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 third and final part of the profile.
In the last section of this I want to talk about heartbreaks. I remember the night Barack Obama got elected president of the United States, I was with you. We were at the Palace, I think, in Hollywood.
Wasn’t it the Henry Ford Theater?
And we were so thrilled because we had the first Black president in the history of the nation … and Proposition 8 passed. I remember. I remember your face. I remember what you said. I remember how we felt. One of the biggest heartbreaks of I think my memory.
Yes, right, absolutely. I would completely agree with you. And we were up there on the stage. I remember us being up there together and we didn’t know yet that we had lost, but we were getting reports. I think you and I both understood.
And yet it was so hard to say that to people.
I remember going home that night and getting up regularly in the middle of the night to see the returns and then finally seeing that we had lost.
I don’t think even my first heartbreak from a lover was as bad as that one. I was devastated.
I had believed for a long time that we were going to lose but then because I was looking at all the poll results that we were seeing behind the scenes I began to persuade myself that we were getting momentum.
And we were getting momentum.
And so I began to believe.
Until that ad ran with the little girl in the San Francisco school: ‘You want to teach this little girl about lesbian moms?’ Or some horrible ad.
And to think that the people of California and the people of L.A. …
That was the disappointing part. The Bay Area voted no on Prop 8 but Los Angeles was evenly split.
Well, slight majority against.
And Black and Latino communities in Los Angeles … they were voting for Prop 8, to take marriage away from us. That was the heartbreaking part.
Although let’s be accurate: it’s the white vote that made us lose it, because that was the majority of the votes. But yes it was a heartbreak every step of the way.
And then that led to other heartbreaks of people in our own community turning against those of us who had actually played a leadership role.
I forgot about this.
People who refused to help, who said they were beyond that.
And then suddenly they were part of the course.
You are bringing back a memory from the recesses of my mind. Those of us that worked our tails off to beat Prop 8 — we kept telling people we’re going to lose if we’re not careful. And we were watching. And then when we lost those people that sat on the sidelines and said it was beneath them, it was never going to pass in California, suddenly became our harshest critics.
Yeah that hurt. That was another painful one.
Well OK let’s not talk about heartbreaks. How about the greatest moments?
I’m going to guess the opening of the center.
Well, first, look where we’re sitting.
We’re sitting here in the midst of this phenomenal, intergenerational campus where youth and seniors, the most vulnerable in our community, are coming every single day, living here, getting help, working with each other.From a pure heavy lift and extraordinary standpoint, this is certainly one of them.
I also think about the center’s growth just generally.
The center has always been a place that was for everybody and served everybody but it wasn’t always a place that reflected the diversity of our community as well as it does now.
So when I started 25 percent of our staff were people of color and one person on the whole management team was a person of color.
Now 75 percent of our staff are people of color. Our senior team is 50 percent people of color. Our middle management team is so diverse. We may be the nation’s largest employer of Transgender people.
So I am proud of the fact that we’ve all grown together and learned how to make the center an even more welcoming place for everybody.
We’ve got the Trans wellness center. We’ve got the center south and me centro.
And we’ve really tried to make the center much more accessible to everybody, and I feel very proud about that.
What’s going to happen when Lorri Jean and Darrell Cummings leave the center? Because the two of you, you’ve been with the center for almost 30 years. I mean there’s a short stint there where you went away but 30 years! You are the most highly identified person with the center for generations of people. And Darrell’s been your number two.
We’ve been joined at the hip.
And I know you’re both leaving and so I imagine for a lot of us, me included, it’s like, ‘what’s going to happen to the center when you leave?’
Well I’ve been very very worried about that too.
Five years ago we started taking specific actions to prepare this organization not only for Darrell and me to leave, but I’ve been fortunate that a lot of my people have been with me the whole time.
So they’re of retirement age too. My CFO already retired. Our head of youth services has already retired.
And we started making plans — how were we going to do this in a way that would ensure that everything was going to be OK? And with a lot of attention about what about the process for choosing my successor, and the overlap
Because we now have enough resources that we could afford it, the board’s decision was let’s hire someone who overlaps with Lorri and Darrell for a year.
A lot of people thought that was insane. Some of our donors thought it was insane.
We had a few board members who were newer to the board and hadn’t been a part of that discussion or hadn’t been here when I left the first time, and they thought, ‘Well who in their right mind is going to want to come and have a year of overlap?’
And other board members were saying, ‘Well but people who aren’t willing to have an overlap — that should tell us they’re not the right person.’
Because there is no comparable organization to this organization.
The next largest LGBT organization is probably becoming Howard Brown in Chicago, but then it’s HRC. We dwarf HRC.
That’s amazing. They used to be the number one, the biggest absolutely.
We’re three times their size.
And anyone coming from the other nonprofit sector, their learning curve would be queer movement stuff.
And if it was someone who came from the private sector, they’d have the biggest learning curve of all, because how do you work in the nonprofit world and in a movement?
So we knew whoever was going to be here would have a significant learning curve.
We planned for this overlap and we developed a very robust onboarding plan.
So the board ultimately hired Joe Hollendoner, who had five years of CEO experience under his belt.
I didn’t have that when I started. Joe’s so much more qualified than I was to come and run the center.
We’ve spent six months working closely together. And the plan has been: I still have the reins in the first six months, and then after the holidays I’m his backup and he has the reins.
And he has had six months of luxury to immerse himself in everything about the organization in a way I never did.
He’s done a night shift with our youth housing. He’s been working at our other sites. He’s been able to really dig in deeply and I didn’t have that luxury. I had high expectations for him already because I knew him. I knew everybody but one person who was in the finals.
And he has surpassed even the high expectations that I had for him.
At this point I can say I do not have the slightest doubt in my mind that he is going to lead the center in an inspirational and effective way to whatever the next part of its journey is.
I feel sorry for him because a lot of people are going to say things like, ‘Oh well, who could ever follow lori,’ in part because I’ve been here so long.
The average tenure of heads of queer organizations when I started was two years. It’s intimidating.
But he is a man of vision and he’s already beginning to formulate that vision. And what I’ve respected about him even more is he said, ‘It’s way too early to create a new plan. I gotta get my sea legs. I gotta really understand the center better, understand the community better.’
So he’s doing everything just like I would wish he would.
That’s awesome. What’s Lorri gonna do?
Lorri is going to retire.
That does not mean retire, not this little girl who was like organizing the kids…
It does for a while.
I was just talking with Kevin Cathcart and Richard Burns this morning and we were talking about Kevin who set a rule he wasn’t going to join any board for a year. Of course then Trump got elected and he did.
And I’ve already been asked to join some boards and I’ve said, ‘no I’m going to take some time and relax and decompress.’ It’s a high high stress job and I don’t handle stress as well as I did when I was 35.
I mean I’m still pretty darn good at it but I have many more sleepless nights than I used to. So I’m gonna take it easy.
Gina and I are gonna divide our time between here and Maui.
And we’re going to travel a lot and as long as our money and our wanderlust and our bodies last we’ll do a lot of that.
And then there will come a time when I think I’ll want to get on a board or do something. Probably the one thing I’m going to keep is, I do a lot of mentoring of other non-profit ceos in the queer world, and I call them my chicks. I’m probably going to keep some of my chicks and I’ll keep doing that coaching kind of mentoring role. That has to be done.
If you got to write the epitaph on your tombstone, what would it say?
She cared deeply and she always tried to put the best interests of the community first. Not the center, but the community.