Cathy Renna Talks with Brad about her history of activism, including playing a central role in shaping nearly all major issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, from the beating death of Matthew Shepard in 1998 to the Fight for marriage equality. She also shares the progress we’ve made, efforts to end violence again trans people, and why voting for Donald Trump was a hate crime.
Cathy Renna is a veteran in the communications industry, and currently serves
as the Principal of Target Cue. Since her time at GLAAD in the 1990’s and early
aughts, Cathy has executed her particular expertise in crisis and strategic
communications, playing a central role in shaping nearly all major issues
directing the LGBTQ+ community, from the beating death of Matthew Shepard
in 1998 to the fight for marriage equality and the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t
Tell”. She worked with the team that coordinated historic coverage for
WorldPride/Stonewall 50, working with NYC Pride. In 2020, she was part of
the team that organized the historic Global Pride, a 26 hour virtual event that
was viewed by of 57 million people around the Globe. She is currently serving
as Communications Director at the National LGBTQ Task Force.
National LGBTQ Task Force Website
Cathy Renna Complete
Sat, Oct 15, 2022 12:50AM • 59:36
people, hate crimes, lgbtq, queer, community, glaad, marriage equality, trans, task force, extraordinary, talk, matthew shepard, work, country, years, laramie, taskforce, called, happened, organizations
Brad Shreve, Cathy Renna
Brad Shreve 00:00
Well, Cathy Renna, welcome to Queer We Are, I’m happy to have you here.
Cathy Renna 00:08
Good to be here Brad.
Brad Shreve 00:10
I’m going to start with a not so pleasant subject for a show that supposed to be really on the positive side. But sometimes we have to go there to get to the good stuff. It’s hard to imagine that Matthew Shepard would be 45 years old today. Really surprising.
Cathy Renna 00:26
It’s extraordinary. I kind of think of that the fact that I’m only about 13 years older than him. So I was I was I was young when I went out there. Oh, it’ll be 25 years next year. So, you know, he was 21. And I was, you know, 33. I was a kid too.
Brad Shreve 00:45
And it doesn’t seem that long ago.
Brad Shreve 00:46
No, it seems like yesterday. I think that’s partially because it’s still such a big part of my life, both professionally and personally. So, you know,
Brad Shreve 00:56
We are definitely going to go into that. You were with GLAAD at the time, which is the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. And they sent you to Laramie after Matthew was tortured, and while he was dying, and since then, if I’m correct, you befriended Matthews parents, Dennis and, Judy. Is that correct?
Yes, yeah, we’ve worked together for essentially, to almost 25 years now.
Brad Shreve 01:20
The reason I’m bringing them up is I watched you on a TEDx talk. And you were sharing your experiences and the experiences of Matthew’s parents. In during your talk, you said that a year after Matthew died at the sentencing of one of his killers. His father, Dennis Shepherd said, good is coming out of evil. That’s a powerful statement. And when we get back, I’d like you to talk about it. But for now, I’m Brad Shreve,
Cathy Renna 01:55
and I’m Cathy Renner.
Brad Shreve 01:57
Queer, we are.
Brad Shreve 02:12
Welcome to Queer We Are for stories by LGBTQ celebrities, athletes, activists, politicians, entrepreneurs, and more here entertaining conversations and accounts of queer people’s successes, challenges and what they learned along the way.
Brad Shreve 02:33
My guest, Cathy Renna, is a veteran in the communications industry. She’s executed her particular expertise in crisis and strategic communication in nearly all major issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community. Currently, she is serving as communications director at the National LGBTQ Task Force. Cathy, I want to go back to where we left off regarding Dennis Shepherd. His words at the sentencing of one of Matthews killers were good, is coming out of evil. What were your thoughts when you heard that?
Cathy Renna 03:18
Well, I think what he was trying to communicate was that, you know, our community and allies, were speaking out and trying to educate folks, myself included. We were trying to educate people about hate crimes about how common they were about discrimination about what the queer community really faced. It was 1998 and 1999, when the when the trials happened. And I was sitting in the courtroom, and I could feel that I could feel that they really wanted to see something good come out of a nightmare, a nightmare as a parent myself, I couldn’t imagine I still can’t imagine. And so I think that’s that’s what he was trying to communicate. And I think that’s what they then dedicated their lives to. They’ve been doing educational work and advocacy for the last quarter century, in their son’s name. And you know, it’s very interesting, because I can’t imagine that that’s easy. But I will tell you that the very first time I met Judy in person, which was in early 1999, in New York City, just before the GLAAD awards in New York, we were we were sitting having lunch and she said, Look, I want to ask you a question. I want you to be really honest with me. And, of course, I said, Yes, I would. And she said, Why did his murder get so much attention? I’m reading about this. I’m learning about this. And this happens all the time. You know, and even you know, we had talked about other cases where what happened to Matt was absolutely horrific. And yet, I could tell you about cases that were, you know, even even more sort of horrific, violent acts of hate. And I said, Look, you know, the The truth is, it’s about, in large part who he is, or who he was young, white, educated. You know, as I, as I said, in my head, sort of gay, but not to gay, you know, upper middle class, you know, privileged family. And it wasn’t just the media that paid more attention, it was our community. So I think that’s why to this day, they have dedicated themselves to try and do the mission of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which is to erase hate, but they try and get the stories told of so many other people in our communities, who are victims of hate violence and discrimination. But they don’t get the attention because we live in a culture where certain people are valued over others, whether that’s within our own community or on the outside. And so when you talk to Judy, now, she doesn’t really want to talk that much about what happened to Matt, you can Google that that happened 20 plus years ago, she’ll say, what she does want to talk about is discrimination against trans youth, the epidemic of violence against trans women of color, because that’s, that’s what our community has faced all along, and yet, it does not get the attention that it deserves.
Brad Shreve 06:15
You have such an extensive background in activism in the LGBTQ plus community. But what does success mean to you?
Cathy Renna 06:28
It’s interesting, someone actually earlier today was asking me that question. In a roundabout way, you know, for me doing this kind of work. For me, success is having someone who does not know a lot about our community. Think about things differently. When I do an interview, or have a conversation with someone or writing something, my goal is always to have someone say, Huh, I never thought about it that way. Because understanding who we are, as individuals, as a community, as a human race, is a process and it’s a learning process. And if if I can help someone start that process, then I feel like I’ve been successful.
Brad Shreve 07:09
Now you majored in biology in college, am I correct?
Cathy Renna 07:13
I did. It’s occasionally helpful, actually, in this line of work. But yes, I have my bachelor’s in biology.
Brad Shreve 07:18
How did you become involved in communications industry? And did you start with nonprofit legal organizations? Or did you start in a traditional corporate environment?
Cathy Renna 07:30
So I kind of fell into activism, I think we call it accidental activism. I had graduated from college. Again, my degree was in biology, I was pre med, I moved down to Washington DC, was actually attended medical school for a year and then left because I wasn’t just wasn’t the direction I wanted my life to go in. And, you know, I was dating someone I was living in Washington, you know, we were just really looking for community. I went to an event that was a panel discussion about lesbian visibility in the media, although I think since it was like 1989, it was the title was lesbian invisibility in the media. This was way before Ellen came out. Yeah. And there was there was a woman on the panel named Ann Warner and she was the co chair of what was that a very new chapter of GLAAD, which you mentioned prior, which then was called the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Now is the LGBTQ media advocacy organization that kept the acronym though, because it’s really good. So talk to an actor and uh, you know, it’s one of those things back in the late 80s and early 90s, those of us that got involved in activism, we certainly weren’t in it. Not only not for the money, but thinking it was a career. It was a it was a community volunteer service. But you know, before I knew it, I was co chair of the chapter. And then before I knew it as glide grew, in the mid 90s, the chapters merged, it became a national organization, and they brought me on the staff. So I did not go from the corporate sector, I did not go to school to learn this. I, like I always say, you know, it’s it’s street smarts, it’s the school of hard knocks, I guess you’d call it. But I’ve been doing this for 30 years now. And it’s been just like I said, prior and extraordinary privilege, to work with folks. And to feel like I’ve been able to help our community not just be more visible, but be more visible in its diversity and just help people understand who we are better.
Brad Shreve 09:19
So I guess you could say you just kind of fell into it. And I mean that in a good way. But we talked about Matthew Shepard and you work with the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And the fight for marriage equality in that early time when you started the activism. Did you in your wildest dreams think you’d see the direction your life has gone?
Absolutely not. I remember the very first protests that we did when I was with them a little tiny GLAAD chapter in Washington. It was the movie Basic Instinct, which for those who don’t remember you can look it up on IMDb, but it was a it was one of those movies that now all the lesbians and by women I they’ll just love to hate it. So Sharon Stone plays a bisexual icepick wielding serial killer. And we were protesting, at the same time lusting after her girlfriend who was driving a Ferrari. But you know, that’s a whole nother issue. And there was, you know, dozens of us outside this movie theater, the day the movie came out, you know, GLAAD was handing out educational flyers about, you know, understanding bisexuality and stereotyping our community. And you know, we should have more diverse representations. We’re not just, you know, serial killers, or, you know, especially for lesbians and by women, always, we’re always the first ones to die and movies. And all these TV cameras showed up, because it was a big deal. It was being protested nationally. And they asked who was in charge, and everybody pointed at me. And that was that, you know, so a shy kid from Long Island, who, from age five kept saying she wanted to be a doctor was a tomboy and was suddenly out, and talking to TV cameras and discussing issues related to the community. And that’s how it all that’s how it all started, you know, we literally in those days cut with a scissor cut articles out of the Washington Post, the only way I could get the Washington Post to hear me was if I stood outside the building and yelled with a sign. Now, I have cell phone numbers for the reporters post. And, you know, that only only took a couple of decades. But that’s that’s how it all started. And it’s really if you if you think back on it, 30 years is not that long. But for so many of us who got involved in the community in the 80s and early 90s. That’s what it was like. And it’s extraordinary to think that now, not only is this like something that I get to enjoy doing, it’s actually my it’s been my career, it’s been really not, I don’t know, I don’t really describe it as a job. To me, it’s more of a vocation, I feel a great responsibility in the work that I do. And I think so, so many of really, essentially, all of my colleagues will feel the same way and will talk about their work in the same way.
Brad Shreve 11:56
I much prefer when people say it’s their vocation rather than occupation or job, much more positive way to look at it. So of all the many things that could have possibly happened in your time in my lifetime, did you ever think marriage equality would be one of them?
You know, it’s really interesting. As I, as I look back, I think I would have never imagined the progress that we’ve made in lots of different ways, including marriage equality. I mean, that, to me, seems like a really big ticket item. And then I think about it from and I say, But wait, we don’t have federal non discrimination laws. But how does that work? You know, I mean, I think part of this is just the culture that we live in, particularly here in America, as someone who has traveled around the world, it has family in other countries and talks to them a lot about the state of affairs here in this country. It’s really interesting to me that the two things that we’ve had the most success with, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, and marriage equality. And Edie Windsor was my client. I mean, I’ve worked on the issues related to marriage equality, as a person and professionally and then post marriage equality wins in the Supreme Court. I worked with Edie for several years, and it was just extraordinary. But but the reality is that, you know, those are those seem like the most conservative institutions, for us to make progress in. When the reality is in half the states in this country, you can still get fired from your job for being queer. So there’s really a it’s very paradoxical in some ways, Brad, it’s really interesting to me to think about it. But, you know, again, I would have never imagined as someone who started out doing this work, because I wanted to see myself on TV, I wanted to see myself my life covered in the news, the issues I cared about the people in the community that I’m part of. And I’m amazed to see the level of representation and the diversity of representation. But I have to keep it in context and juggle it with the political climate that we live in, that we still see so much discrimination that we still see so much hate that we’ve seen the pendulum swing, from, you know, what were essentially eight years where we were welcomed at the White House to those four years, where things just, you know, it became a dumpster fire. And we’re continuing to see the challenges to not just LGBTQ rights, but all of so many of the other issues. We care about reproductive justice, racial equity. You know, voting rights, like just our very democracy is, is being challenged right now. And I think, for our community, we understand what those challenges are like, and we’re trying to face them head on, but it’s a it’s so it’s fascinating and paradoxical and infuriating to see incredible diverse representations in culture and media, and just your day to day life. And then, you know, turn on the news and see what’s going on and realize that real people, you know, kids are leaving the state they live in because they’re trans and their parents are afraid that there’ll be taken away from them. Because of the legislation that’s being passed in state after state in this country, you know that teachers are leaving their jobs. My wife is a teacher. I mean, it’s just it’s a huge challenge for a teacher to be told they can no longer teach with integrity, talk about diversity, talk about race, or, or sexual identity, or it’s just really incredible to me that, that in this country that that would be happening, but that it is.
Brad Shreve 15:28
Well, the reason I asked about marriage equality is because I agree, the things that are going on now are scary to put it very mildly. However, I tell the story, probably too often, I was asked to speak at the low the local GSA Gay Straight Alliance at the local high school. And I went and I spoke, and when I left, I got in the car, and I bawled, never in a million years, could I ever possibly imagine a club in my high school like that?
Cathy Renna 16:02
And then in middle schools,
Brad Shreve 16:04
yes. Sometimes when it gets really down, I have to stop and remind myself of that, that’s a big jump.
Well, that’s the great hope. I mean, my daughter just turned 17. And she came out to me as bi a couple of years ago, and has a ton of LGBTQ friends. And she lives in Texas, in Houston. So it’s a little better. But it’s, that’s the only thing that’s that’s really giving me hope right now is working with these young people. And a lot of them I met when they were very small. I mean, I know, I know, trans activists right now who are in their mid to late teens, and I met them 10 years ago. And I joke that now they’re all taller than me, and they’re doing way more than I could have ever imagined doing at that age. They’re extraordinary. And, and it’s not just, it’s not just the LGBTQ kids, it’s all the kids, it’s, you know, I do a lot of speaking at high schools and colleges and just work with a ton of young people partially because I just, that just gives me so much joy and hope. It’s a real positive. And they you know, they’re pretty clear, like their way and their way past us. You know, even like older queer folks, many of them, I don’t include myself in this because I’m totally agree with them. Like they, it’s not that they don’t want to check off a box, they don’t want boxes at all, you know, their identity is something that it’s fluid, it can change, it’s theirs, they own it, they don’t care what you think, you know, and they’re gonna fight for their right to be who they are. And so there’s a whole generation of young people coming up now that I think is going to be, you know, this is part of why we’re seeing so much backlash is because it’s fear, it’s fear that, you know, my generation, our generation has done a really good job. And now we can hand it to a younger generation. And they can hopefully take it even closer to the finish line, if not over the finish line. And that scares the heck out of the folks who don’t want things to change. They don’t want to deal with the diversity of our people in our culture. And so you’re right. I mean, that’s the one thing that does give me a bit of hope amongst all of these. He’s the list of horribles that we deal with on a daily basis.
Brad Shreve 18:06
Yeah. And I don’t think I expected the pendulum to swing as far as it did. But I’m not a soothsayer. But I, I expected this to happen. Because, you know, it only goes so far before people start to react. And I like to say it’s Obama’s fault. And it’s not his fault. Personally, once we had a black president, that was just too much, there’s no way and boy, that pendulum flew way back again. It’s gonna keep teetering. But I think we’re gonna get there. At least I hope you do. Yeah,
I mean, I hope to I think that, you know, I was saying to someone just the other day, you know, they were talking about how they were so thrilled to see so many people registering to vote and getting engaged, and hopefully we can keep the house in the Senate after the midterm elections. And maybe it’s because I’m from originally New York, and now I live in New Jersey, that’s even worse. So I’m a little sarcastic. And I said, Well, yeah, all we had to do was all you had to do was have Roe v. Wade overturned, and that got people off their butts and help them Yeah, that’s the that’s the unfortunate thing is what you’re saying is absolutely right. I didn’t expect it to get as bad as we saw with Trump. But I was not surprised. I have this conversation all the time with folks who will say something like, oh, you know, don’t we shouldn’t ever have trans kids talking to the media. And look, I No one’s more protective than me when it comes to having someone deal with media be visible in the media, and then have to deal with the ramifications of that which nowadays with social media can be taught trolls, you know, nastiness, anti LGBTQ comments and on their Facebook page, etc. But the truth is, you know, if we don’t choose to be visible, then we’re choosing not to move forward. With visibility comes backlash. It’s inevitable. But what other what other options do we have? And this is a lesson I learned very early on and doing this work. And that it holds true today, in some ways for different people, right? That’s that’s shifted some, you know, the trans community was not visible at all when I started doing this work. One of the other movies we protested very early on was Silence of the Lambs, which, to this day is like my wife and I know the entire movie by heart. It’s one of our favorite movies. It’s a great movie. But at the same time, I remember sitting in a crowded theater in Maryland. We watched it, of course, because I was with GLAAD to see it, the day it came out. This was way before GLAAD had enough told to see things before they came out. And I remember thinking this audience is they’re not horrified by what this person is doing to women. But when they showed his nipple ring, they all gasped. And I’m like, Okay, I see where we are here. Okay, I get it, you know. And so that that was the thing that was the thing that really scared them. That that showed to me right there, how much work we have to do, because the representation of that person, no matter how much, maybe this is in the weeds, but no matter how much Hannibal Lecter said he wasn’t transgender, was perceived as trans by the audience, and was certainly perceived by as trans in the media. And so that continuation of stereotyping and especially negative stereotyping of trans people was just awful. And it’s really only been recently that we’ve started to see more fair and accurate, diverse representations of trans people and non binary people.
Brad Shreve 21:26
Well, you mentioned earlier, lesbians and movies, and they always died. And usually it was suicide.
Yeah, except for that one where a tree falls on her what was the name of that movie? It was?
Brad Shreve 21:36
Oh, I don’t know.
Yeah, it was really, that was always a running joke with us. Yeah, we either either commit suicide, or were sent away to a sanitarium. Or we have never a good way to
Brad Shreve 21:48
go remember the tree. Take your word for it. You mentioned Trump, and I want to get to you on that, because you did say some things about Trump. But I want to bring up one last thing regarding kids. My daughter is in her early 20s. And one summer during an internship, she went to Lithuania and to the LGL center there, which was brand new, and she helped organize the first Baltic pride. Dad is here is very proud of her. But the reason I mentioned is she’s in her 20s but I’m gonna say kids, kids her age isn’t totally non issue.
Cathy Renna 22:23
Brad Shreve 22:25
I can’t speak for everybody. But as a rule, it’s like, what is the big deal about? And you mentioned, conservatism, this is what really drives me crazy. Marriage equality should be a conservative value. It’s the government’s staying out of their business.
Well, it’s interesting that, as you I’m sure saw recently, you know, we’ve been fighting to get the Equality Act passed, they cannot get the Equality Act through the Senate, one would think that basic rights in the workplace would be again, a pretty, pretty low lift. Yeah, we cannot get it through. It’s passed the house it can’t get through the Senate. However, once Roe v. Wade was overturned, most of us are aware and understand and actually get how much Roe v. Wade impacts the queer community, but some folks don’t. And it became this conversation about oh, no, what’s next? And of course, because of several of Clarence Thomas’s comments in the in the brief, everybody thought, oh, no, he’s gonna go after marriage equality. And so everyone scrambles and they pass the Respect for Marriage Act. And up until recently, I mean, it’s been delayed now until the election for political reasons, I’m sure. But who knows. There was much more hope that they could get Republicans to sign on to the Respect for Marriage Act that they knew they couldn’t get for the Equality Act. That’s what I mean, when I talk about paradox here. That’s that’s what I find really fascinating. You’re absolutely right. It’s it’s because you know, marriage is considered a pretty conservative thing.
Brad Shreve 23:57
I said it was going to bring Trump back up in 2000. I think it was 16. You wrote an article for Huffington Post. It was titled A vote for Trump was a hate crime. It was right after the election. We all knew it was going to be bad. And you mentioned you didn’t think it was gonna be as bad as it was. I mean, was it even conceivable to you? Like How bad did you think it was going to be compared to what we have now?
Cathy Renna 24:24
Well, that piece was rather pathetic. I had a feeling you were gonna bring that up. And I get I get that a lot. I think you might if you read it, you know that the reason that I wrote it was because the morning after the election, I went to get my car and someone had vandalized my Hillary Clinton bumper sticker. I was not happy. So I really wrote a piece for Huffington Post. It was worse than I thought. I mean, I knew from like from day one, you know, they erased everything LGBTQ, they scrubbed, the White House website, basically. So like, okay, the bottom line here is their intent is to just erase us and that has played out but what But I did not conceive was how damaging this would be to our basic democratic institution and structure of this country. I mean, that’s what to watch. I was I live in, I don’t live in DC. I live in New Jersey now. And, you know, we watched January 6 happen on TV. And after about 15 or 20 minutes, we made the decision to get our entire staff because we’re all over the place at the National LGBTQ Taskforce. We’re in New York and Miami and DC and a few other places people are working remotely. We all got on a zoom together, because it was a shock to the system, that they were literally storming the Capitol. I don’t think anybody could have predicted it would have gotten that for. But he also, you know, he was appointed so many judges that are now in place, the Republican Party and the far right, conservatives have known forever, that it’s about the Supreme Court. I mean, I would have never imagined that, in my lifetime, I’d see Roe v. Wade overturned, you know, they say we have an agenda. They have an agenda, they have a laundry list of things they want to do. You don’t have to do much to, you know, follow the money and look at the receipts and see that there was a large, organized faction that was thrilled when he took office. I don’t even know if it’s because they were thrilled with him, that they knew they would start to get their way. And unfortunately, that’s what we’ve seen unfold.
Brad Shreve 26:29
Exactly. I want to go back to what you were saying about Matthew Shepard and why his murder got so much more attention than others. And I understand the thought that he looked like the All American boy and and that’s why he got so much press. But I still can’t help but think Laramie had a population thinks still does have less than 30,000 people, the whole state of Wyoming only has 600,000 people. Now, I live in the California desert. If you blink, you’ll miss us. But we’re pretty spread out. But my area where I live, is about half a million people that sighs the whole state of Wyoming. So I’m still just really surprised how that one incident in that tiny little town in that tiny little state made international news. It just, it blows my mind. Does it concern you at all that sometimes? And I don’t want to dismiss what happened to Matthew at all. But does it concern you sometimes that we seem overly focused on what happened with Matthew Shepard at the expense of what’s happening today?
I think that’s No, I think that’s absolutely true. I again, like I said prior, his parents are incredibly intentional about saying, I don’t want to talk about Matt, I want to talk about what has literally been labeled an epidemic of hate violence against trans women, particularly trans women of color. I mean, if you think about when that happened, right, it was 1998 We had a president in office who would actually pick up the phone and care about this, what happened. We had this new thing, that fairly new thing of the internet, you know, I mean, I remember the day he was found, I started to get emails, and we had just started to use email at GLAAD. And I think it was a college town though this it’s not just like it’s not a little town. It’s a it’s a really nice place. And while I can agree with you that I think the media wanted to have this sort of a wild wild west narrative. The reality is, because he held on because he captured the attention of the media initially, he then captured the attention of our community, because one thing I’ve learned about media in 30 years is that they only cover things when they have something new to cover. That’s why they call it new. Yeah. And what happened was our community rose up there were hundreds of vigils and protests and 1000s of people on the street. You don’t have to go too far from 1998. To see, how can it be? What do we have to do? What what do we have to do in our own house in our own queer house, when 10s of 1000s of people get in the street for Matt Shepard in New York City, in New York City on the other side of the country, and when Black butch lesbian is stabbed to death in Newark, New Jersey, which is a $2 path train, 20 minute ride from the village. nobody shows up. And her name was Akia Gunn once a kid gun was killed. I did the same thing I did for Matt, the same thing I did for FC Martinez. The same thing I did for Jr. Warren, the same thing I did for Glenn Arauco. I could we could be here for an hour on the phone and I could just list names, right. And I remember being at her funeral and her I was one of like three white people at her funeral because her old school showed up her friend showed up young people and her family and folks in Newark and a few of us activists and some media, but I fought like hell and we find really got Anderson Cooper to send Maria Hinojosa and her producer rose RC, who’s actually a good friend of mine out lesbian producer at CNN, to come and talk to her family and cover what happened and talk about it and tell that story. But that’s because we had we fought like hell, we didn’t have to fight like hell with Matt, because there were 1000s of people in the street all the time. There were people who were screaming from the mountaintops. This is terrible, I can’t believe this happened. And carrying that story and holding that story. And it getting so much attention was as much about how our community reacted to it than it was just the media. And I think that’s something that it’s why I continue to talk about it and why I continue to even just last week, I did a talk back after a performance of considering Matthew Shepard, which is a musical choral piece. That’s extraordinary. And it actually is about Matt, but the conversations that we have, are about what’s happening now. And why we’re still talking about Matt Shepard story because it serves as a watershed as a point of reference as a historical marker for when people finally started to pay more attention to hate crimes.
Brad Shreve 31:14
What you mentioned earlier is something that goes through my mind quite often, we see in the news a lot about white children being abducted. If you went by just the news, you would think people of color are never abducted, it never makes the news.
Cathy Renna 31:32
I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, that’s I had this conversation with, with a parent of one of the kids that I work with a group called Gender cool. So youth led trans organization, they’re phenomenal. And she’s African American. And we were on a panel at the LGBT Journalists Association, a couple of weeks ago in Chicago, and we were talking about, you know, coverage related issues around trans kids. And she feels very strongly about being visible. And her, it’s actually heard her nephew is mom passed away. Her nephew, Amir, you know, they’re very visible in media, because they’re one of the few African American families with a trans boy who is visible. And they do it because they know that there are other young trans boys out there who are black and brown, and who don’t see themselves in media coverage. And they won’t, unless we have folks who are willing to step up and tell their stories. So it’s really, to me, that’s the core, the heart and soul of why I do what I do. It’s allowing folks to be able to tell their stories, and that we should learn how to live in a culture that respects and equally treats, especially under the law, everyone, regardless of who they are.
Brad Shreve 32:42
Regarding hate crimes that you mentioned just a short time ago, I always hesitate to bring this up, because I always think I’m gonna get pummeled not by you, but by some others. And that is I have a slight concern with hate crimes. And let me explain to you why if I am killed because somebody wanted my wallet, or somebody pushes me off a bus because they think I’m ugly, or they beat me to death, because I’m gay. In all of those three instances, I’m dead. And if I was around, I wouldn’t be happy about it. Why is it necessary to have hate crimes as a separate thing? I I understand why we need to track it. But as far as sentencing goes, Why is it necessary?
Yeah, I mean, that’s certainly something that we have all talked about. And even the Matthew Shepard James Byrd Hate Crimes Act does not really cover things in the way that we really want it to. I mean, the bottom line is that I think the difference between a crime and hate crime is that when they’re attacking you, because they want your wallet, they just want money. When they’re attacking you because you’re gay. It doesn’t just impact you. They take your wallet and it impacts you. You’re out of luck. You don’t have you don’t have to you don’t have whatever cash you had in your pocket or your credit cards. When they attack you or me because we’re queer, that’s really directed at all of us that creates a climate of fear in a community. And that’s that’s what happened that happened in Laramie, it happened to Newark, it had happened in every case that I’ve ever dealt with, is that the impact goes far beyond the individual person who is the victim. It’s the family. It’s the community. It’s the culture. It’s, it’s the people around them. It’s a message. It’s a message that it’s not okay for you to be you. And I’ve sat across from I was telling this story to a producer from Discovery because they’re revisiting the murder of FC Mark Martinez, who was a Two Spirit, one of the youngest hate crime victims I’ve ever dealt with 16 years old, and Cortez, Colorado, and I flew out there. Same way. I flew out to Laramie, literally after landing, went right to the sheriff’s office and, you know, the sheriff is sitting there and he’s got his gun on his belt, his hand on his hand, too. So, so totally right out of central casting for you know, a share If in the West, and he says, Well, I think all crimes are hate crimes, and I leaned across the table and I looked him in the eye, and I said, if you think that’s true, your press conference is going to be a very different thing than you anticipated tomorrow. And it was because they tried to cover up the fact that this was a hate crime. And or at least needed to be at that point, investigators hate crime, it was a hate crime. And they tried to cover it up. And I’m sitting in the back and I’m telling, I’m talking to the reporters, and I’m like, Look at page four of the statement from the accused. I bug squashed a fag. That’s literally what he said. Like, how does that not warrant looking into this as a potential hate crime? That’s, that’s the kind of stuff I had to deal with and continue to deal with.
Brad Shreve 35:44
We’ll just say every crime is a hate hate crime is asinine?
Cathy Renna 35:47
Brad Shreve 35:48
Back to the analogy I give, if somebody steals my TV, it’s not because they hate me, they just want to cash in on my TV.
Cathy Renna 35:55
Correct. But that’s, again, that’s that this is, this is the core of the thing that we need to help people get over. And change is about fear. Fear of difference. I mean, one of there’s so many fascinating studies about hate crimes, but you know, a lot of the ones I’ve seen several actually, that talk about the perpetrators of hate crimes and their identities. And it’s it’s not an insignificant number of hate crimes that are directed at LGBTQ people, where the perpetrators identify as LGBTQ. internalized homophobia, and in turn, well, it’s really homophobia, because it’s really mostly, let’s be honest, men, is the most dangerous kind of homophobia in some ways, because that’s self hatred that eats at people and causes them to act out is far more common than we’d like. And sometimes it that’s a self hatred will manifest in someone doing unhealthy things to themselves. But sometimes they take it out on other people, we know this, go into a high school, see who the bullies are, and see who the bullies end up being. When they become adults. Again, we have a lot of work to do in our own community, to really create a culture where we can we can, as they say, in The Laramie Project, you know, they say we don’t have we don’t raise kids like that here. Well, it’s obvious we do raise kids like that here, we need to raise kids that are able to grow up and feel free enough to be themselves, whoever they identify, and not feel like they have to act or live in a way that conforms to what other people think. And that to me, again, goes back to what we were saying before, is that’s what I feel helpful about when I talk to kids now, because they they don’t feel like they owe anybody anything. And they want to be who they are. And they want to love who they love. And they want their friends to have and their family and their their communities to be the same way. They’re not going to take less. Their expectations are super high, which I it’s going to be interesting to see how the next decade plays out.
Brad Shreve 38:01
I have hoped for that as well, for the same reasons that you said. Let’s talk about the National LGBTQ Taskforce, you became their communications director with it two years ago.
Cathy Renna 38:14
Yes, it’ll be two years ago in January.
Brad Shreve 38:16
Tell us what do they do? What’s the mission.
So the task force is one of the oldest queer advocacy political advocacy organizations in the country. We actually are turning 50 Next year, which I’m very excited about. We left at the eighth anniversary, and I worked on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. And I just love queer history. So it’s going to be it’s going to be really fun year, we do work in lots of different ways. We’re a we do a lot of grassroots work, we work with local activists, we do a lot of training, we put put on the Creating Change Conference, which is a never to be missed gathering of queer people, we haven’t been in person in two years, we’ll be in person for the first time since 2020. In February of 2023, in San Francisco, celebrating our 50th anniversary, it’s going to be fantastic, literally 1000s of activists from all over the country, and even other countries at this point. And we do lobbying policy work, we do a tremendous amount of work in faith. The task force is one of the few organizations that from very, very early on, and it’s days, worked in faith communities, really doing outreach, not just to work with denominations to be more accepting, but to have arms open for queer people of faith and create a space for them. Because as we know it within our community, the experience is, you know, talk about separation of church and state. People don’t want to talk about religion, or be part of organized religion, because of how much pain it’s caused. But at the same time, there are so many LGBTQ people of faith. There’s there’s so much change that can happen when we harnessed the energy and the commitment and the passion and the work of of those folks. So we do a lot of work in faith communities, and we are there’s only the tagline I love The most is that we’re the queer voice in the progressive community. And we’re a progressive voice in the queer community, the task force, the reason I took as my wife likes to jokingly call it a real job, after 15 years of consulting with queer organizations, but still, I was my own boss, it was great. You know, the reason I accepted the position at the task force was because it’s where my heart is politically. And as a, as a member of this community, like, I’ve always looked at our issues, through not just the lens of being queer, but through the lens of being so many other things. Being a woman, you know, thinking about communities of color, thinking about immigration, thinking about economic equity, and the task force has done that for decades. I mean, I am so proud of the work that we have done in the last couple of years around reproductive justice, trying to help our community understand and the larger culture understand just how intertwined reproductive rights are, with queer rights, that our bodily autonomy is at stake, we all have a stake in, it’s not just about abortion, right, and also helping educate our own community that LGBTQ people need access to reproductive health care or, and trans affirming care, etc. And so, you know, as an organization, I just I love the task force. I’ve worked with the task force my entire career, I think I’ve only missed like two creating change conferences. But with when COVID started, I was working with them on a couple of campaigns, including the queer the census campaign. And so with COVID changes happened, you know, in my life in organizations life just for all of us. And as we were approaching the end of 2020, there was a leadership change. And Ray Kerry, who is the prior Executive Director, you know, we grew up together as activists, we’re about the same age or both in DC, I think we might get mistaken for each other. Sometimes, you know, that whole, like, you look like a lesbian thing. And so I, you know, I love the task force. And it was being handed to a woman named Carrie Johnson, who is extraordinary. She’s the first black woman to run this organization. She comes from the reproductive rights, reproductive justice movement. And she is taking this organization to a whole nother level. And so I couldn’t say no to being part of that. Because I feel like in the next few years, the taskforce is going to be able to have an immeasurable impact, not just on the laws and the policy and the advocacy that needs to be done for this community, but on the community itself, and how we do that work. Because it’s not just that we are doing the work or getting the work done. For me, it’s about how we do it. And that is utmost value at the Taskforce. And I really appreciate that.
Brad Shreve 42:46
I love that you said you work closely with faith based organizations. I knew too many individuals that are very devout and have a deep love for God, and they’re almost chastised for it. I’m sure you’re familiar with Unitarian Universalist, I’m a Unitarian and for anybody that doesn’t know what a Unitarian is, if you come into our church, you may have on one side of you a very devout Christian, and on the other side of you, you may have a very devout atheist. And I know that may not make sense look it up. But when our local LGBT Q center, got booted, it took them a little while to find a new location. And we said, Well, come come to our church, you know, we have plenty of space. And we were told, No, nobody will show up. If it’s at a church, no one will come and it really broke my heart.
Cathy Renna 43:37
Brad Shreve 43:37
It’s not like we’re gonna stand there trying to convert anybody. I don’t think any church is gonna do that to bring in a group like, well, that’s not true. But anyway, let me let me bite my tongue there.
You really do need to see The Laramie Project. There’s a there’s a reverend, a Unitarian minister named Steve Johnson. And he had just very recently moved to Wyoming. And he kept saying, What the hell am I doing here? And he and there’s a line in it where he says, You know, I found out a few months later, what the hell I was doing here, because the response after Matt was killed, you had, you know, the far right, evangelical Southern Baptists, tons of Mormons. And then you had father Roger Schmidt, who was a Catholic priest, who was actually very outspoken, very supportive. The first thing I went to when I got off the plane, and Laramie was a vigil at the Newman Center, which is the Catholic Center at the University of Wyoming. And Steve has this great line, he says, and then all the way on the left here, I am the Unitarian, we’re not even sure we’re a religion. But he was great. I mean, he was really important. And you know, I always I always tell the story when I was at GLAAD. I mean, it was always infuriating to me. Like, you could come in on a Monday and people say, Oh, would you do over the weekend? And they’d say, Oh, I went out dancing when I’m drinking. And it was fine. You know, you could say like you dance on a bar with just socks on and that was fine. But if you said you went to church or synagogue, or mosque or any any faith pick up pick a faith, you would get looked at, like you had foreheads.
Brad Shreve 45:11
I was raised Catholic. I am not a practicing Catholic. You know, I just, it just seems like if we want to combat what is, let’s be honest, a major source of homophobia, transphobia. Sexism again, intersectionality. You think about it, right? Go to the source. You know, I’ve worked with dignity for years, I’m in a film very briefly for like 45 seconds. documentary that just had its world premiere last weekend is now going to be in a couple of other festivals, you should absolutely watch it if you’re interested in faith issues, it’s called wonderfully made. And it’s about the Catholic Church and, and how it has treated LGBTQ people. And it offers through art and photography at the end. So I don’t want to spoil it. But like, it’s really great. A different way of looking at Christ, and a different way of looking at religion. Through a queer lens. It’s astounding, I mean, a radio show, you can’t do it justice. So if you go wonderfully made.com, or if you go to find it on social media, you will see, and it’s really, you know, for me, it’s important to be part of those things, even though I’m not a very religious person, because I just, you know, you can’t deny the role that faith plays in our culture and the way it shapes people’s opinions and values. You watch families struggle with it, it’s so interesting, I do a lot of work with the Family Acceptance Project. And they it’s basically a research project out of San Francisco State that has really completely shifted the paradigm and how parents through evidence based research how parents and families deal with their kids when they come out. And it’s fascinating when they did their original research, that even if families were not religious, if there was pushback, when a kid came out, their response would be that’s a sin. And kids would be like, you haven’t been to church in 30 years, you told me that he told me it’s a sin, it is so ingrained in us that it is absolutely something that we need to look at and address and confront. And, and literally, for queer people of faith confront. And say, No, that’s not that’s not my that’s, that is not my God, my God does not operate that way. And you don’t have to go to church, to be a person of faith, you don’t have to go to synagogue to be, you know, to have the good values that come from that. I mean, that’s the concern is what we’re seeing is really like, as I said before, though, it’s called I call it the weaponization of religion. And this the blurring of, especially in this country, the idea that there is only one way to be a person of faith, and that that that way, is very strict, and you’re in a box, and you can only be this, this and this, and you can’t be anything else. And that’s why we’re seeing what we’re seeing in you know, we’re seeing across the country. US Florida is my you know,
Cathy Renna 48:02
poor Florida, you know, it’s just it’s the one of the most challenging places to be queer. Oh, yeah, we have an office in Miami. And we do a lot of work in Central Florida. We’re doing some work before the primaries, and we’re going to they’re down by step staff going down there again, before the midterms, because there’s a long game that we need to look at in Florida. I mean, things are going to be hard there for a long time. But you need to continue to do the work and continue to build bases and continue to educate people. Because if we don’t do that, from now, it we’re never going to get to, you know, a better place. And as a parent, I find it extraordinary. I mean, they’re framing it as parental rights. And there are terrifying we talked about this at the beginning of this interview. They’re telling teachers, they can’t teach history, they’re telling to you know, they’re telling teachers, they can’t, the kids can’t talk about their families. I mean, it’s really extraordinary.
Brad Shreve 48:56
Yeah, to have a picture of your spouse on your desk is sexual.
Cathy Renna 49:02
Well, right. Like we’re going back to. I was at the journalist conference a few weeks ago, and I can’t remember who it was, was they had like an expo with all these different media outlets, and it was really great. Somebody gave me a t shirt that said, the black T shirt and red it says, What year is this for the question? They’re all everyone’s wearing these T shirts that say 1973 Because a Roe v. Wade, and I keep thinking the taskforce was founded in 1973. Our 50th anniversary is next year, and you know, 2023 is starting to feel a lot more like 1973 every day. That’s what I keep saying, you know, it’s really just amazing. I mean, 1973 We got Roe v. Wade, and 1973 was the year that homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual by the American Psychiatric Association. So with a wave of a policy wand, suddenly millions of us were no longer considered mentally ill right. It’s huge. It was a big deal. And if you go from 1973 to now look Where we are looking at the conversations we’re having look at the legislation that’s being pushed and passed in states across this country that are restricting our bodily rights, that are restricting our right to talk about be talking about who we are, you know, attacking families, families with queer kids, particularly trans kids. You know, it’s really it’s, yeah, starting to feel a little bit Back to the Future kind of thing here. And I think that that’s, that is a huge concern. That is why every single person needs to not just vote voting is actually important. If you are eligible and able to vote, do it can take 10 friends with you. But it’s also about that day to day on the ground work of educating the people around you advocating for the folks in your community who don’t have a voice yet, and being involved and engaged in the things that you that you most care about, no matter what that is just get involved. You know, we’re seeing a lot of that, certainly. And it gives me hope in places but we we have a big, we have big challenges. We have a big fight ahead of us
Brad Shreve 51:03
that we do. Before we wrap up, I want to give you an opportunity here, you founded Target Cu and Renna Communications
Cathy Renna 51:13
Brad Shreve 51:13
I want to allow you to give a plug to for those and tell us what you do Sure,
we’ll run communications doesn’t exist anymore. So when I left GLAAD, I worked at a public relations firm for a couple years Fenton communications, a great firm, progressive firm. But then my daughter was about six months old, and I realized that if I was chained to a desk and not going home a lot because I was working so much, I wasn’t going to see her grow up. So I decided to, as they say proverbially jump off the cliff. And I started my own firm, which initially was Renna communications. And then nine or 10 years ago, it just shifted and found the Target Cue with a colleague of mine, Howard Buford. It’s now just was just me after a while, but Howard Buford, who is an extraordinary out gay man was on the board of directors of GLAAD. And I’ve always focused all of my work with both firms on nonprofit, LGBTQ related organizations issues projects. I mean, it could be an organization like family pride, which is now called the Family equality Council. I helped them we were their gay families that went to the White House Easter Egg Roll the first time, which you can kind of laugh out a little bit, but our families were not super visible in 2006, it was pretty extraordinary to have a couple of 100 queer families sleep out overnight, because that’s what you had to do to get tickets, and then show up at the white house the next day, and Laura Bush and George Bush, well, she was okay. But he was not very thrilled. That kind of visibility. That’s the, that’s the kind of work that that the firm did. And so up until very recently, I start working at the task force. So I do very little with target queue now. Just a few sort of projects, things on the side. The task force keeps me super, super busy. But yeah, I mean, I was able to, to me, it was like every day was an adventure. And it was just extraordinary to me to think that at the end of the day, I was able to not just do what I loved and cared about and fed my heart and soul. But like, I actually had a firm that did it. It’s a business, you know, I mean, it’s kind of interesting. Yeah, I mean, target queues still. So a little bit active, not not not a ton, because like I said, the taskforce keeps me very, very busy. It’s more than a full time job.
Brad Shreve 53:22
One thing I want to tell you through this, our conversation that we’ve had, you’ve brought up some of your concerns and your fears. But I heard a whole lot of positive things that you’re proud that we’ve done, and you’ve done. And I’ve heard some positivity going forward.
You know, I don’t know how you could do this work and keep at it unless you were able to keep a fairly positive attitude. I mean, and I am positive things a goes back to what Dennis said, Right? goods coming out of evil. I am a firm believer that people are capable of changing, maybe not every single person but I think the vast majority of people. It’s like I used to say this about journalists, the vast majority of journalists that I worked with, even from like the early 90s. But even even now, like they’re not homophobic, or transphobic, they’re homo ignorant. They’re trans ignorant, they just don’t know. I have conversations with journalists to this day. Well, what pronouns should I use? You’re a journalist asked, like, that’s when you ask questions for a living like, how could you not how does that elude you? And to also like, give people some grace, and yes, have a little bit of a sense of humor about some of this stuff. It’s hard. This is hard work. It’s it can be painful. You have to like create a space for yourself where you are not completely consumed by it. Like, I’m sure if you asked my wife she would tell you I work way too much and I probably do. But I balance it. I balance it with my family and her family we have these huge you know, we joke we are families are so huge and accepting. We wish they’d leave us alone for a while but the girl aid. You know, I have nieces and nephews, I have my daughter I have we have we do things outside of the community like we love to do. You know, we have friends, we go on vacation, we travel, like, you have to find ways to balance this out. Because otherwise, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it happen, and I’m sure you have to people get burned out. They just it’s really, it’s difficult sometimes, you know, even you’d have a happy day with marriage equality. But then, you know, when you hear about the Supreme Court decision that comes down, and you’re ecstatic, but then you think about all those people who are denied that for so long. Right? Here, I was on a on an Olivia cruise with Edie Windsor, which is a whole nother show. But there was a young couple that did a ask the question after they showed the documentary about her. And they were they were young, they were in their 20s. And they were both from the Middle East. And one of them was was born here, but the other one was not. And she was about to be deported and sent back to a country where her family basically could have her stoned for being a lesbian. And because they were able to get married, she was able to stay here, Ed was like in tears up on the stage and talk to them after. And she said she said this is the reason I went through all of this. This is the reason I went through the pain and the suffering, and the media and the courts and the fights. And all of that struggle was worth it. Because that young couple, that young woman was still alive. You know, it’s not just about having a big wedding. It’s about this work is about a lot more than that. And I think that’s those are the things that again, even though there’s so much tragedy in that and so much, that’s really hard. It’s it’s also something that’s very helpful.
Brad Shreve 56:47
Well, my guest is Cathy Renna, she’s activist extraordinaire, and is currently Communications Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force. And before I let you go, Cathy, I want to touch on what you were just saying. We see a lot of darkness ahead. It’s hard, and it’s hard not to see it. And a lot of people are scared. What do you have to say to that 17 year old just about to strike out in the world on their own? What do you have to say to give them hope?
I say what I would say to anybody, but I think it’s particularly important for younger people is that you’re not alone. You’re not alone. You are part of a community, that community is here for you. You know, all of us have that moment when we like we went to our first Pride, we realized we were suddenly part of something a little bigger than ourselves. And, you know, I count myself lucky that I’ve had an incredibly supportive family my entire life. But I know that that is absolutely not the case for so so many of us. And so I think the message is that you’re not alone, that there there is a community out there for you that there, there is hope that we’ve got you. You know, you can find support, you can find love. You can find family, chosen family, your own family, hopefully, that being engaged and being involved is, is something that will is not just good, because it’s good to do when it’s good for other people, it’s actually good for you. I wouldn’t have kicked, I would have kept doing this for 30 years. If it didn’t feed me. And I don’t mean dinner, I mean, my heart and soul. You know, I mean, I’ve people say this actually, to me quite often, like you still get like really excited when you know either you you get something placed at a big media outlet or you’re able to like go to a protest or, and I’m like yes, because if it stops giving you joy and hope, or you’re not channeling your anger into a place where it’s creating change, which is why I love that our conference is called creating change, because that’s what we’re trying to do. You know, I think then then that’s, that’s the most important message you can give someone.
Brad Shreve 59:02
Very well said, thank you very much.
Cathy Renna 59:06
No, thank you great conversation, Brad. I really really appreciate it.
Brad Shreve 59:11
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