Lorri Jean, CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, has been an activist since junior high, when she led a petition drive to allow girls at her school to wear pants. Later, at Georgetown University Law Center, she sued the school’s administration for not allowing LGBT groups on campus. In the midst of the suit, she says she was confronted by the university’s staunchly Catholic president, Timothy Healy.
“[Healy] sort of pushed me up against the wall, and basically said that if I didn’t stop what I was doing and essentially…withdraw the lawsuit, that he would make sure I never practiced law in Washington,” she revealed in a podcast for the Advocate.
But Jean didn’t back down, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor.
Today, Jean is similarly tenacious when it comes to fighting for L.A.’s LGBT community. Most recently, she led the historic $40 million capital campaign to build the Anita May Rosenstein Campus, which officially opened earlier this month after more than a decade of planning.
We spoke with Jean about her early work as an organizer, what makes the new campus so special, and how L.A.’s LGBT Center became the biggest LGBT institution on the planet.
In your college years, when you were fighting for recognition of the first gay and lesbian student organization at Georgetown, did you ever dream of making a career out of activism?
Never. I didn’t think it was possible to have a career in activism and still pay your rent and buy your groceries. When I was a young lawyer, I spent a lot of time volunteering and doing activism, and I found that more fulfilling than my work as an attorney. But I never envisioned that a career like this would have been possible.
You had your first brush with grassroots organizing in junior high when you led a petition drive to allow girls to wear pants. If you were a grade school student today, what do you think you’d protest?
Oh my gosh, I’d definitely be protesting the Trump administration. I’d be deeply involved in queer organizing and immigrant rights organizing and activism around poverty. I’d certainly be fighting against this ridiculous wall and working to educate the parents of my fellow students about why it makes no logical or financial sense. I’d fight for that and for the rights of my Dreamer friends.
What are some of the biggest challenges young LGBTQ people are facing today?
I think we still have a huge problem with family dysfunction and lack of family acceptance. While things have dramatically improved from what they were like when I was young, kids are coming out much younger these days and there’s still a lot of ignorance, misinformation, and bigotry.
I’m sitting at the new [Anita May Rosenstein] campus right now and I have my desk against the window. I see the homeless kids walking by all day long and visiting our youth center. For some of those kids, this is their first visit and their first night on the streets, and for others, they’ve been living on the streets for a long time. Yes, still, even in 2019 in Los Angeles, families are kicking out their queer kids.
Before moving to L.A. to helm the LGBT Center, you took a job at FEMA’s San Francisco bureau just a few months before the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. Were there any disaster management skills that were easily transferable to running the largest LGBT Center in the U.S.?
I have said from the moment I arrived that disaster response and recovery is completely relevant to queer movement jobs. A few weeks after I started at the LGBT Center, President Clinton decided he was going to promote gays in the military. This wasn’t something that movement leaders asked him to do. Suddenly, like an earthquake, the whole world was on fire around those issues.
That took organizing, rapid response, and longer-term recovery after we went through the many months off that battle, until he signed the disastrous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell legislation. But yeah, I’d say those skills have been very relevant.
“People think about the movement as starting at Stonewall in New York. It started nearly 20 years before that in Los Angeles.”
Today, the LGBT Center has a budget of 121 million a year and 700 full-time employees. What do you think it is about L.A. that’s allowed a center like this to thrive?
I’ve thought about that a lot. There’s really nothing like what L.A. has built in the country or the world, and yet the city has not gotten its just due in terms of its pioneering role in our movement. People think about the movement as starting at Stonewall in New York. It’s not true! It started nearly 20 years before that in Los Angeles.
I think part of the reason why is that the people who came to California were adventurers and creative types. There was a lot more freedom within those kinds of circles. Many people left the East Coast because they were ready to leave things behind and start anew in this pioneering land. I think it was in our community’s DNA, and because our founders started so early and began to build a culture of people creating queer infrastructure and supporting each other with their volunteer time and dollars, by the time the AIDS crisis hit, the L.A. LGBT Center was already a thriving organization, and our community was well-positioned to be the first of many things.
The Anita May Rosenstein Campus is practically a miniature queer city, with its own apartments for homeless LGBT youth and seniors, a youth academy, a drop-in center and space for programming. What needs did you see in L.A.’s LGBT population that could only be fulfilled by a center like this?
In our long term strategic plan from 2008, we realized we weren’t seeing a stemming of the tide of LGBT homeless youth, and we knew we were at the beginning of a tidal wave of LGBT seniors who were going to need support.
What we learned at Triangle Square [the nation’s first and largest affordable housing complex for low-income LGBT seniors] was that our seniors were poorer than anyone had ever imagined. We still have a 500-person waiting list for that building. We knew we needed more innovative programming for youth and seniors so we began envisioning this intergenerational effort. Buying the property next to the Village at Ed Gould Plaza just seemed like, oh my god, it’s perfect. It’s exactly what would enable us to provide the best care to our community.
What do you want people to feel when they walk through the doors?
You know, our community, and nonprofits in general, have often had to make do with whatever they could get. I think about when I interviewed for this job in 1992, in the old Center on Highland. It was an old converted motel. That place was a dump, and it was the best that existed in our community. Here we had a chance to build something from the ground up, and we wanted it to look like the kind of facility that people with queer sensibilities would build if they could. It had to beautiful. We wanted high ceilings, we wanted open space inside—instead of a rabbit warren of private offices.
Because this is a place we knew would serve some of the poorest in our community, we wanted it to be something that poor people never get. My biggest worry is, because it’s so white, is it going to stay clean?
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