Candace Gingrich-Jones spoke about her activist life and LGBTQ issues to a crowd of about 50 people at Northeastern Illinois University's (NEIU's) Presidential Lecture Series March 29.
Gingrich-Jones is the lesbian half-sister of former Speaker of the House and current GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.
She currently serves as the associate director for the youth and campus outreach program at the Human Rights Campaign.
Sharon K. Hahs, president of the university, introduced Gingrich-Jones and thanked her for taking part in their presidential lecture series.
Gingrich-Jones thanked the university for the opportunity to meet with LGBTQA students at the reception and for providing gender-neutral bathrooms just outside the auditorium that evening.
Turning to her autobiography, The Accidental Activist: A Personal and Political Journey, Gingrich-Jones said that for most people there is no such thing as being an accidental activist. It takes something that happens in people's lives to spur them into activism, Gingrich-Jones explained and, for her, the 1994 Republican revolution was the catalyst.
Gingrich-Jones shared her coming-out story, telling the audience that she always felt different, even as a young girl. She said that, during puberty, she developed her first crush while attending Girl Scout camp. She remembered thinking that her feelings were not wrong, but it was the late 1970s, and very few people were out of the closetwith none of them in her community.
To stave off her feelings for other girls during high school, Gingrich-Jones said that she became very involved with many activities and clubs. Going to college changed everything, since it was the first time she met other people who were already out and open about their sexuality.
Seeing those people gave her the ability to fully accept who she was, Gingrich-Jones told the crowd, and after her mom discovered a lesbian newsletter in her bedroom she came out to her on the spot. It was 1987 and although her mom asked questions like, "What happened to you that turned you into a lesbian?" and "Where did Dad and I go wrong?," Gingrich-Jones was surprised that they were having a rational conversation about the issue.
Soon after the rest of the family found outincluding her brother, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who said to Gingrich-Jones, "It's your life and you have the right to live it any way you want to."
It was only after her brother became Speaker of the House, in 1994, that she became aware of his anti-gay statements. During the media frenzy that followed, a reporter asked her if she was a lesbian; when she confirmed it, people assumed she was a militant activist, Gingrich-Jones related. She added that this assumption could not be further from the truth, since in the seven years prior to her brother becoming speaker she lived her life as an out lesbian and experienced no discrimination. When she was thrust into the national spotlight and learned more about LGBTQ discrimination, her view of the world changed.
In 1995, she attended the annual March conference of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in Washington, D.C. and it was there that her activist life began. In a speech before the crowd Gingrich-Jones said, "I'm glad that you all didn't wait until your brother became speaker of the House before your voice was heard." Gingrich-Jones then embarked on a six-month, 60-city town-hall tour for HRC, telling the NEIU audience what moved her the most were the stories she heard from the people she met during that tour.
"Educating people with our coming out stories is a very powerful tool," Gingrich-Jones said. "Sixteen years later, living openly and honestly is still the most powerful way I can help people." Now, college students are fortunate to have many places where they can identify LGBTQ people which she didn't have in 1987, she added.
"If you haven't had your defining activist/re-activist moment, find one; those of you who are activists, don't stop.
"There are people in positions of power who are saying very negative things about the LGBTQ community and the most dangerous enemy we have is people's ignorance" said Gingrich-Jones. "The personal is political and we have to make the political personal."
Following her speech and a Q&A session with the audience, Gingrich-Jones signed copies of her autobiography.