Queer PR icon Cathy Renna on the election, BLM, and the future of the LGBTQ movement

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Cathy Renna
Montclair resident Cathy Renna is the interim communications director at the National LGBTQ Task Force

Out Profile

Cite an event in contemporary LGBTQ history—the tragic death of Matthew Shepard, the fight for marriage equality, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” WorldPride/Stonewall 50, 2020’s virtual Pride—and PR legend Cathy Renna was involved. Renna is always providing communications and media support and training, and often serving as a frontline spokesperson, whether during her long tenure at GLAAD or for Pride organizations.

Cathy Renna and her wife, Karen
Cathy Renna and her wife, Karen

For the past six years, Cathy Renna has lived in Montclair, New Jersey, and we owe that to her partner, Karen. “After we were seeing each other for a while, I moved into her apartment where she has been for decades, a fantastic community and a great town. And I’ve been here ever since,” she said. “I’ve traveled the entire country, and I really do love it here in New Jersey. I’m also a big, big booster for Asbury Park. I think it’s one of my favorite places in the world.”

With her decades of PR experience and her countless media contacts, Renna has been working with local activists, helping them effect change, even in conservative parts of the state. Late last year, Renna volunteered her time on three performances of Considering Matthew Shepard at Montclair State University, working with the chorus and the choral director and even organizing and moderating talkbacks after each performance.

Today, as the interim communications director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, Renna is helping raise visibility for their Queer the Census and Queer the Vote campaigns. With the 2020 election nearly upon us, I decided to catch up with her and get her take on all that is happening in our country.

You are helping with this year’s Queer the Vote campaign. Why is there this need to specifically push LGBTQ people to vote? 

Cathy Renna: What we learned in 2016 is that we need to really put the effort into it, and not sit out. We need to help people understand why it’s so important to participate in the democratic process; it is really what is at stake this Fall. The reality is that voting is power. Your vote makes you powerful, gives you power, and there’s nothing that anti-LGBTQ, racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, sexist institutions want more than for us not to take our power. So vote.

“It starts with people realizing that voting is not just ticking a box.”

And voting is just the beginning of it, as far as I’m concerned. Voting is using your power as an individual, and then you gather your friends and family and get them to vote. You work in your community to get folks involved and voting, and then you do it on a larger and larger scale to the point where you’ve got somebody running for office, you’ve got somebody managing a community-based organization, and you’ve got somebody working within these larger institutions where we see systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, that’s where the change comes, but it has to start somewhere. It starts with people realizing that voting is not just ticking a box.

Let’s imagine that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win the election. 

CR: Let’s! (Laughs)

(Laughs) How would you engage the new administration on LGBTQ issues? And what would be the sort of priorities that you’re interested in accomplishing? 

CR: Under the Trump Administration, so many populations in America have lost their seat at the table—unless they’re cisgender, straight, white men with a lot of money. We need to make up lost ground after all of the anti-LGBTQ executive orders and policies.

I think in a Biden-Harris administration, we will be part of the conversation again, whether it’s healthcare and COVID, which disproportionately affects our community, or whether it’s LGBTQ-specific, like the Equality Act [legislation that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity nationwide]. The Biden campaign has been talking about making the Equality Act a priority. This bill is incredibly important despite the Supreme Court win that we had recently.

Right. Everyone cheered after the Supreme Court case, Bostock. It was a huge win. However, the decision only protects LGBTQ people in employment, but not in housing, health care, or other areas, as the Equality Act would do. 

CR: We very much need the Equality Act.

There’s also the Do No Harm Act, which would prevent religious freedom from being used as an excuse to harm LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities, atheists, and other vulnerable groups. Interestingly, Kamala Harris reintroduced this important bill last year.

“if 18 Matthew Shepards were killed over the course of several months in the way Trans women of color were, maybe we’d see some action”

However, aside from having a seat at the table and pushing these two important acts, are there other important ideas to promote? Where do you see the LGBTQ movement going from here? 

CR: We need to get our own house in order, as well. Really, almost on a daily basis, we’re seeing violence against Trans and non-binary people, particularly people of color. A friend posted a meme on Facebook that said if 18 Matthew Shepards were killed over the course of several months in the way Trans women of color were, maybe we’d see some action, and you know what? I totally agree.

We’re starting to see the culture recognize us as a more diverse community than they have in the past. I remember when I was with GLAAD, we were always fighting for fair, accurate, and diverse representations. The fair and accurate part, from a news perspective, was pretty straightforward. It was really helping people understand how diverse a community we are that has always been and always will be my primary concern, because I think we as a community need to recognize it, embrace it, and celebrate it before we can expect the larger culture and media representations to reflect that diversity.

What we need to do as a community is focus our energy, our time, our resources, and work on addressing issues that are impacting those most marginalized within the larger LGBTQ+ umbrella, particularly trans people, non-binary people, people of color. It’s an epidemic, literally, how they’re being targeted. And I hope a Biden-Harris Administration would understand that, and with the right voices and in time, make sure that those issues, those agenda items, are on the table, as well.

How can we LGBTQ people as individuals raise up the voices of trans people, especially those of color? 

CR: First, I think people just need to listen, learn, and educate themselves, and that’s sometimes the hardest part, what blocks a lot of folks from getting more engaged.
We’ve all grown up in the same culture that’s sexist, racist, transphobic, and homophobic and need to say, “Okay, I need to shed that. I need to purge myself of that somehow and listen and learn and be open to a better understanding of all the diverse people within our community. We don’t really talk about this a lot. It’s the elephant in the room.

It sounds like you’re speaking from personal experience. 

CR: Yes, I spent a lot of time thinking about this in the 1990s when I started as an activist. In 1995, a young Trans woman named Tyra Hunter was hit by a car and died in the middle of the street in Washington DC with all of these witnesses standing there. We have eyewitness accounts of the first responders cutting open her clothing to treat her. But when they realized she had been born male, they started to ridicule her, and she literally bled out in the street. It became a huge media issue, a galvanizing issue, that really lifted Trans issues up for the first time in a way that I’d ever experienced. I learned so much because I just showed up and asked how to help.

“A protest was held also outside the Brooklyn Museum—17,000 people out there for Trans lives, particularly Trans people of color”

One of the things we saw in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, and that we continue to see, is so much activism around Black Lives Matters. One of the things that’s been so important for me to see, and participate in actually here in Jersey, is that a couple of those actions were queer BLM protests.

There was one in Maplewood that was just amazing, that really focused on black Trans lives, black queer lives. A protest was held also outside the Brooklyn Museum—17,000 people out there for Trans lives, particularly Trans people of color, and I looked at the organizations that put that event together, and I donated money to all of them. Although they were not very large organizations, they did something that I haven’t seen some of the really large groups pull off. That’s the power of grassroots activism.

So I think what I would say to folks is listen, learn, get engaged, and give.

Those are quite the concrete steps that anyone could apply. What you are ultimately pushing for is a celebration and centering of diversity. 

CR: Within our community, it’s all about diversity. Our community is a microcosm of the larger culture. If you think about it, we are brought together by something that has nothing to do with our ethnicity, our economic status, our religious upbringing, our age, or gender—and or all of those things. In that way, we reflect the larger culture. So we have to deal with all of these issues.

That’s a very interesting way of putting it… 

CR: I’ve been doing this for a long time. Usually it’s an aha moment for people. When I hear the phrase, ‘I never thought about it that way,’ to me that’s the win. And that’s the win because to understand, to talk about, and work through any of this, is a journey, and that journey has to start somehow. And it usually starts with someone saying, ‘You know what? I never thought about it like that.’ That includes conversations within the community about transphobia, sexism, and racism.

As I said, because we’re a microcosm of the culture, we have all those things to deal within our community, never mind what we’re dealing with on the outside. When someone says to me, ‘I never thought about it that way,’ it means they’re just a little less afraid to have that conversation. They are willing to more and more let go of that fear and ignorance—and I don’t mean that in a judgmental way; we grew up in a culture where we’re taught to be this way.

For example, when it comes to conversations around transgender people and the concept of gender falling along a spectrum, that is non binary, a lot of people who are my age are having a hard time wrapping their minds around it. I’m trying to have that conversation. But there’s a whole generation of people coming up, my daughter being one, and for them, it’s a no-brainer. They look at us like, ‘What is wrong with you? Duh!’

Many of them have grown up in a culture where you simply respect a person for who they say they are. It doesn’t have to be a reflection of themselves. They celebrate that and are not afraid of difference, they embrace it.

Thankfully, we have leaders like you who have allowed this cultural change to happen. Without you and so many other contributors to our movement, we would never have normalized being LGBTQ in the minds of the next generation. It sounds like there’s a lot of hope for the future. We in New Jersey are lucky to have you.