News » National

Women on Top

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Tuesday Dec 18, 2012

Lesbians are great leaders -- you can find them in the upper echelons of government, heading major nonprofits, running LGBT community centers and delivering breaking news. EDGE takes a look at some of the ladies who are at the top of their game.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Annise Parker began her political career in a neighborhood civics club, which fostered the sense of community leadership and honesty that are her trademark. In her first run for public office, in 1998, Parker made history by defying local good-old boy politics and winning an at-large seat on the City Council as Houston’s first openly gay elected official. She held the post until 2003, and then served as city controller from 2004 to 2009. Since 2010, Parker has been mayor of the nation’s fourth-largest city, making her one of the nation’s most visible lesbian political leaders.

"From my very first campaign to the present, they have known I am a lesbian," Parker said of her constituents in an interview with EDGE. "I believe being open about it has helped me be successful in politics. Voters tend to think, "If she is upfront about this, she’ll be upfront with us about anything.’ They trust me not to hide the truth."

Certainly, Parker, a Democrat, has never put gay rights on the back burner. To take only one example, she made sure the Bayou City has one of the most comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in the U.S. She serves as a co-chair of Freedom to Marry, the foremost national organization fighting for marriage equality. Parker and her domestic partner, Kathy Hubbard, live with two adopted daughters and one foster son.

"Like any public official, the sum total of my experiences, of being an outsider, personally experiencing anti-gay bias and personally having been the target of hate crimes, certainly impacts some of the decisions I make," Parker said. "But it is not the focus of what I do in the mayor’s office. Of course, these are issues important to the LGBT community, but in the broader sense, they are about doing the right thing and treating everyone fairly and equally."

Parker tends to focus on bread and butter issues: creating jobs, rebuilding her city’s infrastructure, quality of life, fiscal responsibility and improving public safety.

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn

The first woman to rise to the top post on the New York City Council, Christine Quinn ranks as the city’s second-most important politician. Quinn began her career in public service as a community activist. In 1991, she managed the groundbreaking run of Tom Duane, who was the city’s first out-gay council member. She went from serving as his chief of staff to head the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which combats gay bashings and bullying. When Duane became a state senator, she took over his seat in the City Council, where she represents the gayborhoods of Greenwich Village, Chelsea and part of Hell’s Kitchen.

As the representative of the fractious body, Quinn stands by Mayor Michael Bloomberg during all significant press conferences. Her position and close ties to the mayor have made her his heir apparent. In January, The New York Times estimated her campaign war chest as having topped $4.9 million just for the Democratic primary. Adding public matching funds would give her the maximum $6.7 million allowed for mayoral candidates. Among other big players, former Mayor Ed Koch has endorsed Quinn for his old job.

Whatever the outcome of the race, Quinn has proved her dedication to improving life for her constituents on Manhattan’s West Side and for New Yorkers in general. Early on, she was a formidable voice protecting tenants’ rights when she worked for the Housing Asset Renewal Program. She has been a forceful voice for investing in early-childhood education, and she was instrumental in legislations to improve energy efficiency and require manufacturers to recycle electronic waste.

LGBT rights have always been a priority on Quinn’s legislative agenda. One of her major achievements was making New York require contractors doing a certain amount of business with the city to include same-sex and domestic partners in employee health care plans. Her Irish heritage being as much of a force with Quinn as her sexual identity, she has taken a firm stand against the exclusion of LGBT groups from the privately run annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Quinn was among elected officials and activists who began an alternative parade in Irish neighborhoods in Queens, one of the five boroughs (or counties) that make up the city proper.

In May, Quinn and corporate lawyer Kim Catullo made the society pages with their wedding only days after President Barack Obama endorsed marriage equality and nearly after a year after same-sex marriage was legalized in the Empire State. They live in Chelsea with their two dogs and spend weekends in a house on the Jersey Shore.

Fox News’ & Salon’s Sally Kohn

Rachel Maddow has it easy. As the lead anchor at MSNBC, Maddow occupies a secure liberal bully pulpit. But Sally Kohn doesn’t preach to the choir. Instead, she regularly represents the other side as one of the few liberal commentators on Fox News Channel.

Having worked at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Center for Community Change, Kohn combines the activism of a community organizer with the acumen of a lawyer. She began as an occasional contributor on Fox -- the voice of America’s right wing -- and soon realized how important it was that the channel let her give opposing points of view to its viewers.

"There are a lot of voices at Fox, and I am only one of many liberals there," Kohn told EDGE. "I chose Fox because I’m no fool: I understand power, and Fox has the largest audience, so I wanted to be there." Kohn may try to play down her role, but she is increasingly seen as one of the country’s most potentially powerful progressive voices.

Kohn’s visibility began several years ago, when she gave a speech at a conference and someone suggested she try television. A training program at the Women’s Media Center gave her the tools to be an on-air personality and allowed her to bring her experience in community work and advocacy to a national TV audience.

While Kohn bemoans the dearth of minorities or LGBT among its talking head ranks, she gives Fox points for "making a real institutional effort to be inclusive. I’m pretty sure it was the amazing Gloria Steinem, one of the founders of the Women’s Media Center, who said media is our virtual campfire," Kohn said. "To be able to be a part of that on any scale is tremendous. I spent the bulk of my career talking to people about important things in church basements or cafeterias, maybe reaching 100 people on a good day. So to be able to talk to millions is an unbelievable opportunity."

Kohn receives constant feedback. Every time she appears on Fox, she receives at least one letter, email or tweet telling her that she made a difference or expressed her point well -- whether the subject is marriage equality or tax policy. "I get to have a particular vantage point and don’t have to pretend to be objective," she said of her Fox gig. "I get to wear my opinions on my sleeve. To anyone who said I’m too opinionated or too stubborn, they can now shove it."

Kohn firmly believes that we all need to find the best way to stand up for our beliefs. That’s the only way to keep pushing core values and ultimately make the world a better place to live. "I think the best advice I ever received and could ever give is to find the thing you are passionate about and pursue it with love and vigor, no matter what," said Kohn.

Kohn lives with her partner and their 4-year-old daughter in Park Slope, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, with a large lesbian population.

CNN HLN ’News and Views’ Anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell

Raised in midtown Manhattan (where she still lives) by an advertising executive father and a mother who was a former vaudeville dancer, Jane Velez-Mitchell has show business and media in her blood. Every night, she and her father would go over the daily paper with her father, discussing the news of the day. She credits those experiences as having made current events part of her comfort zone.

After receiving a degree in broadcast journalism from New York University, she worked as a local news reporter for TV stations in Fort Myers, Fla.; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; and, eventually, New York, where she spent eight years at the CBS flagship station. She jumped coasts to work in Los Angeles, in time becoming an on-air reporter for the syndicated program Celebrity Justice, where she covered the Michael Jackson trial. "Every night I did a report for Nancy Grace," Velez-Mitchell recalled. "She asked me my opinions on the case, and that was really fun after years of ’just the facts.’"

Velez-Mitchell now admits that during that time she was deeply closeted. She said she tried to stay in denial by becoming "a practicing alcoholic, drinking down my sexual orientation." She became sober 17 years ago, published a memoir about her experience, and finally came out to her co-workers, her public and herself.

"It was astounding how quickly I came to terms with it after I stopped drinking," Velez-Mitchell said. "The fears I had were mostly self-generated, about what would happen if anyone found out." The catalyst for her decision was covering Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho’s "toe-tapping" airport-bathroom scandal. The Republican’s hypocrisy made her feel like a hypocrite.

"During a commercial break, I called my girlfriend and told her I was coming out," she said. "I got back on and told the audience that I live with a woman. A fascinating thing happened: Nothing. Nobody cared; it was a big yawn to them."

Jane Velez-Mitchell, which replaced conservative TV personality Glenn Beck (who moved to Fox News for a time), airs daily on HLN, CNN’s sibling channel. She is active in the company’s out-employee diversity group and has become a vocal gay rights advocate.

"Without any irony, it’s been fabulous," Velez-Mitchell said. "As for being a woman of color, I’ve always embraced my heritage. I’m thrilled to be Puerto Rican and Irish; it’s a great combination. And it’s great to have a diverse newsroom, because you bring your perspective to the table as a member of the gay community or a Latina, as a vegan and animal rights activist."

Velez-Mitchell is most gratified, however, by opportunities her position affords her to help people, such as an early effort to fly an injured service member’s wife to a reunion with her husband in Germany. "I want to speak for the voiceless, for children, the elderly, those who are challenged or disabled, and animals," she said. "HLN has given me a wonderful opportunity to open my circle of compassion wider, even to farm animals. Of course this connects back to humans. It’s not an either-or. It’s no longer man verses nature; we’re both on the same side."

In a competitive industry, she gives advice with legs: Approach it like your life depends on it. "It’s got to be a mission; it’s not a job, it’s a vocation," Velez-Mitchell said. "You need to be on a mission to survive in this business."

New York City LGBT Community Center Executive Director Glennda Testone

For the past three years, Glennda Testone has been at the helm of New York’s large and vibrant LGBT Community Center, which provides dozens of resources. She previously held posts at the Women’s Media Center and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination.

"I knew that I wanted to help people," Testone told EDGE. "That’s how I was raised, to give back. And when I realized I was a member of the LGBT community, I thought running an LGBT nonprofit and helping people in our community every day was the coolest job ever.

If being out helped her snag her current job, Testone is well-aware that self-doubt is the biggest obstacle for most women. Among her proudest achievements is securing funds to keep a foster care program operating. "Every LGBT young person deserves to have a supportive family," Testone said. "I was very fortunate to have that growing up. Not everyone does, and getting funding to help them have a positive experience is priceless."

Testone approaches physical fitness as avidly as she does social causes. For the past three years, she has completed the Cycle for the Cause, a 350-mile bike ride from Boston to New York that raises funds for the center’s HIV programs. Although she didn’t initially think she could make it, she persevered, and overcame her mental and physical blocks.

She has advice for young women reaching for a high goal: "Do it! Don’t get discouraged. Try not to take things too personally. Just focus on the good that you’re doing and move forward."

Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center’s Lorri L. Jean

Lorri Jean was a young attorney involved in LGBT activism when she realized that the activism part was a lot more fun than the law part. She wanted to work for the LGBT movement full-time but also didn’t want to starve, so she looked for a job that would put her in a leadership role.

"One day, I got a call saying that there was a job in L.A. with my name all over it," Jean told EDGE. "I thought I would do more national work, but when I came down to check out the center, I was blown away. The plan I had put in motion to get the skills I needed on my résumé worked out, and they offered me the job."

Jean has headed the center since 1993. She’s proud of how she and her staff have developed it into one of the largest LGBT organizations in the world, serving tens of thousands of clients every month. Jean is also working on an LGBT foster care program, thanks in part to a $13 million, five-year government grant. Several years ago, in an effort to fight the epidemic of teen suicides, she said, "I picked up the phone and called the L.A. Unified School District ... and said, ’We can’t do business as usual. We have to create a program in schools that stop kids from thinking about suicide.’"

Jean partnered with the district to change the culture in schools. She worked with a large coalition on an innovative, comprehensive safe-schools program. "There is nothing like it happening anywhere in the country," she said. "I hope other school districts look at it as a model and implement it in their schools."

In the first few years of her tenure at the L.A. center, she oversaw a fundraising campaign in which several of the biggest donations came from women - exploding the myth that women aren’t big in philanthropy.

Such initiatives are necessary in a leader. "It’s about jumping in and doing the hard work, being a team player ... being extremely thoughtful about the suggestions you provide," Jean told EDGE. Treating everyone with respect, maintaining a high level of integrity, admitting mistakes and apologizing sincerely when wrong should guide every woman who wants to be prominent in her field, she said.

Keeping the right company is also key. "Surround yourself with stars in terms of ethics and ability, and never be threatened by someone who is better than you," Jean said. "Finding a mentor is important. It used to be virtually impossible to find lesbian mentors, but now there are a lot more. Look around and see who is doing the work in a way that you admire, connect with them and ask them if they will mentor you."

Brooklyn Community Pride Center Executive Director Erin Drinkwater

In March, Erin Drinkwater was chosen to be head of the nascent Brooklyn Pride Community Center. The longtime activist’s résumé includes working on Sean Patrick Maloney’s 2006 run for New York attorney general (he was just elected as a U.S. congressman), as the LGBT liaison for Rep. Jerry Nadler and for the Empire State Pride Agenda - New York state’s most prominent gay rights group. Drinkwater helped the Callen-Lourde Health Center in Manhattan become the first such body to obtain funds for family planning.

"It was a natural evolution to come to the BCPC, given my background in Brooklyn politics and the players within the LGBT community here," said Drinkwater. "I learned a lot about the relationship between nonprofits and the government, and how they can support the work. And at ESPA, I combined my passion for politics with my nonprofit work, and got my hands dirty working on both."

Drinkwater takes particular pride in her work with Nadler (who is not gay), one of the strongest gay rights advocates in Congress. He is a vocal supporter of uniting gay Americans with partners who are not U.S. citizens and risk being deported, and has been vital to the effort to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. He also has been trying for years to pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which he made sure included trans workers.

For now, Drinkwater has her hands full getting the BCPC up and running. She aims to kick-start community activities: expanding youth services to three days a week, and establishing a seniors program to counter isolation and ensure access to free legal counsel for wills and other documents.

"I want to expand our program department and grow the organization’s visibility," she said. "I want to partner with service providers in the borough for mutually beneficial relationships -- not to replicate services but to complement what’s here, and fill gaps where they exist." As is usual for the head of a startup organization, Drinkwater spends much of her time fundraising. Right now, she’s busy finding money to meet matching grants from the Brooklyn Borough president and the City Council speaker that will help pay for a dedicated building.

Like Testone and Jean, Drinkwater credits mentors who shared their experiences. "It might sound cliché, but follow your heart. I’ve been lucky to work with phenomenal organizations and individuals on incredible issues that affect our community. I am passionate about things I believe in, and not willing to compromise my beliefs. If you believe and work hard, you can see change happen."

Family Equality Council Executive Director Jennifer Chrisler

There are an estimated one million LGBT parents in the U.S. with two million children. For the past 30 years, the Family Equality Council (originally known as the Gay Father’s Coalition) has worked to provide support for these families while advancing the rights of gay and lesbian parents.

Executive Director Jennifer Chrisler works tirelessly for policy changes on foster care and adoption, safe schools, family medical leave, parenting protections, domestic partnership and marriage. In 2007 -- and after many name changes -- the FEC reinforced a commitment to working across communities and with other advocacy groups to create meaningful change for LGBT families.

"I think it was a combination of good timing and having the right skill set for an organization that really needed a turnaround," Chrisler said of her joining the group. When she came on board, FEC was mired in debt, with only three full-time employees and most of its energy focused on meeting payroll.

Aside from her marketing, fundraising and political experience, "it didn’t hurt that I was a lesbian mother," said Chrisler, who is raising twins Tim and Tom with her spouse, former Massachusetts State Sen. Cheryl Jacques. "It was a huge benefit for the job, because not only could I run the organization, but I could represent the constituency, because I live that life every single day. I face the challenge of raising kids, living in our community, having equality and working full-time. I became a voice and face for what our families dealt with on a regular basis."

The November election created momentum that Chrisler hopes to capitalize on. Among her goals are passing the Respect for Marriage Act, the Every Child Deserves a Family Act and the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. "We want to achieve state gains dealing with parental recognition rights, donor consent laws and all the things that help secure equality for our families," she said. "I hope in the next five years we will see a real sea change, so that the two million children raised by LGBT parents can worry about being kids and not that their families appear different than others."

For Chrisler, the key to success is following your passion and doing what you truly love. "Stick to your dreams and vision for what you’re trying to create and achieve in the world, and don’t be afraid to say it out loud. Savor the victories, and never let it defeat you."

Gay Men’s Health Crisis Chief Executive Dr. Marjorie J. Hill

Founded in 1982, GMHC was the world’s first private AIDS service organization, and today it is the largest such organization. At the head of this behemoth is Dr. Marjorie J. Hill, who brought her valuable government service to the job. "I was very connected to the agency, both because of its history and because of the staggering importance of HIV/AIDS," Hill said. "I joined in 2004, with a two- or three-year window I’d set for myself. And that was eight years ago. I fell in love in a very real way."

During her tenure, she has helped secure a much larger building to house GMHC. The AIDS Walk, also the oldest and most successful such event in the world, raised $7.4 million in 2008 ($6 million this year). But she’s also pleased when people approach her in the supermarket or in an elevator to share personal stories about how GMHC helped them or their family members.

Being a woman of color at the head of the organization presents challenges and rewards, Hill said. "GMHC is very committed to diversity and very committed to being out, and as an out lesbian, that was a good thing for me," said Hill. "I would say follow your dreams, not to let other people define your success or failure." To women who would like to devote their talents to groups such as hers, she said, "The rewards to perseverance are incredible. I would encourage young lesbians not to let fear, stigma, self-doubt or homophobia limit their horizons."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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