Louise Young will be first to receive award from Jewish group for work in the LGBT community
Pioneering LGBT activist Louise Young is breaking new ground, yet again.
Young, with her spouse Vivienne Armstrong, was one of the Dallas LGBT community’s leading activists from the 1970s through the 1990s.
She later transferred her focus to workplace equality issues and is the founder of the Raytheon Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies employee resources group.
This month, the American Jewish Congress Southwest Region is recognizing Young’s long history of activism and involvement by presenting her with the Women of Spirit Award. It will be the first time the award has gone to a lesbian in recognition of work in the LGBT community.
"We have a committee made up of past winners and we get several dozen nominees every year from a wide variety of different communities, and we try to get as broad a selection as possible every year," said Gil Elan, AJC Southwest Region executive director.
"We have had a lesbian win the award before, but not for work in the lesbian and gay community," he said. "We are an equal rights organization, a civil rights organization, and we have been fighting for the rights of everyone since we were established 90 years ago. In deciding whom to honor this year, the committee talked about [the LGBT community], the committee asked, ‘Is this considered a minority community?’ The answer was a resounding and unanimous yes, so honoring women in this community is something we should be doing."
The AJC Southwest Region began awarding the Women of Spirit Award 15 years ago to recognize women "from diverse community backgrounds, who have been diligent and spirited in their pursuit of social justice, women’s and minority issues, and community development" whose "grassroots efforts have contributed enormously to improving the quality of life for everyone," according to the organization’s Web site.
Susan Myers, executive assistant for AJC Southwest Region, said the award "has always been given to women who do true grassroots work. That was the original intent of the award.
"Louise Young is certainly someone who has been grassroots. She works. She doesn’t just delegate or talk about it. She works," Myers said.
"Every year, many different people have been nominated. Louise has been nominated before, and this year was her year," Myers said, noting that Young is being honored during the 15th anniversary celebration of the award, and in the same year as the award’s founder, Audrey Kaplan.
Young said she is "overwhelmed" by this "truly enormous honor."
"What particularly touched me was that I was being recognized for my work in furthering the rights of LGBT people," Young said. "I think that speaks a lot for the American Jewish Congress. It certainly heightens the honor I feel in getting the award. It’s humbling to realize I am included in a list of recipients who have done so much for their communities. It is truly one of the greatest honors I have ever received."
And that from a woman who is no stranger to honors. Young won the 2002 Out and Equal Workplace Advocates’ Trailblazer Award and in 2003 were named as one of six "Raytheon Diversity Heroes." In 1991, Young and Armstrong won the Dallas/Fort Worth Black Tie Dinner’s Kuchling Award in recognition of their outstanding contributions to the LGBT community.
She has also been featured on PBS and in the books "Uncommon Heroes: A Celebration of Heroes and Role Models for Gay and Lesbian Americans," "Straight Talk About Gays in the Workplace" and "Creating Civil Union: Opening Hearts and Minds."
Young was in graduate school at the University of Colorado when she first became involved in an organization called "The Gay Liberation Front."
"I have been speaking to groups [about gay rights], from Rotary Clubs to university classes to religious groups, ever since the early ’70s," Young said. "It was truly a different time back then. I was the first gay or lesbian the audiences had ever met, at least to their knowledge. I was the first out of the closet person they had met. It was quite a journey."
It was also during her years at the University of Colorado that Young met Armstrong, who was at the time a nurse at the university’s hospital. They have been a couple ever since, and their enduring relationship is part of why the women are considered to be such inspiring role models in the community.
Shortly after Vermont became the first state to offer civil unions to same-sex couples in 2000, Young and Armstrong went there to register their union with the state. Afterward, the couple was featured in numerous newspaper articles, telling the story of their relationship and their decision to register in Vermont in hopes of breaking down barriers toward marriage equality.
Young made headlines again in 2005 when, after President Bush nominated Dallas attorney Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court, Young found documents stored in her garage showing that in 1989, Miers had asked for the endorsement of the Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus of Dallas in her race for the Dallas City Council.
The Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus was one of several organizations, including what was first known as the Dallas Gay Alliance, that Young either helped start or played a major role in early on.
She was also very active in the Democratic Party from the 1970s through the 1990s, and even served as an alternative to the Democratic National Convention in 1980 and again in 2000.
But by the early 1990s, Young said, she began shifting her focus from the political arena to the workplace because "I felt I could contribute more by being an advocate for social change in the workplace. I saw it as a win-win situation for companies and employee to seek the kind of policies and benefits that are so important to all of us.
"One of the common threads all people share is that we all have jobs, and it is important for LGBT people to have the same kinds of benefits our heterosexual counterparts have," Young said.
It was in the 1990s that Young started an LGBT employee group at Texas Instruments. When her department at TI was bought out by Raytheon, Young went with it, recreating her work and founding the LGBT employee group at the new company.
"I treasure the work I have done, particularly with my company, Raytheon," Young said. "We were the first aerospace and defense company to score 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Equality Index. When I look back now and see the change in the American workplace, and to feel that I have helped play a role in that, it just makes me so extremely proud and happy to have been a part of that."
Young said that she and Armstrong are both in their 60s now, and it is a time that they have begun looking back on their lives so far.
"This is really a time of reflection, a milestone in our lives when we are starting to look back and say, ‘Have I made a difference?’ I think we can both say, yes, we have," Young said.
"It is so satisfying to us now to see the young people who are living better lives in part because of some of the things we have contributed to. It’s really amazing," Young said.
"Last year, as we were leaving the part after the Pride parade, a group of about six young women stopped us and asked us how long we had been together. We told them it would be 37 years in April. Then they asked us if we had been active in the movement all that time, and when we said yes, they said, ‘We just really want to thank you because you have made our lives better,’" Young recalled.
"We were just stunned," she continued. "It was a very emotional moment. And when I see young people coming into the workplace — young GLBT people — who are excited about coming to work and being themselves, then all the sacrifices we have made are worth it — all those hours of lost sleep, all the frustration in those times when it seemed it was one step forward, and two steps back, the highs and the lows.
"You realize in the end, when you look at the big picture and you see the change over time, that it was worth it. It’s a source of pride, and at the same time, a source of humility, too," Young said. "I sometimes feel so humbled that I have been able to play a part. It’s an experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world. It makes me proud of our entire community — our wonderful, wonderful community in Dallas. To be part of all that, and to be recognized with this award, it gives me chills."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 2, 2008.