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LGBT Stories Podcast: Lorri L. Jean, Soldier of the Movement

LGBT Stories Podcast: Lorri L. Jean, Soldier of the Movement

Lori Jean LGBT Stories

The new LGBT Stories podcast lets queer people share their own stories. Read and listen to Lorri L. Jean, the CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center

When I received the email informing me that Lorri was confirmed to be on "LGBT Stories" I was beyond myself. Here I was, this one man show, creating these stories for the world to hear, wishing someone like Lorri would not only take the time to listen to the show, but be interested in telling their story on the show! Lorri would go on to tell the story of her rise to the top of the glass ceiling and bursting right through it - becoming the CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Her story begins in college where she was quite active in politics and moves throughout the many twist and turns she encounters over the following years. At this point in the run of episodes we had, this type of story hadn't happened. The stories we shared up to this point were all fairly heartbreaking, despite ending lightly. This was the first episode where we heard a voice of true activism. Those of us who know Lorri, or whom have had the pleasure of hearing her deliver a speech to a crowd of people, know that her voice spreads far any wide.

It is a beautiful thing seeing a lesbian hold such a distinguished position in society, but the work, time, and effort she put in for decades of her life speak volumes as to why she is where she is today.

I hope that as you listen to Lorri's story that it inspires you to find ways you can advocate for the LGBT community. Like Lorri did for so many years, if you look you can find ways to have thought-provoking conversation with friends, family, and co-workers. Maybe talk to them about how far the LGBT community has come, and still how far we have to go. Our fight is not yet over.


When Kevin gave me the instructions for preparing for this podcast it really sent me on a fun journey because I started thinking about things I hadn't thought about in a long time, and things like when I first came out. And here I am, I'm running the largest LGBT organization of any kind in the world and I had sort of forgotten that when I first came out just a few weeks short of my 22nd birthday, I was a senior in college and I was scared. And I decided once I had gotten to a place of acceptance that I wasn't going to tell anybody. And I thought well, I'll tell these lesbians that I know and other gay people but I'll never tell my family, I certainly could never tell my employer and I sort of forgotten that it was such a different world for me then.

In fact when I was first grappling with it, I, unlike many LGBT people that I know, didn't have a lot of knowledge or self-awareness that I was a lesbian when I was young. I mean I know people who knew it from the time they were practically out of the womb. But I did not, I was very unaware in that regard, and what happened to me is I was a young feminist activist from the time I was in grade school. In junior high, I led a petition drive so girls could wear pants to school, and that was my first successful active grassroots organizing, and from then on I became a staunch feminist activist.

People in college apparently just presumed that I was a lesbian, and hadn't said anything to them and when the first person told me that they thought I was a lesbian I was so shocked and that sent me on this self-analyzing journey that ultimately helped me to realize well, yes of course, I'm a lesbian. That explains so much in my life but I was so worried about it at first that I went into the registrar at my college and I took out a form to withdraw from school and this was my last semester, I was graduating at the top of my class, I was female scholar of the year that year, but I was going to walk away. That's how scared and unknown my future felt at that time.

I just was going to be disappointing everybody I thought, and I was going to have to run away and never come back. But fortunately I got through that little period of fear and I didn't withdraw, but I did decide that I was going to keep it a secret. But that didn't last very long. Ultimately I found it way too hard to live my life hiding. Even though this was back in 1979 and the world was a very different place then. But I also remember not only the fear, but the excitement that I finally understood who I was, that there were other people like me, and that I was going to be able to have a life of happiness and I hoped, fulfillment.

In fact, that's exactly what I had. But I started learning about our community. And as was the case back then, one of the most popular topics of conversation any time I was gathering with other gay and lesbian people, and bisexual and transgender people weren't much in our conscience's back then, but we always wanted to tell our coming out stories because it was so fascinating to hear what other people had gone through. And I was lucky because I had parents who loved me and it took me a little while to tell them, almost a year.

I came out on February 11, 1979 and the following Christmas vacation I came home from law school, I was living in Arizona and I had moved to Washington, D.C., and I came home from law school and I told my mom. And I'll never forget her reaction, I think I was a little naive. I thought that once I told her, since she loved me, well, it would all be okay. I didn't stop to think that I struggled myself, and it was going to be hard for her to do it overnight. But she was pretty damn good, I'll have to give her that. She cried, and I said, "Mom, please help me understand, why are you crying?"

She replied that she had certain dreams for me, and now she was going to have to give them up. And in her mind I think those dreams were that I would have children, that I would have a successful career, and those things seemed incompatible with being a lesbian. Certainly in 1979 there were few if any laws that protected us from discrimination, the concept of having children, if you didn't already have them, or getting married, I mean those were so far from anybody's consciousness. And I think my mom was most worried about society, and that I would be hurt.

And so I had to come to grips with that, and she also made two requests of me. One was that I wouldn't tell my father, and the other was that I had to promise not to go on TV about this, because I had been such an activist, on my college campus I was the head of the Women's Affairs Board, and I led the drive to get full-time gynecological care and birth control services, available at our college health center. And I was on all the stations about that, that was quite a controversial thing.

Back in 1979, in this Mormon- and Catholic-controlled state and so she was right to think hey, I could go on TV. And so I agreed to those things, again those agreements didn't last very long either, and I went back to Washington and I started to become a lesbian activist. And one of the first things that I did was work with a gay man at Georgetown University Law Center, and with some undergraduates to start an LGBT group on the Law School campus and an LGBT group student group on the undergraduate campus. We went through all the approval, including by the dean of the Law School, and it went all the way up to the president of the University. At the time he was Father Timothy Healy, and he vetoed it. He refused to allow us to exist. And the reason he did that, I believe, is that he was a closeted gay man. And I think he felt that if he allowed this to exist that he would be exposed somehow.

So in our naivete and anger, we decided oh well, we'll sue. We have a human rights ordinance in Washington and if we get a lawyer and threaten to sue, they will cave and just let us go about the business of having our LGBT student groups. But we underestimated the power of homophobia and bigotry, and the corrosive nature of the closet. It became a battle that lasted nine years, we went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, although ultimately we settled before we ultimately went to the Supreme Court, and we won. We lost at the trial court level and we appealed, and then we won at the Appellate Court level, and after nine years finally, Georgetown was required to allow the LGBT student groups to exist, and to fund them like they did everybody else. And today, in fact, Georgetown has a thriving LGBT student center on the main campus, and 25 years after the lawsuit was filed, a few years ago I was invited back.

I didn't really have the best relationship with my alma mater because I was so unhappy about my experience there. And in fact I want to stop and tell a little story about that. Here we were, just kids in school, we'd filed this lawsuit, the university was fighting us, and one day I was walking through the lobby of the law school. And there walked Father Healy, the president of the university. And we had not met, and I ran up to him, or quickly walked up to him and stopped him and introduced myself, and my hope was that I was going to talk to him about allowing us to exist and why he shouldn't fight this. But before I could do anything, he sort of pushed me up against the wall, and basically said that if I didn't stop what I was doing and essentially he was suggesting withdraw the lawsuit, that he would make sure I never practiced law in Washington. Well, that was a pretty frightening thing. This was a man of immense power.

I didn't know whether or not he would really try to blackball me, or whether he could, but it certainly was frightening. But that's where being young and being a little naive helps, because you don't understand fully, often, the consequences of your actions. And so, that just made me mad. And I decided well, I'm not going to let him stop me. And so we continued.

While this lawsuit was going on, of course I graduated from law school, I became a young lawyer and continued with my career, and on the side I was doing increasing amounts of LGBT activism. And in the early years after getting out of law school, the AIDS epidemic hit. And I'm really sorry to say that the lead plaintiff from the undergraduate school died of AIDS before the end of the lawsuit. And my partner in crime at the law school, he lived long enough to see us win, but then he died. And it was quite a legacy that he and the undergraduate student Jim Ryan left for everybody. That they had the courage to fight for something that was just equal treatment, nothing more.

Our whole community was under siege with the AIDS epidemic and that meant that I was doing more and more activism, and fighting for our rights with the city government, fighting to have funeral homes accept people who died of AIDS. Fighting to protect the homes and properties for the surviving partners, those families swept in and took everything. It was a horrible time. And it was during this time that I decided that I wanted to work full-time for our movement. I was having a lot more fun, I was feeling a lot more inspired by that work than I was my full-time work as an attorney. And so, but back then, you didn't hardly make any money when you worked for an LBGT nonprofit. And I had a lot of student loans to pay. My folks were farmers, they didn't have a lot of money, and so I had a lot of student debt. So I had to aspire to one of the top jobs.

In 1989, what was then called the Human Rights Campaign Fund was looking for a new executive director. And there had never been a woman at the helm of that organization so I decided to apply for the job. And I made it all the way to the finals, it was me and Tim McDealy, and he was about maybe ten years my senior. Didn't really have any more significant experience as an activist or as a lawyer than I did, and even though the staff unanimously endorsed me, they chose him. And I thought to myself, okay gender might have played a role in it, it probably did. But what else? Why didn't you get this job? And I realized that it was because I didn't have greater management experience than he did. I had sort of the kind of management experience that most activists who were willing to work in an LGBT organization back then had. And so I thought, if I'm going to get one of these top jobs, I've got to really beef up my resume somehow. And at the time I was working for a new federal agency called the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and I was out of the closet there, although it took me a little while to do that. And the head of the agency, who was the first black three-star general in the United States Army, General Julius Becton, he was an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, he had become my staunch ally.

He thought he was going to lose me to this job, and he said to me, "Well, what would it take to keep you?" And thinking about what I wanted to do, so that the next time I applied for one of these significant jobs my resume would blow the others out of the water, I very brazenly asked him for the deputy regional director job in FEMA's largest and busiest region. Region 9, which was based in San Francisco. There had never been a woman in that job, in any of the ten regions, and there had never been a man in that job who was under 55. I was 32 at the time. Well, lo and behold, he gave it to me. So I picked up sticks, I moved across the country, I had ended a relationship not long before so I was ready to be in a new place and experience new things, and to tell you the truth I was also running away a little bit, because so many of my gay men friends had died. And everywhere I went in Washington reminded me of the men that I had loved and lost.

I was sort of feeling a need to be somewhere that I didn't face those sad reminders every single day. So I moved to San Francisco, and I was also happy to be back west and be closer to my family. And by then I had come out to my father, long before then. He had immediately gone into denial about it, but everything was okay. So I moved to San Francisco and promptly forgot about my ambitions to work with an LGBT organization because within a couple of months after I arrived in San Francisco, we had the Loma Prieta earthquake, one of the biggest earthquakes to strike California. And so I was extremely busy with that disaster and with the many other disasters that our region was experiencing. Our region was part of the western United States, Hawaii, and the far Pacific territories. And we had typhoons, we had earthquakes, we had floods, we had freezes, we had so much going on and I barely had time to do any activism although I was at that time on the board of Land and Legal Defense of Education Fund, and I actually became co-chair of the board.

One day my phone rang in my office, and it was a consultant that the board had hired for LAMDA, and she told me, "Lorri, there's a job in L.A. with your name written all over it." And that was the job of running what was then called the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. So to make a long story short, I applied for the job, and while there were activists that applied for it that were better known to the board than I was, I had a resume with which they could not compete. So I got the job, and I started at the center in January of 1993. And I worked there for six years and then decided it was time to step down. My dad was sick, he was given a terminal diagnosis, and I wanted to spend more time with him, and I sort of needed a break. So I took four and a half years off, but in that time I spent two years running the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and then the Center asked me to come back which I did in June of 2003. And I think about the progress that I have seen in that period of time, and I think about the experience that I had when I arrived as a young lawyer now at the helm of what was even then one of the largest LGBT organizations in the country. We had an $8 million dollar budget, and about 140 staff. Today our annual budget is $107 million, we have 600 staff, and we are serving more than 42,000 people every month.

Getting from the beginning to where we are today has been a truly extraordinary journey. It's been fraught with two steps forward one step back. Not only were we constantly trying to serve our community, and when I started it was still in the heights of the AIDS epidemic, AIDS was the number one cause of death of adults in our country in 1993-1995. But we had gays in the military fight, we had political leaders who proclaimed to support us but then would back off. So while we're serving our community on one hand, we're having to fight for even the most minimal acceptance on the other.

But it has been a journey that has been filled with joy and progress that now in retrospect overcomes almost all of the heartache and the hardships. I mean, nothing will ever make up for the losses of the worst days of the AIDS epidemic, but as I am talking today we actually have the end of the epidemic within our grasp thanks to new treatments that can prevent the spread of HIV, can enable people not to contract it, but we still don't have the political will in our country or even around the world to ensure that everybody who needs those medications can get them.

We can end AIDS if people would be willing to spend the money to do it. The fact that we've achieved the freedom to marry, which nobody envisioned in 1979 when I came out. Couldn't even be on the horizon, and now it's the law of the land. Although it is a right that is at risk. This current presidential administration and the people that they've lined up and the folks that they want to appoint and have begun to appoint to the United States Supreme Court could overturn that right. That freedom. And so it's a time for our community to rise anew, and to realize that all that we've worked for could be at risk.

I think about my time as a young lawyer in Washington, where I was fighting the Central Intelligence Agency, which I needed to get an above top secret security clearance from them, and they denied me the clearance because I was a lesbian. And I had to fight them for over a year to get that clearance. And then I did, I was the first openly LGBT person to get a special access clearance from the Central Intelligence Agency. But that could be lost, now there are so many openly LGBT employees in the Federal Government, but slowly but surely the new Trump administration is taking away some of the protections and rights that have allowed people to be honest and open about who they are.

I am now 60, it's been a long journey so far, although it's gone so fast. And I think about just eight months ago before this presidential election, I thought that our trajectory was going to be just continued progress with no setbacks. And I still believe that for the long term, but we are now facing a time in our country where if we don't rise up and fight back in ways that we haven't done frankly since the heights of the AIDS epidemic, we could be at risk. And so what's really going to be important is that the young people who are coming out today in a different world than the United States, in a different world than certain other countries around the globe, but who are facing dramatic problems in many places where we still don't have rights, where in fact we can be put to death.

Those young people who are coming out today are going to be the ones who are going to have to take this torch the rest of the way and achieve full and complete equality not only here in the United States and in Western Europe, but in South America, in Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East, some of the places where our challenges are the greatest. And what I would say to people who are thinking about working full-time for the movement, you will never find a more rewarding job than doing that. My folks were a little freaked out when I decided I was going to leave my job as a lawyer and go to work for a gay nonprofit. My dad told me at the time he hoped it would be a quick stepping stone on my career path, but it has now been more than about 25 years that I've been working full-time in the movement. Of LGBT organizations in this country, I'm the longest tenured executive director left now that Kevin Cathcart retired from LAMDA, and if you include AIDS service organizations, Paul Kawata is the most senior, running the National Minority AIDS Council.

But doing this work has given me the privilege of wanting to wake up every day and know that I'm doing something that's meaningful, that's making a difference in people's lives, that is changing the world. And that's a lot better to me than had I gone the corporate lawyer path. I'd be a lot richer, I'd have a very different retirement than what I'm going to have, but I would not have had nearly as fulfilling a life. My family has accepted me, I just celebrated the 25th anniversary of living with my lovely wife, Gina. We've had fabulous years together, and some challenges. We had a little break-up in the middle but we hung in there, and I'm so glad we did.

So I've been lucky, I've had a good life so far, I've got another five years before I retire and I intend to do some great work between now and then with my fabulous team here. We're building a phenomenal campus that is going to bring all of our youth and senior services together, housing as well. It's the largest project ever attempted in the LGBT world, it's going to cost about $130 million. We are striving to raise $47.5 million for our community to help pay for it, and we've already topped the $40 million dollar mark. So there's a lot of work to do, we need a lot of help, and there are centers just like mine in cities all over the country and all around the globe who need the help of members of their community to build a stronger community so we can fight for our rightful place in society. And there's nothing more rewarding than that. So I'm Lorri Jean, CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and these are my LGBT Stories.


I encourage you to reach out to us. You can email Because we're a community, all of us. LGBT and not. We are a community of humans, and we're here.

To hear all of Lorri's story, listen to the full podcast episode of LGBT Stories below. You can find additional episodes and learn more about LGBT Stories at our official website.

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