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). This is the second part of the profile.
OK, so now we’re in San Francisco. you’re now the regional director of this fema office. It’s the mid-80s I think.
Yes it’s 1989. I moved there in August and I’m the deputy regional director.
The Loma Prieta earthquake happened in October. And then we proceeded to have a presidentially declared disaster an average of every 30 days for my tenure in my region, which was California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, all of the Pacific territories, Samoa, Guam, all of that.
I was still on the Lambda board and by now I’m the co-chair of the board.
Yes and that’s where we met. I was a Laguna Beach board member and you were a San Francisco board member.
Was I in San Francisco or was I then still in D.C.?
I think you were in San Francisco because we were both Californians.
Oh all right.
I was so impressed with you. I said, ‘I am John Duran. I’m a young lawyer from Orange County and I don’t know anything about feminism. What can you tell me? And you gave me a list of books to go read, which I did, one was ‘The Realm of Loneliness.’ I remember that, I don’t remember the other two.
God I’m sure I must have given you ‘Sisterhood is Powerful.’
Yes, then I went and read them. I thought, ‘This one, she’s amazing.’
So time went on and on, but I still had this idea that someday I’m gonna work for the movement. And one day I got a call from a consultant that Lambda Legal was using — a woman named Deborah Johnson, who had been on the center board.
She called me and said, ‘Lori, I know you want to work for the movement. There’s a job opening in LA, and it’s got your name written all over it.’
And my first response, like any good San Franciscan, was ‘L.A.?! What am I going to do with Los Angeles?!’
Because San Franciscans just do not like L.A. And they don’t know us.
I started looking into it and the board hired me. One of the reasons they hired me — there were activists who applied who were far better known than I — but by then none of them could compete with my résumé. Because I had managed billions of dollars of disaster money, thousands of employees — and so thank God I got the job.
When I first came to the L.A. LGBT Center, it was on Highland. It was one big room.
That’s where I interviewed!
Oh my goodness! I want to say Steve Schulte was the executive director who went on to become a member of the West Hollywood City Council. And I remember there were two phones: STD lines. That was it. And pamphlets and books.No AIDS, no legal anything, no legal clinic, nothing.
So when you walked into the center, tell me what the center consisted of. This is ‘93.
First of all, I interviewed in that old building that you’re talking about which was a renovated motel and it was a dump.
It was a dump! I tell people this, they don’t believe it!
And yet it was the best LGBT center that existed in the country. And I looked at it and I thought, ‘Oh my parents are going to have a heart attack.’
What was the budget back then?
It was a little under 8 million. It was about 125 staff or so.
And then they took me over and they showed me the new building that they were renovating, The old IRS building that they had gutted.
And I looked at that and I thought, ‘Oh my God, there is nothing like this anywhere in the world.I’ve got to be a part of it.’
So we had one building. We were helping about between three and four thousand client visits a month then.
This is the height of the AIDS epidemic. Was there a lot of HIV and AIDS programs?
Oh yeah those were for sure the most costly programs. And HIV was the number one cause of death among adults in the United States when I started, and so there was a lot to do.
The center was raising, excluding capital dollars, because they just finished that capital campaign that Ed Gould ran, they were raising under a million dollars a year privately.
Today, it’s a $155 million annual budget, 10 locations, 800 staff and pre-COVID, we were serving well over 50,000 client visits a month.
It’s the largest LGBT center in the world.
The largest lgbt organization of any kind in the world.
I’m going to guess one of the largest non-profit organizations possibly in the country or the world. Also, that’s a huge budget.
We’re in the 95th percentile. We’re probably more like in the 98th percentile of size.
But yeah it’s pretty amazing and it’s a testament to Los Angeles. L.A. never gets the credit for building its queer institutions or being leaders in the movement.
You continually find yourself cheering or leading or heading things up throughout your entire life. What is behind that? That doesn’t just come naturally to people. How does a little farm girl from Arizona end up with this gusto, this dynamic, this leadership quality?
Well I actually think a lot of it does come naturally.
In my opinion there are two kinds of leaders: there are those who are sort of born that way and they learn how to cultivate those skills and who from young ages are recognized as achievers and leaders.
I mean this sounds very immodest but that’s my path.
And then there are others who aren’t necessarily naturally inclined to that but they’re thrown into circumstances where they must rise to the occasion, and they learn.
I think you’ve got both.
You know I certainly have had a lot of both experiences.
But my mom will say or would have said when she was alive — my dad too — that from the time I was little, I was organizing all the neighborhood kids.
You’re the only child? or are you the oldest one?
I’m the eldest.
How many siblings?
Well we actually have his, hers, and theirs. So both my folks were married before and they had families so I grew up as the eldest of three of their set. My oldest sister who was the closest to me in age, I don’t ever remember her living in our house.
So I grew up as essentially the oldest of three.
So you were kind of a co-parent?
You know my parents were older and so they were not very functional parents. So I never really felt like I was a co-parent but I was the boss of the kids for sure.
My organizing was with my other classmates and neighborhood kids.
I’d be the one coming up with the ideas: ‘Hey let’s go do this, let’s start this club, let’s do that.’
Did you get taunted? Called the butch dyke or queer or anything on the playground?
No, because that was not in people’s consciousness in my rural school.
The worst thing that happened to me in high school was there was this one guy who used to always say, ‘You walk like a man.’ And I suppose if he’d known better he would have been calling me a dyke, if he’d had that kind of consciousness, but he didn’t. He just knew I wasn’t fitting a gender stereotype.
So I didn’t start getting harassed about being a lesbian until I was out and in Washington D.C. Once we filed the lawsuit then I got harassed by students.
And then on the streets in Washington I had instances where I’d be with other women and we’d be yelled at or bottles thrown at us, or one time people chasing us, guys chasing us and threatening.
But I was old enough to handle it by then.
Yes of course, now you’re a grown-up. So you’ve got this whole life of meeting various people. Are there any particular people that you’ve met along this path that you hold as role models or who are really inspirational for you?
Gosh, you know that’s so hard, John, because you and I didn’t have many role models.
You got to meet David Mixner when you were young and he was one of the older generations who was doing things down here.
I didn’t have anybody like that much. I certainly didn’t have women.
So when moved into the world of queer politics, all the women that were around were pretty much my age that I knew in D.C.
I found my inspiration in people I read about and didn’t know about. I remember when Elaine Noble was…
Oh yeah Massachusetts elected the very first gay or lesbian politician.
People always say it’s Harvey Milk!
I know! I tell people, ‘Nope, Elaine Noble in Massachusetts.’
I remember when the City of West Hollywood was formed and the city council was all these gay people, like a gay city.
Yeah a gay majority, first one in the nation.
That blew my mind! But that’s not a mentor question.
My most important mentor was a straight guy at FEMA who was an incredible leader. And I saw how he treated people with respect. He gave them the dignity that they deserved even though he was one of the chiefs of staff of FEMA. He was the top dog. He treated everybody like a peer.
And watching him do his work was very, very important to me.
Then I had good friends who died of AIDS, like Clint Hockenberry, who I mentioned. Steve Smith and Jeff Levi, who were both heads of GAA and who recruited me to be the first woman head of GAA. Jeff had run the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Steve went on to have policy at HRC.
Steve died. Jeff of course is still very much alive,
They were important role models for me, but mostly I was having to make my own way.
The third and final part of this profile continues Sunday, Dec. 26.