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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 25, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 21
SGN exclusive interview: NGLTF's Rea Carey
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SGN exclusive interview: NGLTF's Rea Carey

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

The last time I spoke with Rea Carey, executive director or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, was in late 2009. President Obama had yet to complete his first year in office, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was still law, and marriage equality was still being referred to as 'Gay marriage.' So much has changed since our last conversation - most of it good.

Some of the Task Force's successes during Carey's tenure include being a key player in passage of the LGBT-inclusive federal hate-crimes prevention law; the defeat of multiple anti-LGBT ballot measures across the country; the creation and implementation of the New Beginning Initiative coalition, which secures federal administrative policy changes to improve the lives of LGBT people and their families; and the release of the largest-ever study on Transgender discrimination in the United States.

Under her guidance, the Task Force has also launched its Online Academy, bolstering grassroots power by providing electronic access to its signature training programs; expanded its faith work through the Institute for Welcoming Resources, increasing the number of welcoming and affirming congregations to well over 4,000; and played a vital role in getting the U.S. Census Bureau to report married same-sex couples in the 2010 census. The Task Force also hosts the National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change, which is the largest convening of LGBT activists and supporters in the country and serves as a driving force for strategy and organizing on LGBT issues.

There is no denying that Carey is one of the most prominent leaders in the U.S. LGBT rights movement. Through her leadership, she has advanced a vision of fairness and justice for LGBT people and their families that is broad, inclusive, and unabashedly progressive.

Carey and the Task Force board of directors were in Seattle over the weekend for a meeting when she reached out to me to discuss the current role of the organization in the modern, ever-changing LGBT movement.

'I love Seattle,' she told SGN. 'I'm very familiar with the area. I started my career doing HIV prevention work in the 1990s and working with homeless youth. At that time, Seattle was doing a wonderful job at serving those LGBT youth in need.'

She says Seattle is one of the 'safer places' for LGBT people in America. 'I am glad that so many LGBT Seattleites are active in politics and activism because they can bring that positive experience to the table. It's important for people to know the things you all are doing right. This is a great city for LGBT residents and visitors alike.'

Carey says she's also observed that Seattle - and Washington state in general - is a very tech-savvy location.

'This is great because social media is a great tool for telling our stories,' said Carey. 'The mantra throughout the 1970s and '80s was 'you are not alone.' Now, with the help of social media, we know we are not. That is a very powerful thing.'

The Task Force has been a progressive voice for the LGBT community for four decades. Carey says the group's leaders recently got together to take a look at their mission and the people they serve. 'What we found is that a majority of people are not connected to an LGBT organization. So we've done our best to reach out to, and work with, organizations like the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza,' she said. 'We are proud to partner with a number of organizations that are not LGBT, but are allies.'

She pointed out that when President Obama recently came out for marriage equality, 'a number of non-LGBT organizations came forward with supportive messages for the president. That wouldn't have been the case even five years ago. This represents a powerful shift in this country. By working together with allied communities, we are beginning to see the benefits to being a true partner for progressive change.'

There is no doubt that Carey and the Task Force are in full support of marriage equality. But Carey cautions against making our fight for equality a one-issue movement. 'We believe that the broad range of issues that affect the lives of LGBT people and our families have to be pushed to the forefront,' she said. 'These issues include immigration reform, health care, and Social Security benefits.'

Carey says the Task Force understands that core economic issues are among the day-to-day problems that LGBT persons and our families face. 'We have a lot left to take care of. It is a big concern of ours that, as states across the country achieve marriage equality, we will see a significant drop-off in interest and support and mobilization on the broad range of issues facing LGBT people.'

In particular, Carey says we've got to start doing a better job of taking care of our youth. 'We are still seeing a high number of homeless youth who identify as LGBT. The truth is, when they come out as LGBT, it is better in some places in the U.S. while other places are still not a safe place to come out as a teenager.'

Bullying is something Carey says she is watching very closely. 'Young boys, whether or not they really are Gay, are bullied if they don't fit society's mold of what a boy should be.'

'The bullying of young LGBT kids is particularly intense and violent,' she said. 'It is an issue we will have to continually deal with as a community because every day, young people are constantly coming out.'

But Carey also gives credit to our youth. 'It is important to note the incredible resilience these LGBT teens have shown because the truth is, a large majority of youth who experience bullying do not become suicidal. So it is important to recognize and find help for those who do.'

Other vital issues, she says, are racial and economic justice. 'Folks are worried about just having and keeping a job and don't want to show up for work every day and be terrified that they will be unemployed if they reveal they are Gay.'

Carey says it is important for the LGBT community to remain vigilant because 'what we do know is that as we make progress on larger issues (e.g., DOMA, DADT) we see a spike in anti-LGBT rhetoric and violence.'

According to Carey, the Task Force leadership is pleased to see a significant generational shift occurring. Young people are becoming more accepting of LGBT people and equality faster than most people thought they would. 'We are making progress simply by younger people getting older and voting,' said Carey.

At whatever cost, Carey believes we've got to re-elect President Barack Obama. 'It is absolutely true that Obama has done more for LGBT families than all of the other presidents combined.'

'He came into office at a time that was ripe for dozens and dozens of changes,' she said. 'And he's helped us make great progress. Unlike the previous administration, it feels like we are in a real relationship with this president. When George Bush was in office we were pushing for change and it just didn't happen. Now it happens.'

'We will continue to push him to make more changes that absolutely must happen,' said Carey.

The relationship and history between the Task Force and the state of Washington goes back many years. 'We've helped to fight off many [anti-LGBT] ballot measures, partnered with Equal Rights Washington during the fight to approve Referendum 71, and more,' said Carey. 'Currently, our field organizers have been talking with the campaign for marriage equality, Washington United for Marriage.'

'What we do know is that early money matters,' she said. 'This campaign needs money and an investment of time from volunteers in order to win.'

If Washington becomes the first state to win marriage equality by popular vote, Carey says the outcome would be hailed as 'historic. There's no other way to say it. It would be powerful and inspiring for others fighting for marriage equality across the country.'

Carey believes we are living in exciting times.

'I've been working in the LGBT movement since the late 1980s and I've never seen so much in play. This is a wonderful time for the advancement of civil and human rights in this country. We can start to see the other side of the fence. We need to stick with it because we are not done yet. We have a lot of work ahead of us but we will continue to make progress.'

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