Fewer lesbians now hold top positions in national GLBT organizations but more and more at the local level, women are leading the way
Has anyone noticed the lack of lesbian leadership at our national organizations lately?We used to hold some key leadership positions:
Elizabeth Birch and then Cheryl Jacques ran the Human Rights Campaign. Urvashi Vaid and Kerry Lobel were among the women who sat in the executive director’s chair at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Joan Garry built the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation into an organization that commands the attention of powerbrokers from Washington to Hollywood.
Each of these lesbian leaders took off for greener pastures. Now gay men are sitting in their seats.
Joe Solmonese now helms the Human Rights Campaign. Matt Foreman has reinvented the Task Force, and Neil Giuliano assumed GLAAD’s top spot a few months ago.
I’m not faulting their work just making an observation. However, with a lack of lesbian leadership at the top, we once again run the risk of the uninitiated seeing our diverse community as “just gay men.”
While Joe, Matt and Neil aren’t going anywhere, it behooves us to not lose sight of the myriad lesbian leaders we still do have in our community.
Thankfully, my day job and my writing put me in touch with lesbians throughout the country who are leaders at the local level. From time to time, I’ll be introducing you to these remarkable women who have made a real difference in their communities.
To start, meet Leslie Thompson, the 48-year-old executive director of Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center in Ferndale, Mich., outside of Detroit. Having worked for nonprofit organizations her entire professional life, Thompson’s third executive directorship was the charm when she took the driver’s seat at Affirmations six and a half years ago.
“It’s so cool to do something for a nonprofit that did something for me,” Thompson said in a recent interview. “Affirmations saved my life.”
After two unhappy, closeted relationships one that prompted her to attempt suicide, and the second that was an “upstairs/downstairs” living arrangement in a two-family house where her partner’s children never knew about their relationship Thompson’s third was with an out lesbian who frequented Affirmations herself.
It was during that relationship that Thompson stepped through Affirmations’ doorway over a decade ago.
“I realized I still had shit to deal with. I was overwhelmed by the stereotypes of what I thought lesbian and gay people would be. I went to Affirmations and saw everyday people,” Thompson said.
Recognizing herself in the people she met at the center’s support groups and various social, educational and recreational programs, made all the difference for Thompson.
She said, “Affirmations became a refuge. I was there three to four times a week. It totally changed my life.”
Now Thompson is returning the favor.
Under her leadership, Affirmations has become financially healthy when she started it was running a deficit.
But that’s not all. During her tenure the center has gone from having no staff to 14 full-time and seven part-time staff members, from serving 250 people a week to averaging 767 each week, and from a $350,000 budget to a $1 million budget.
These feats pale in comparison to what Thompson considers Affirmations’ biggest accomplishment to date the successful completion of a $5.5 million capital campaign that is giving the center its own home.
“We’ll be going from renting to owning, from 7,500 square feet to 17,000 square feet,” Thompson said. “Our goal is to serve 3,000 per week.”
Being a leader like Thompson isn’t easy. It takes vision, hard work, and perseverance. It also takes a tough skin.
“The LGBT community is quick to criticize. We eat our own,” said Thompson.
But that fact of LGBT life hasn’t stopped her: “I wouldn’t change anything. I think it would be boring to be straight. I can’t imagine missing any of the opportunities I’ve had as a lesbian.”
Those opportunities include effecting change by being a role model. “It’s not just about being a role model, it’s about coming out and role-modeling happy, healthy lives,” she explained.
Thompson walks her talk. She and her partner, Colleen Hamlin, fell hard for each other on New Year’s Day 2005. They got married this past January in Windsor, Canada.
It was a family affair with 170 in attendance, including Hamlin’s parents and seven brothers and sisters, and Thompson’s sister, two brothers and 85-year-old mother.
Thompson’s 16-year-old nephew came out at the wedding. She smiles while telling me her brother hasn’t spoken to her since.
While Thompson is glowing from her Canadian nuptials, she knows there’s still so much more for the LGBT community to do here in the States.
She said, “Just because we can’t get married here doesn’t mean we can’t get engaged” in LGBT activism, that is.
Thompson’s penchant for one-liners like these has also led her to the stage. In addition to leading her community, she leads straight audiences right to the laughs as a stand-up comic at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in Detroit.
She’s won competitions, and she jokes that she’d “be out of here in a minute” if she ever got discovered.
For the sake of Detroit’s LGBT community, let’s hope the only folks who “discover” Thompson are funders, donors and the folks who come out because of her leadership.
Libby Post is a political commentator on public radio, on the Web and in print.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 07, 2006.