federal law to protect transgender people and the start of a grand slam of LGBT rights wins — from the death of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, and Proposition 8 to voter-approved marriage equality in several states.

The Task Force is now working to stem continuing violence against LGBT people, pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, provide funding for HIV-positive people and LGBT seniors, and prepare and train a new generation of LGBT leaders. Everyone who has a passion for social justice should get involved, Carey says, by giving their time or donations to groups like hers that work to level the playing field.

“Believe that you can make a difference,” she says. “That your voice counts. That your action counts. That as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person you have value and that society would be less dynamic without you.”


Chuck Wolfe
President and CEO, Victory Fund

Photo: Michael Key

When Chuck Wolfe took over as head of the Victory Fund, an organization that works to train and elect LGBT politicians, there were 13 states that never had one out elected official. Now, 10 years later, all 50 states have had at least one openly LGBT person in office.

Wolfe was involved in some very high-profile elections, including Houston’s lesbian mayor Annise Parker; the first out U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin; and the election of four new LGBT members of the U.S. House of Representatives last year. The Victory Fund not only provides funds for political campaigns, it advises candidates on how to win, through twice-a-year candidate training. The Victory Fund’s help has also pushed hundreds of candidates for local and state office over the top, and that’s very important, Wolfe says.

“Victory Fund has worked for years to grow the number of LGBT officeholders at all levels of government, and in particular in state legislators,” he says. “It’s really been gratifying for us to now see states with some of the largest groups of out lawmakers passing marriage equality bills, but also working to protect transgender people, curb bullying in schools, and make sure health insurers cover the unique needs of LGBT people.”

Not everyone aspires to be a politician, but everyone should realize how politics affects their daily life, Wolfe says. When a conservative politician is blocking a bill that would require schools to teach LGBT tolerance, for example, it can take an out legislator to show why that curriculum is necessary.

“Supporting our work financially is another way to make sure LGBT voices are in the room when elected officials are debating our lives, our relationships, and our rights,” he says. Wayne Besen
Founder and Executive Director, Truth Wins Out

Photo: William Waybourn

The "ex-gay" movement is in shambles. And you can thank activists like Wayne Besen, who founded Truth Wins Out in 2006. Back then, extremist religious groups like Love Won Out were holding conferences claiming homosexuality could be "cured." Besen, whose parents once gave him a cassette tape on how to change his sexual orientation, has always compared ex-gay leaders to charlatans who are taking people's money with false promises — and by peddling "treatments" that psychologists say do real harm. Love Won Out has long since disappeared, and Exodus International, one of the most prominent voices of the extremists, shut down this year and apologized for harming gays and lesbians. But Besen sees more work to be done whenever he reads the news to start his day. "I get up and I get angry every morning, and in a good way," he says. For some reason, "I've always felt I could do something about it," and that's what he says makes him an activist. But for those who don't want to write a book (Besen is the author of 2003's Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth) or launch their own group and contend with the basics of staffing and fund-raising, Besen suggests one basic idea that helps Truth Wins Out fight fundamentalism — "live authentically."


Abbe Land

Executive Director and CEO, The Trevor Project

Since 1998, The Trevor Project has been a trailblazer in suicide prevention, providing such vital services as the Trevor Lifeline (1-866-488-7386), a toll-free number that provides troubled LGBT youth with 24/7 access to trained counselors. The organization’s current president and CEO is a trailblazer herself: Abbe Land, the longtime mayor of West Hollywood. Since assuming her role at Trevor in 2012, Land has been instrumental in expanding the organization’s message and reach. Under her leadership, the nonprofit organization expanded operations of the country's first instant messaging crisis service for LGBT youth, TrevorChat, to seven days. Moreover, the Trevor Lifeguard Workshops, which provide age-appropriate curriculum on topics such as sexual orientation and suicide prevention, was recently recognized in the SPRC/AFSP Best Practices Registry. Every year, more than 100,000 young people reach out to and benefit from these services.

For Land, one of the most emotionally resonant experiences comes from reading and responding to the many letters written by LGBT youth who feel ostracized, different, and isolated in their pain. The program, titled Ask Trevor, allows young people to ask questions that are related to family, coming out, gender identity, crushes, and the general confusion and loneliness that comes from feeling different from others.“People feel it’s just them, and nobody’s going to love them because of who they are,” Land says. “And that’s so untrue. And being able to answer and tell them that there are others, and that they’re perfect just the way they are, is what the mission of Trevor is all about.”

“It’s the reason that I want to keep doing this work,” Land adds, “because no one should feel that they are all alone.” According to Land, one of the most impactful ways the average person can help further the mission of The Trevor Project is to talk about the reality of suicide with friends, loved ones, classmates, and peers. Normalizing these often-taboo conversations, Land believes, will make it easier for at-risk youth to ask for help.

In addition to these conversations, supporters of Trevor’s cause can also contribute financially at www.trevorproject.org or apply online to become a volunteer counselor, which requires a training program. One can also join their local Trevor Ambassadors, volunteer groups located in many major U.S. cities that contribute to fund-raising and education programs.


Mara Keisling

Executive Director, National Center for Transgender Equality

The National Center for Transgender Equality is a social justice organization dedicated to advancing the equality of transgender people through advocacy, collaboration, and empowerment. Founded in 2003 by current executive director Mara Keisling, NCTE is “one of the most effective transgender organizations working to end discrimination and violence against our community through laser-focused policy advocacy,” says Kiesling. “We do effective. We do social justice.”

NCTE’s track record backs up Keisling’s confidence. The nonprofit has established itself as a fixture in Washington, D.C., elevating the voices and concerns of trans people and their allies in ways that were unfathomable 10 years ago. While it might not be common knowledge to cisgender folks (nontrans people), NCTE has been a leader in secuing important, substantial reforms in how state, federal, and local governments treat trans people. NCTE was instrumental in revising the rules regulating changing name and gender markers on passports, driver’s licenses, and as of June 2013, on Social Security cards.

“Most nontrans people may not understand what an economic, emotional, and physical safety problem ID was five to 10 years ago,” says Keisling. But thanks to the work of NCTE and its Beltway allies, trans people now have greater access to obtain documentation that reflects their accurate name, gender, and presentation, abolishing outdated policies that involuntarily outed people as transgender when an official record listed someone as a gender or by a name other than that with which they identify.

Despite these landmark advances — including a 2012 ruling from the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission that determines transgender people are protected from workplace discrimination based on Title IX of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of sex-based discrimination — Keisling is adamant that the fight must continue.

To mark its 10th anniversary, the organization has adopted the theme “Our Moment.” “With the groundwork we’ve laid, with the staff, board, and membership we have, with the allies who share in our efforts, this is our moment to get some amazing work done,” Keisling promises. “The single most important thing trans people can do right now is to share their story with their congressperson during the August recess. Too many trans people lose their jobs, and when they lose their jobs, they almost always lose their careers. By being out front telling our stories, we can move ENDA forward."

Mike Mike Smith
Executive Director, AIDS Emergency Fund

For more than 20 years the AIDS Emergency Fund has been providing financial assistance to those who have been impoverished by their battle with HIV or AIDS. The organization was originally founded in 1982, after a group of San Franciscans came together to pay the bills of their friends who had become too sick to work as a result of the disease.

Today, the organization has become one of the largest of its kind in the Bay Area. However, providing financial assistance to those who have become medically disabled by HIV isn’t something the group can tackle alone, and Mike Smith, the fund’s executive director for the past 11 years. is quick to point out that the smallest of donations can make a big difference for those in poverty because of the disease. “AIDS Emergency Fund’s 2,200 clients are all medically disabled by HIV/AIDS and trying to get by in San Francisco on less than $1,000 a month” Smith says. “Think through the many little luxuries we all take for granted: a cup of coffee, the delivered newspaper, cable TV. Cut back or give it up just one day a week and set the funds aside for AEF.”

Though the obstacles facing the AIDS Emergency Fund can sometimes seem daunting, Smith says seeing the difference the organization makes continually renews his dedication to the cause. “In February a new building of subsidized housing was completed in San Francisco.  By paying for first month’s rent, security deposits and move-in household items, we were able to place 23 long-term HIV/AIDS survivors in stable, affordable housing where they will be warm and safe for as long as they live.”

Eliza Byard
Executive Director, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network

For more than two decades, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network has been the driving force behind systemic change in K-12 schools that have made it safer to be an LGBT student, sponsoring gay-straight alliances and  empowering students and faculty to come out as allies and create safe spaces for LGBT youth. Since 2001, Eliza Byard has been a driving force behind the organization, and she has served as its executive director since 2008. Under her leadership, GLSEN has earned the trust of every major educational and youth service in the country, and schools nationwide have adopted its original intervention strategies, including its Safe Space Campaign, No Name-Calling Week, and Day of Silence.

GLSEN’s professional development and student curriculum have been formally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as official “best practices” in preventing LGBT bullying in schools. Byard, herself an out lesbian, represents the organization and its mission as a trustee of America’s Promise Alliance and as a steering committee member of the National Collaboration for Youth.

“I’m really proud of the scope and scale of GLSEN’s work at this point in our history,” says Byard. “[These are] factors which I think make us unique among LGBT-focused nonprofits. “

Byard says everyday people can support GLSEN’s mission by sending a Safe Space Kit to their local middle and high school, helping the organization reach its goal to have such kits placed in every middle and high school in the country by the end of this year. That will result in more than 60,000 schools where teachers, counselors, and administrators have completed GLSEN’s training and are displaying a “Safe Space” sticker demonstrating that inside a given office is a supportive adult to whom LGBT students can reach out for support.


Kevin M. Cathcart

Executive Director, Lambda Legal

Since 1992, Kevin M. Cathcart has served as executive director of Lambda Legal, one of the nation’s leading nonprofits dedicated to equality litigation. Under his leadership, the organization has helped achieve historic victories in the fight for LGBTQ rights, including its argument before the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which established the right to sexual intimacy for gay Americans.

In recent years Cathcart has expanded Lambda Legal’s work, spearheading the Foster Care Initiative for lesbian and gay youth, as well as the Marriage Project and Transgender Rights Project. While the June Supreme Court decisions striking down Proposition 8 and section 3 of  DOMA were “just cause for celebration,” he says, “that exuberance must be tempered with the hard reality of the discrimination we still face.”

“The end of DOMA did not mean the end of the marriage battle, and marriage equality is only one aspect of Lambda Legal's work for equality,” says Cathcart. “For example, 37 states still bar same-sex couples from marriage. That's why, within days of the Supreme Court decisions, Lambda Legal took action. We urged immediate court action in New Jersey where we've been fighting for nearly a decade, and our case in Illinois moved forward too. In the South, not a single state allows or respects marriages of same-sex couples — so Lambda Legal and the ACLU announced plans to soon file a federal lawsuit in Virginia. And just this week we launched a new mobile-friendly Know Your Rights – Transgender resource. From employment discrimination to issues relating to the transgender community and the interests of LGBT youth and seniors, we continue to fight for all LGBT people and people with HIV."

Apart from taking advantages of programs like Know Your Rights, anyone can support Lambda Legal by signing up to become a community volunteer at LambdaLegal.org. Lawyers can also contribute research and counsel by registering with its Cooperating Attorneys Network.

Evan Wolfson
Founder and President, Freedom to Marry

When Evan Wolfson could finally legally marry his husband, Cheng He, in New York in 2011, it was because he'd fought for it. Wolfson is a civil rights attorney who founded Freedom to Marry in 2003 and has become a central player in state-level marriage fights. This year, he sat down with a lawyer to apply for a green card for his husband, which became possible with the downfall of section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. So his own story is like those of the many others who motivate him to keep going. Freedom to Marry has already rolled out a new national plan, called the Roadmap to Victory -- Finishing the Job. Same-sex couples can still marry in only 13 states plus the District of Columbia, and while there are some more likely targets for wins ahead, the list of longshots is pretty lengthy. But that's also how things looked back in 2003, when no state offered same-sex couples the right to marry. Getting equality in all 50 states, Wolfson says, will require all of us to have some hard conversations. "We used to say the single best predictor of a person's favorability was knowing someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender," he says. "It turns out that's not exactly right. ... It's having a conversation with a person — or someone else the person trusts — that makes the difference."


Amber Hollibaugh

Executive Director, Queers for Economic Justice
Photo: Syd London

The perception that LGBT people are all affluent urbanites drives Amber Hollibaugh crazy. A cofounder of Queers for Economic Justice, Hollibaugh can't help but get passionate whenever she sees a report on how the recession has affected different types of groups or how Hurricane Sandy has left people homeless, without even mentioning LGBT people.

"It's profoundly disquieting that in the midst of the current economic crisis, you have no idea that the recession had an impact on our community," she says. "It makes me insane, because this idea that all LGBT people are wealthy, and mostly white is a dangerous myth."

Queers for Economic Justice was established in 2002, a time when many social services were being cut. Hollibaugh, who was raised in trailers in Bakersfield, Calif., knew too well what it was like to do without. Her passion was to raise the issue of sheer economic survival of LGBT people.

"I couldn't find an organization that really talked about these issues in very complex ways," she says. "For me, coming as mixed-race and as a really poor, poor person, I always found myself at [activist meetings] and raising my hand, asking, 'This is great, but what if you're poor or a person of color or living in poverty?'"

Since the beginning, her group been working to raise the profile of low-income LGBT people, especially since many people feel ashamed to admit that they live in poverty. The New York City–based organization has worked to get queer families placed in shelters and to get transgender people into the shelters of their choice.

Meanwhile, it's working on ways to encourage think tanks, federal agencies, and polling organizations to begin concentrating on the economic situation of LGBT people. It's still organizing around the devastation that swept across the Northeast in the form of Hurricane Sandy, which left an estimated 5,000 LGBT people homeless, in addition to the 40,000 people who were displaced overall. Its Queer Survival Economies project is a policy and organizing initiative that continues to raise the profile of LGBT people who are often the most marginalized.

"There are huge conversations about the economy, and economic equality, but we are completely invisible in that conversation," Hollibaugh says. "What is the impact of the economy on a poor struggling black drag queen who works at Target? … If we can rally around marriage, if we can rally around ending 'don't ask, don't tell,' we can rally around the economy."