Pictured #1 Former HRC ED Cheryl Jacques and her partner Jennifer Chrisler in Washington, D.C. Photo by Marie-Jo Proulx #2 Chicago supporters of HRC hosted a GLBT comedy night recently, including with, among others, openly lesbian comic Marga Gomez ( second from right ) . Photo by Mel Ferrand
In their first joint interview, Cheryl Jacques, the past executive director of the Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) , and her spouse, Jennifer Chrisler, who was named executive director of the Family Pride Coalition in early March, discussed the road ahead for LGBT civil rights. The activist couple, who is also raising three-year-old twin boys, has just moved from suburban Maryland to Washington, D.C., in order to be closer to legislators and other influential players in the debate over equality. They say they are discovering the pleasures of city living, from the hustle and bustle to custom lattes.
While still adjusting to their new circumstances, the dynamic duo remained focused on the equality message. Jacques appeared to be transitioning very serenely out of her former position as the head of the country's main LGBT advocacy group. Chrisler was eager to assume her functions as leader of the only organization that works exclusively on issues affecting LGBT families. Both welcomed the opportunity to talk about the cause that is the fabric of their personal as well as professional life.
Marie-Jo Proulx: Where do you think the movement for LGBT rights has the most untapped allies?
Cheryl Jacques: First and foremost, the straight community. By that I mean not just the obvious, the folks we should be reaching out to and building bridges with: the African American community, women, Jewish Americans, the Hispanic community. We've all been through a similar experience that some Americans want to treat us differently … . So there's a natural bond there and we should stand in solidarity. The other bond that we haven't maximized: every single one of us has family, colleagues, neighbors, who love us, care about us, worry about us. The research I've helped spearhead shows that 51% of GLBT Americans don't talk about the impact of discrimination on their lives. They may be out, but they stop right there. They don't say 'Mom, did you know I could be fired in 36 states for being gay?' They don't have social security survivor benefits, they can't serve openly in the military… . Our families, friends and colleagues don't know this. They're shocked [ when they find out ] and because we're not talking to them, we're depriving these natural allies of the opportunity to stand, vote, fight with us, fund our causes. ...
MJP: What do you think is likely to happen in next year's mid-term election?
C.J.: In terms of the GLBT community, the issue of gay marriage and the Federal Constitutional Amendment are going to be driven hard. Because Karl Rove and the Republican strategists think this is part of a winning formula. … They divide us, they distract voters from the real issues that matter like education, healthcare, the war, the economy. … I think we're going to see nasty campaigns, very tight elections, very nervous incumbents, many of them our friends who are going to be scared to death of our issues because they see them as volatile and radioactive. We have a lot of work to do … to make sure we support our friends with financial contributions, physical help on the campaign trail, quickly talking to our families and colleagues to make sure they're voting for these people. We have to deliver to keep our friends strong.
MJP: Family Pride Coalition will have an important role to play in these efforts. As its new executive director, what specific strategies are you planning to implement to raise the profile of the organization?
Jennifer Chrisler: The Family Pride Coalition operates in three venues: advocacy, education, and support for GLBT parents and their children. On the advocacy front we are working very hard with state organizations to defeat these really awful anti-gay adoption and fostering bills that are popping up in a lot of states. That is such a direct threat to our ability as parents to be able to protect our children. On the education front, we've been hosting conferences. We just did one in Texas and we have another one coming up in Fort Lauderdale. We are teaching GLBT parents how to advocate for themselves ... . And then on the support front, we provide opportunities for parents to connect with one another to talk through the common bond we have as parents. My goal is really to expand the reach of those programs institutionally so that we are reaching more families and helping them to advocate for themselves. … We have a reach of about 35,000 families and individuals. … If we can double our reach in a year, I would be very happy with that.
C.J.: What I saw as I traveled the country was that what is rapidly changing public opinion in our favor is families. You move into a neighborhood, the neighbors have never met a gay person, they don't quite know what to believe, … and here are these two moms who are raising two beautiful little boys, as in our case, who are going to play-dates and to the local pre-school. Here are two dads driving their daughter to soccer. And the neighbors start to say, 'Your lives are just like ours, you worry about the mortgage, your children's future, day-care,' and suddenly they get it. Then you can have the next level of conversation [ explaining to them how children of unmarried parents are not eligible for basic financial protections ] . ... They look at your kids who are their kids' friends … and it's no longer about gay marriage, that buzz, hot-button word.
MJP: Illinois has mostly decent laws on the books when it comes to gay adoption and foster care. Which states have the worst record?
J.C.: Recently, Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Oregon, and Tennessee all have introduced bills that would restrict or deny same-sex couples the right to adopt a child or become foster parents. On the bright side, two Senate bills aimed at easing Florida's ban on gay adoption are making their way through that legislature. In Virginia, an anti-gay adoption measure in the General Assembly was defeated in February. [ Part of this information was supplied post-interview as Chrisler wanted to double-check certain specifics. ]
MJP: How are you going to counter these waves of anti-gay initiatives?
J.C.: One of the things we are working on is trying to pull together a research conference with leading academicians to present research about our families, the cognitive, social, emotional development of our children … to counter what we think is misinformation that is perpetuated by those radical right groups about the dangers of being raised in same-sex households. … [ They ] put themselves out there as leading experts somehow on how our children are doing in our families.
C.J.: The American Academy of Pediatrics has said we have equal parenting skills and our kids are every bit as well adjusted as any other group. The conservatives have a group called the American College of Pediatricians and when you say it most people think you're talking about the American Academy of Pediatrics. So this bogus, unaccredited group that sounds very legitimate has come out with their funded research to say we are bad parents. We are going to see a lot more of that and our community has not and currently isn't responding. Over the next decade, that's where the fight is going to be had. They have used [ biased research ] for other issues like gun control and affirmative action. … When I was debating the Federal Marriage Amendment, these conservatives … they kept citing this Netherlands study, where they have gay marriage, that talked about how divorce, illegitimacy, and drug abuse rates went up. Fortunately, I had research from U. Mass that debunked this study. ...
MJP: The increasing push for equal marriage rights has left a lot of single LGBT people feeling somewhat left out. They are asking, 'What about our rights?'
C.J.: I don't draw a distinction between single people and coupled people. It's equality for all. … What has happened is gay marriage has become the vocabulary for equality. … People talk about equality and they quickly jump to gay marriage because it would be fairly symbolic and representative of almost achieving full equality. Because with marriage rights come thousands of benefits and tax protections and so forth. So I can understand why single people might say, 'That won't benefit me.' But it will and here is how: whether they ever choose to get married or not, whether they have a partner or not, it's symbolic of society moving forward and understanding that it's right to treat people equally under the law. If we achieve marriage equality, as I fully believe we will, we will achieve workplace equality, our right to serve in the military, we will get hate-crimes laws passed, get fair and full funding of HIV/AIDS research. The rest will flow. … It's all inter-connected. We are all in this together.
MJP: But won't gay partners feel like they must get married to gain benefits?
C.J.: I think gay couples will feel the same as straight couples. If you get married, there's a host of responsibilities and rights and protections that come with that, and if you don't those don't. …
MJP: What do you think of Howard Dean becoming Chair of the DNC? Are you concerned that his strategy to reach out to red states will shift support away from marriage to civil unions?
C.J.: I am not concerned about that. I am very excited about his appointment. I think he is just terrific. He has been a profile in courage for our community and many others. … I think Dean will strike that balance of figuring out how to talk to communities of faith, to rural communities, to conservatives, and still respect his position that we are entitled to equal treatment under the law. ...
MJP: Would you like to comment on the hiring of Joe Solmonese to head HRC?
C.J.: I actually know Joe and like him an awful lot. I was his Senator back in Massachusetts. … He will have my full support. I have already reached out to him ... .
MJP: What are you involved in right now?
C.J.: I have been amazingly busy. ... First of all, I'm represented by a speakers' bureau and I have been traveling around the country doing national speaking … on diversity issues, predominantly gay civil rights ... . I'm doing some writing, some consulting.
MJP: Is there a book in the works?
C.J.: ( laughing ) No, no, I've written a couple of op-eds … and I'm having fascinating conversations with people in the academic environment, the political, corporate, and non-profit arenas. My goal is to stay busy, continuing to help achieve equality for our community and be helpful to Jen in her new role at the Family Pride Coalition and also be a great mom and hopefully a good partner, spouse.
J.C.: That's a long list.
C.J.: That is a long list. No wonder I'm so busy.
MJP: Would you consider accepting another high-profile position?
C.J.: I haven't ruled anything in or out.
MJP: Even though Jennifer is taking on her own high-profile commitments?
C.J.: I'll let you answer that.
J.C.: Families all across America, many of them are two-parent working families, they juggle very challenging careers and their family lives with children and spouses. Like all of those families, I believe we can do that and do it well. Cheryl has a very important voice in the national debate about gay civil rights. … It would be a shame for her not to continue that role. That's why of course we're going to make that work as a family.
Family Pride Coalition's next board meeting will be held in Chicago May 13-14.
Cheryl Jacques can be contacted through her Web site at www.cheryljacques.org For more information on Family Pride Coalition, see www.familypride.org .