Founder of Susan G. Komen turns her attention to the fight for LGBT civil rights
There was a time, Nancy Brinker acknowledges, “that I probably wasn’t kind to gay people.” But any unkindness grew not out of animus toward gays, but rather from a lack of knowledge.
“Back then, people didn’t talk about it. I probably knew gay people that I never knew were gay. I never realized that some people are born gay,” Brinker said in a recent interview. “I can look back at people I knew and see now that yes, they were probably gay. But back then, you just didn’t talk about it. I never thought about it.”
But Brinker isn’t in the dark any more. The woman who founded Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (now Susan G. Komen) may not be marching in LGBT protests or parades, but she is a very vocal, very staunch advocate for LGBT rights, thanks to her openly gay son, Eric Brinker.
“I am very proud of my son. This is very personal to me,” said the long-time Dallasite, who now lives in Florida where she supports passage of the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, bipartisan legislation that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression in employment, housing and public accommodation.
Brinker — U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 2001 to 2003 and chief of protocol of the U.S. from 2007 to the end of the George W. Bush administration — was also one of 300 Republican lawmakers, operatives and consultants who recently signed an amicus brief in conjunction with marriage equality cases going to the U.S. Supreme Court in April.
“We just want the court to know that we stand for traditional conservative values, and that means stable families and civil marriage rights,” Brinker said of her reason for signing the amicus brief. “This is a free country, and we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I am a Republican, and I am conservative. But I don’t ever want to be part of anything that disadvantages my son.”
This is not the first time that Nancy Brinker has “opened my mouth” and stood up for a marginalized group of people.
Nancy Brinker’s sister, Susan Komen, died of breast cancer in 1980, at the age of 36. Brinker promised her dying sister that she would do everything she could to end breast cancer, and in 1982 she established the Komen Foundation, with that end in mind.
Today, the fight against breast cancer is a popular cause. But that wasn’t the case in 1982.
“Back then, the stigma surrounding breast cancer was enormous,” Brinker said. “That stigma was one of the biggest hurdles we had to get over. Now, we have raised more than $2.6 billion and we have changed the culture.”
Along the way, Brinker said, she also became aware that two of the populations being disproportionately affected by breast cancer were lesbians and transgender women, and often these women “were not being treated with respect and acceptance.”
While being lesbian or transgender in and of themselves were not risk factors, lesbians and trans women often faced certain hurdles that did put them at a higher risk for breast cancer. Brinker said these women, overall, tend to not have health insurance, to not get regular mammograms and to not access health care services in general. And often, she said, it’s because lesbians and trans women are not treated with dignity and respect by health care professionals.
“Frankly, they face stigma from health care providers,” Brinker said. “And that is just not acceptable.”
According to the Komen website, in 2012 alone, Komen affiliates funded more than 1,900 grants, totaling more than $92 million, to provide services, including mammograms, diagnostics, educational programs, support services and treatment assistance through local organizations. Back in the 1990s, the Komen Foundation worked with the Young-Elder Women’s Health Program at Nelson-Tebedo Community Clinic to provide mammograms and other services to Dallas’ lesbian community.
While Brinker’s sense of fairness prompted her to support such programs for marginalized women, the concept of LGBT equality didn’t become real to her until her son came out to her.
“I’ve always been really relaxed about my son’s life, but at the same time, he didn’t come out to me until he was over 30,” Brinker said. “It wasn’t that I didn’t know, I just wondered when he was going to talk to me about it. When he finally did tell me, I cried — not because he was gay, but because I felt badly that he had felt badly, and that he felt he couldn’t share that with me.”
Brinker said she believes that one reason Eric didn’t come out to her sooner has to do with the fact that his peers were less open with their parents and families. “It just makes me sad to know that he would ever have a moment where he would think he would be penalized for who he is,” Brinker said of her son. “I just hope that some day my son finds that person he loves, who loves him, and they are able to be married if they want, and spend their lives together.”
Brinker said that “people my age, when we were younger,” thought of homosexuality as a disease, “that it was contagious and you could catch it from someone, that somehow a person could be ‘convinced’ to be gay, even though they weren’t.
“Back then, there were a lot of old wives’ tales that people used to believe,” she continued. “They thought being gay was something dangerous, something bad. And sometimes, if you insist on characterizing somebody as being dangerous and bad, then they will become dangerous and bad, because that’s what everyone tells them.”
Brinker said that as she looks back on people she has known, she realizes that some of them were probably lesbian or gay people who found themselves crushed under the weight of discrimination and detestation. “I had a lot of friends who ended their lives, who got on drugs, and I know now that it happened because they were gay and because they were afraid and had nowhere to turn,” she said.
Brinker said a friend named Steve Covey once told her that LGBT people often face a lot of discrimination and fear. “He told me, ‘You will change the entire way you look at the world when you meet the first gay person that you really know.’ And he was right.”
Brinker also acknowledged that the weight of discrimination LGBT people face didn’t really hit home to her until she traveled overseas, to countries where the dangers are much more immediate.
“I never thought about some of these things until I traveled to countries where people can be put in jail just for being gay, and even killed,” she said.
Even with that experience, Brinker said she finds it “hard to fathom in 26 percent of this country, civil marriage is still not available to all people. I understand that some people are not entirely comfortable with [homosexuality]. No one is saying you have to be. Nobody is telling you that you have to be best friends with a gay person. Just don’t discriminate against gay people. Simple as that.”
Brinker said that she “really resent[s]” the fact that civil rights for LGBT people still have to be a topic of discussion. But since it does, she intends to make her voice heard in that discussion.
“When you are known primarily for one thing — for me, Susan G. Komen — people start to think you are a one-trick pony. Well, I am not,” Brinker declared. “This is something I care a lot about, because I care about my son. I’ve got a big mouth, and I think it’s time I started opening it. Again.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 27, 2015.