Introducing ‘Lavender Pen’ by John Duran, a series of interviews with pioneering and iconic LGBT figures across Southern Calif. In this three-part profile, Duran speaks with Lorri Jean, an LGBT rights activist and the former CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center (LALGBTC).
I have known you a very long time since the NGLTF — the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Board.
Yeah, actually, Lambda Legal.
That would have been the ’80s. Are you from Arizona? I looked at your Wikipedia. So tell me about where you were born and raised, what part of the state?
Well I was actually born in Idaho because my dad was a farmer. He farmed in Idaho in the summers and in Arizona in the winters. And as it so happened, my folks were back there when I was born. About the time I was entering school, they had to make a decision about where they were going to sort of park, and they parked in Arizona.
And big-city Phoenix?
Outside of Phoenix, on farms, in very rural areas. Phoenix was a very different place then. So I grew up out on a farm way out in the country. It was four miles to the nearest fruit stand and eight miles to the nearest town where you could get to a grocery store. And I loved it. It was a great way to grow up as a kid, especially for a young lesbian.
Were you the only lesbian in town? Or did you have thoughts about that?
None that were conscious. I remember in eighth grade having a dream that I had married my best friend and that I woke up and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I wish that were true,’ and then saying to myself, ‘Oh no, that can’t be true because she’s a girl. Girls don’t marry girls.’ So I really had no consciousness about lesbianism until late in college really.
So you dated boys in high school?
I did. It was never very fulfilling for me.
I dated girls, too. It was a disaster.
There was one guy in particular — a very nice guy. I didn’t date a lot. I dated in college and I found the experience in college to be… it was no fun. I was dating guys who were my age, and they were mostly really immature and weren’t interested in things that I was interested in.
So I remember thinking in my early college days, ‘OK, this isn’t worth it. I’m not going to date these kinds of guys. I’ll wait, and when I get older I’ll meet this mythical pro-feminist man out there right who will be what I’m looking for.’
And of course ultimately I came out and realized, ‘Oh, maybe that was the problem.’ But I never had sex with a man. I’m a five-star lesbian.
I’m a five-star gay. I’ve never had sex with a woman either. We’re both five stars. So it’s the ‘70s and you’re in high school and you’re in college. Were there any images out there that made you go, ‘Hmm?’ Like Helen Reddy or any woman that suddenly a light bulb went on?
Not really. I was a young feminist and so I was of course I knew who Helen Reddy was. I was very active in feminist politics in high school. I pushed to get more equity in the girls’ sports program because they gave no money to the girls’ sports. All the money went to the boy’s sports. And the girls were winning all the championships and the boys weren’t. I was the editor of the high school newspaper, so I did a big exposé about that.
And then I continued that kind of activism in college, but what really flipped the switch for me is that there was a professor who was in the closet. And she suspected I was a lesbian because of course I looked like a lesbian. I just didn’t know it yet. And she tried to set me up with another student who was out to her — a woman. I was shocked, and this prompted a whole dialogue about, ‘Why were you trying to set me up with a woman, and what does this mean?’
I did all this self-examination and I was actually keeping a journal at the time, because I was in a feminist therapy course and they had all of the students keeping a journal. At one point I was so disturbed I had come to the realization, ‘Oh wow, yes I must be a lesbian. Well, I can’t be a lesbian. I’ve got ambitions, and I want to do this and that, and I can’t do that if I’m a lesbian. I’ve got to drop out of school and run away.’
This is my senior year. It was my last semester and I graduated as Female Scholar of the Year at Arizona State. For me to withdraw was a big thing. I went to the registrar’s office and picked up the form to withdraw and sat out on the mall of Arizona State University campus and thought about it and thought about it.
I went home and I didn’t submit the form. I went to bed that night, and that was like the worst day. And the next morning I woke up and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m a lesbian. And there’s nothing wrong with me. And there’s something wrong with society. So no, I’m not going to withdraw.’
So you didn’t have any religious convictions that were torturing you as a young woman?
My folks had never been religious. I’d gotten involved in religion in high school in a very deep way because in retrospect I was following this young woman that I loved. I left that church; it was a conservative church.
First Southern Baptist Church in Peoria, Arizona, and I left the church after an argument with the assistant pastor. I did my work — this is high school — at this church. I became the president of the youth group and learned the bible up one side, down the other.
And the assistant pastor was not the brightest light on the porch and he came in to our youth group and was giving us a lesson one day and he was basically saying that women’s place in the church was the same as Blacks’ place in the church, which was essentially cursed and silent. I was horribly offended by both of these concepts. I started to argue with him and I started to quote scripture and he couldn’t keep up with me. Finally, in a flustered state, he basically said, ‘Look Lori, I’ve told you how it is, and you can accept that and sit down, or if you don’t accept it, you can leave.’
And I’m sure he thought I would sit down, and I left.
Well, so you left college, you left church, you’re kind of like leaving all the institutions! Is law school then the next logical stuff?
Law school was where I ended up next. And of course I came out my last semester. But intellectually. Most people who sleep with somebody have a sexual encounter and then that makes them think about it. I did it the other way around. And so at that point, I think, I knew I was going to Washington D.C., and going to Georgetown Law School. And so I went there and I was one of only two openly LGBT people in all of the classes. Georgetown was then the largest law school in the country. It was a gay man and me …
… this would have been the early 80s, if I’m keeping track?
Yes, it ‘79 was when I started. I graduated in ’82 and …
… there’s no AIDS, there’s no HIV…
There’s no out legislators, there’s no out members of Congress…
… no laws protecting us from discrimination. It was sort of all around that time. And this guy named Clint Hockenberry, may he rest in peace, he died of AIDS…
I remember Clint.
So Clint was at law school and he was older than me. He was a third-year student and he came to me and said, ‘Lori, let’s start a gay and lesbian law student group.’
I said, ‘Oh Clint, I’m really not interested in that. I’m working with the women’s rights collective. That’s where my interest is.’ He says ‘Lori, it can’t be just a man who does this. You have to do it with me.’
So he persuaded me and we went through all the processes to do it, and got all the approvals from the student bar association and the faculty senate. Then it went up to the president of the university — a closeted gay man, Father Healy — and he vetoed it.
So we decided to sue, thinking that they’d give up right away because we had the DC Human Rights act by that time.
Did the ACLU represent you?
No, the ACLU represented Georgetown!
The head of that was a homophobe and they represented Georgetown, or they did an amicus brief on behalf of Georgetown.
But no, we found a young lawyer, who was actually initially working for the government and got permission to represent us pro bono, and then ultimately left the government to handle this case. It was nine years of litigation. We lost at the trial court level and then we had to decide whether to move forward because, were we going to create a bad precedent? And we decided to move forward.
We won at the appellate court and we actually had motions practiced before this United States Supreme Court before the board of Georgetown finally decided to let us exist.
That could have been a bad Supreme Court. It wasn’t a very friendly place for us.
No, I mean it wasn’t, but it might not have been friendly for them either, since it was based on the DC Human Rights Rights act.
Because Bowers v. Hardwick came in the mid-80s.
Bowers came down in the mid-80s. I’m thinking Bowers had come down in the interim.
So you get out of law school. Now HIV has hit. How do you end up in San Francisco? Because I know you ended up at FEMA.
When I was looking for a job I did a clerkship for a year with a D.C. Superior Court Judge and then I was wanting to do civil rights law, but Reagan had allowed the Equal Access to Justice Act to lapse, and that was the provision that allowed civil rights firms and attorneys to get attorney fees when they won cases.
It was allowed to lapse so all of those firms were folding but I needed a job because my folks were poor farmers. I didn’t have any money and so I heard that there was this new federal agency looking for a lesbian lawyer. And I couldn’t believe it!
Well, it turns out there was a closeted gay man in the office of general counsel at this new federal agency and they had a vacancy and he wanted to bring in a lesbian. It wasn’t that FEMA wanted one.
So I went to work there and they gave me such opportunities.
I was handling a case by myself in the federal district court in six months. I had friends who went to big fancy firms in DC and New York and they didn’t get into court for six or seven years. I rose through the ranks there and ultimately was named associate general counsel for general law.
By this time I was doing activism in my spare time and I decided I wanted to work for the movement.
So activism in your spare time — that meant being on boards or committees?
Being on boards and I also was elected president of the Gay Activist Alliance in Washington, D.C., which was a volunteer position, but it was like the Equality California of Washington D.C. It was like G.L.A.A.D. and everything all wrapped into one.
And so I was doing that every evening and on the weekends and doing work with the city council and serving on the police chief’s Citizens Advisory Council and all the kinds of things that go with that kind of activism. And I decided I’m having more fun doing this, than being a lawyer.
But back then the salary scales were so horrible and I had a bunch of student loans, right? So I had to apply for a high-paying job. They weren’t very high-paying back then.
The Human Rights Campaign Fund job came up and I applied for that job. It came down to me and Tim McFeely.
Yes, this is before Elizabeth Birch then.
The head of my agency at FEMA was one of my references.
He was the guy who had been my real angel. He was the the first black three-star general in the Army, Gen. Julius Beckton. He thought I was going to get this job and the staff at HRCF unanimously endorsed me, but the board did not choose me. They chose Tim, and I thought, ‘OK, why did they choose him and not me?’ We both had been lawyers. We both had about the same kind of supervisory experience. Sexism, because there weren’t a lot of women running LGBT organizations back then. I thought, ‘I’m gonna have to really beef up my resume.’
The head of my agency, when I didn’t get the job, he said ‘Well, Lori, what would it take to keep you?’ I very brazenly asked for the job in the western regional office headquartered in San Francisco, where they had the highest career job was open — the deputy regional director. The regional director was a political appointee. And in all of FEMA’s 10 regions there’d never been a woman in that job and there’d never been a man under the age of 55, and I was a 32-year-old open lesbian.
And damned if he didn’t give it to me.
Part two of this profile continues Saturday, Dec. 25.