Happy Pride Month!! For the 6th month of this series, I want to introduce you to a true change maker in the LGBTQ+ community, and someone very special to my family and our community here in Los Angeles, as well as internationally. As we continue to face the most challenging time in LGBT history in this decade, I wanted to this month’s activist to be one who exemplifies true leadership.
I chose the person who I first hugged after the Pulse night club shooting, who I first reached out to about my sheer terror when Trump was “elected” president, and who is my favorite hearing person to interpret for when I work as an ASL interpreter. Lorri L. Jean, CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, is a champion for LGBT rights. By all accounts, she was born that way. Over the years, through my work with the Los Angeles LGBT Center, she has been an inspiration, a role model and a friend. I am truly honored to share her amazing journey.
Here is her story, and what her work at the Los Angeles LGBT Center can teach all of us.
The eldest of 3 children (a fact that really impacted who she became), Lorri was an outgoing kid, fearless, with lots of confidence & self-esteem. She was always forming groups, organizing kids and presenting leadership skills from a very early age. She was always fearless.
Lorri’s family grew up very poor. They grew their own food and her mom made their clothes, but they never felt poor. Her parents’ determination and resourcefulness, along with the constant message that nothing should ever stand in the way of what their children wanted to accomplish, made life rich and full. Being unafraid of failure, and receiving the constant message that they could do anything, surely took this activist in the right direction!
“Mom says I always had an infinity to the underdog; a keen sense of the unjust or unfair,” Lorri recalls.
Her father was a farmer who experienced a great deal of loss in his industry, but he always managed to recover. With the help of an investor, who was able to help him start a business raising feeder pigs to sell to the pork industry, her dad decided to raise livestock. One of the loads of pigs contracted cholera. In the largest pork-producing operation west of the Mississippi, regulations under then-President Richard Nixon’s administration required all of the sick animals be eradicated. The federal and state governments were to split the cost of paying for the animals, but since pork was at its highest price ever, the state didn’t have the money, so they refused.
Mr. Jean refused to allow the herd to be killed if he wouldn’t be fully paid for it and he smuggled in vaccine from Mexico to save the herd from dying. The state retaliated by prohibiting replenishment of the herd as long as any exposed animals remained on the property, and by limiting the sale of the pigs to its own meat-packing board, which promptly reduced the price by half.
The result that the family their farm, and everything along with it. Homeless and broke, her father got a trailer and some land in the Arizona desert, where they stayed, with no water or power, until they could afford the utilities. This experience was a transformational one for 13-year-old Lorri. “I thought that was so wrong,” she remembers. “That’s when I decided to become a lawyer, and I was going to change the world so wrong things like that wouldn’t happen.”
As the oldest female child in a farming family, the injustice of sexism showed up when she was deemed by her father as incapable to do the work that she’d been able to do before puberty. He became cautious of hired hands, and when Lorri asserted that she wanted to become a vet, she was told that women could only be small-pet vets because livestock or large animal veterinarians were only men. But that didn’t stop this budding feminist! She showed her support of equal rights by using her voice to highlight disparities within her school sports teams. The budget wasn’t equal, and neither was the use of sports equipment. As editor of the school newspaper, Lorri only got more fired up when the football coach threatened her if she didn’t stop trying to expose the injustice. She absolutely would not give up!
As she grew up, Lorri continued to be deeply affected by, and tuned into, the issues surrounding the treatment of migrant workers. She was a justice-seeker from the start, and that fire only grew as she gained tools of leadership, and recognized the ability to use them to make change. The treatment of women and girls was extremely impactful as well. When she started college, Lorri became a leader once again, heading the Arizona State University Campus Women’s Affairs Board, championing for, and winning, the increase of OBGYN services and the right of the 17,000 women in the student population to have access to birth control within those services.
“A deep part of myself knew that I was a lesbian, although I wasn’t conscious of it until my last semester of college. By then, I had realized sexism and homophobia were impacting me, and I decided to become a civil rights lawyer.”
In 1979, she moved to law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where her activism lens turned to issues affecting the lesbian community. The school did not advertise that it is a Catholic institution in their catalog. Lorri was one of only 2 openly gay people attending. She founded the first Gay & Lesbian Law Students Association of Georgetown University Law Center but, after the student bar association, faculty senate and Dean approved the organization, it was vetoed by the President of the entire University, a closeted priest whose internalized homophobia rose up. This led the undergrads and law students to sue, claiming discrimination and seeking the right to proceed. After nine years of litigation, where the students first lost but then won on appeal, the university eventually settled the case, allowing the student groups to exist.
Eventually, Lorri moved from lesbian issues to issues affecting all LGBT people. She was asked to serve on the board of the Gay & Lesbian Education Fund, which raised money and gave grants for projects educating the straight community about LGBT concerns. She later became the president of the Gay Activists Alliance. In the worst years of the AIDS pandemic, she realized she found working in the community more rewarding than practicing law.
In 1989, at the age of 32, she applied for the position of Executive Director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund. She would have been the first woman in the position. Even though the staff unanimously endorsed her, a male candidate was chosen. In the aftermath, she was offered the job of Deputy Regional Director of FEMA’s Region 9, its largest and busiest regional headquarters, based in San Francisco. As a result of this promotion, she became the highest ranking openly LGBT person in the entire federal government. During her 3.5 year tenure there, the region experienced a presidentially declared disaster every 30 days.
3 years later, a Los Angeles-based friend called about a job in the movement. Though better known activists had applied for the position, their management experience could not compete with Lorri’s and she began her work with the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center (now called the Los Angeles LGBT Center). She had just started dating Gina Calvelli and they were not living together, but they decided to make the commitment and move to L.A. together.
“I knew my parents would think I’d lost my mind, moving to L.A. for a ‘gay thing’,” Lorri recalls. “But I knew nothing like the L.A. Center existed in the world.” Lorri & Gina settled in Los Angeles in December 1992, got married in 2008, and have a wonderful partnership to this day. Lorri worked at The Center from January 1993 until February 1999, then returned in mid-June 2003 and has been with us, by us and for us ever since.
What issues are at the forefront of your work now?
The Center is caring for the community. Things are changing quickly. There is an increasing demand to tackle homelessness with LGBT teens and the needs of seniors, as baby boomers age.
How has the Trump Administration has affected the LGBT community:
The current Administration has implemented countless anti-LGBT policy decisions impacting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, many of which have flown under the radar. For example, they have reversed position on decisions by the Obama Administration finding that LGBT people are not protected by the Civil Rights Act.
The Trans community are the most marginalized in our community. It is no accident that the right-wing started focusing on Trans POC, the group most victimized by hate crimes and HIV infection. They are the smallest group with the least protections. It is incumbent on LGB’s in community to do a lot of standing up for the T’s.
Before Trump, we were complacent because we made so much progress under Obama. The election of Trump, and his backlash against us, reveals the fragility of the gains we’ve made. Our progress will never be secure until full acceptance of LGBTQ people becomes part of the fabric of our society. Until then, all of us must volunteer and donate so our movement and organizations like the Center can do more.
He (Trump) is the crazy one that we all see, but he populated his administration with extreme religious idiologs, as well as appointing numerous anti-LGBT judges to the courts.. Those appointments alone could change history for decades to come, because federal judges are there until they retire or die.
Just a few of the additional anti-LGBT initiatives of the Trump Administration include:
On the day of his inauguration, the White House AIDS web page was taken down.
The Department of Education has rescinded protections for LGBTQ school kids.
Rescinding the rules prohibiting companies who do business with the federal government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; many of the people impacted live in states without protections.
Allowing Transgender people in the military repealed.
Deterred the Stonewall National Monument, which was approved by the Obama administration, by carving out a piece of the monument on which the flag pole was placed, so there would be no rainbow flag on federal property.
Department of Housing and Urban development removed LGBT nondiscrimination policies.
Executive orders to allow anti-LGBT discrimination by people claiming religious freedom.
Hate crimes have increased exponentially against LGBT, People of Color and immigrants.
What can we, The People, do about them?
The Mid-term election on November 6 could change everything if Democrats regain control of either or both houses of Congress. This would slow, and perhaps even stop, the Trump Administration plans to eviscerate LGBT programs and protections.
Don’t change your party registration! We need to convince the many Republicans deeply concerned about Trump that they needn’t change their party registration, but FOR THIS ELECTION, they need to send a message, to the President and Congress, by voting for Democrats so that the nation can get back on track.
Californians are a lucky, generally progressive lot. We are an important state with a lot of ability to throw wrenches in the works. People need to support elected leaders, obstructing the harmful initiatives of the Trump Administration.
Republican Senators don’t really care what Californians think. But, Californians can run phone banks to call voters in states with senators who might be willing to vote against Trump initiatives. We can convince those voters to call their Senators on key issues. Our Center’s resistance squad organized such efforts around healthcare reform, succeeding in persuading literally thousands of voters to call their own senators. We used software that enabled us to patch them through, directly to their Senators’ offices, and we were able to track that the voters actually stayed on the line and made the calls.
Come off the couch , don’t confuse posting on social media with effective social change. Social media alone won’t do it.
Marching has it’s place, but good old-fashioned grass roots organizing is what creates real change. Get involved. Start your own movement.
- We must do everything we can – talk about the issues and make sure that people don’t get complacent and don’t give up.
What would you say to the young people, who cannot yet vote, who want to make change in their communities or in the world?
Look at Parkland. Youth can often raise issues more effectively with elected leaders than adults can’t, even though they can’t vote. Raised voices are harder to ignore, they have the ability to change the minds of the world around them. Young people are more powerful than they get credit for, as we have seen there.
What would you say to people who are already activists, but who feel fatigued & enraged at the direction the world is going, and to the people who access their knowledge from mainstream media, social media, etc., who want to do something, but don’t know where to begin?
At a time of so many policy reversals, and the resulting fear and fatigue, we’ve seen numerous instances of people who should be natural allies turning on each other instead of turning their ire on the real enemies. Some ways to reduce the likelihood of community cannibalism include:
Take lessons from Trump such as:
The importance of being thoughtful and ensuring you have the actual facts before you reach a conclusion. Social media makes it easier to do none of those things.
If you are not wiling to say it to a person’s face, don’t type it.
If you have a concern, don’t email. Ask for an in-person meeting or make a phone call, so you can express your concerns live and in person. A person’s tone, when typed, is often unread & inaccurately amplified. We’re kinder when we’re speaking.
With the latest gun violence events, and the conversations around it, what are your thoughts, and how is the LGBT community affected by the current and potential laws around it?
The NRA misleadingly claims to be an ally of the LGBT community. In the 90s, they were a bipartisan organization. Now, they are almost exclusively Republican. This is clearly not just about gun rights anymore. Now, the NRA is full of Right-wing extremists who go much further than advocating for gun rights. They are advancing a comprehensive anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-progressive agenda that threatens much of what we hold dear. This community is among the top 2 groups experiencing hate crimes, and many of those victims are shot to death. All hate crimes become much more deadly when guns are involved. This violence, and other types of discrimination cause health problems and increased suicide rates.
As a parent in a same-sex marriage, with an African-American female child, what advice do you have for me?
Stay involved in our community. People need to hear voices & experiences that are different from their own lives.
- Understand that it is very important to care for the underdogs.
Raising your child’s social consciousness will be her greatest asset.
Understand the societal forces against her.
Live your truth, get involved, believe you can make a difference, and try to do it.
To donate to the Los Angeles LGBT Center, click here.
(Featured photo courtesy of Lorri Jean. Photo credit: Getty Images)