“At the end of the day, my work is about visibility and lifting up stories of people who don’t have that visibility.”
By Anthony T. Eaton
In 1973, most states had sodomy laws, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and it was not uncommon for youth who came out to be institutionalized. In October 1973, Dr. Howard Brown, Martin Duberman, Barbara Gittings, Ron Gold, Frank Kameny, Nathalie Rockhill, and Bruce Voeller founded The National Gay Task Force, today known as the National LGBTQ Task Force. Over the next four decades, the Task Force would play an instrumental role in establishing a new narrative in the fight for equality
In 1973, I was six and had no concept of the struggles and barriers that the community I would one day become part of had to face. Over the years, I would come to understand the fight for equality and develop a great appreciation for the individuals and organizations that have fought so hard and sacrifice so much for what we have today. So it was a great pleasure to ask Cathy Renna, National LGBTQ Task Force Communications Director, some questions about her long-time involvement in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality and the Task Force.
Anthony T. Eaton: Let’s start with when you “came out” and what was it like for you.
Cathy Renna: I came out in the early/mid-1980s, so that is my early reference point for what it was like for our community. I was very blessed to have an incredibly supportive family and circle of friends and community in New York and my family in Italy.
Would you consider yourself an activist?
Absolutely! My work can be described in many ways, but it is education and activism at the end of the day. My goal is to create change, make our community less abstract to the larger culture, and change hearts and minds — for all of us.
You have been involved in and at the forefront of some of our community’s most significant wins regarding equal rights. What are you most proud of when it comes to your accomplishments on behalf of our community?
Simply put, I am humbled that I have been able to help as I am able — and qualified — to play a role in so many issues. From marriage equality, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and educating the public about all of our very diverse community through the media and storytelling. This is not a “job” for me but a vocation, and I cherish the fact that I have had the chance to be part of history and change. I am most proud of seeing the end result — one person saying “I never thought about it that way” or understanding our community in a way that is more than so much of the abstract notions people have about us, often based on the decades of misinformation, stereotype, and lies our culture has fed them. Helping others tell their stories — from LGBTQ seniors to queer families to trans youth and beyond — is an honor and a responsibility I take very seriously.
We don’t often hear people express being humble in the service of others or their activism for a cause. From your perspective, how has activism changed since you became involved?
Activism has changed in some ways and in others is very much the same. Online media and social media have obviously changed the way we interact, communicate and organize. However, there is still — and always will be — the need to get out in the streets, whether a protest or a Pride march. Representation and visibility are critical, and we simply have more ways to do that work. The media industry has changed a lot as well, but the key is still helping people tell their stories and educating the media about our community and the issues we care about. If nothing, there are more platforms to share diverse stories and push for more nuanced coverage.
Visibility has been a cornerstone of the LGBTQ+ movement. We have seen this with civil rights and most recently with the Black Lives Matter protest. In any movement, some people are looked up to, thrust into the spotlight, serve as symbols, and are remembered for what happened to them or their work. Is there anyone you look up to, or that has been a role model for you?
Too many to count! I was very, very lucky to have mentors early in my activist career in Washington DC and New York. Having had the opportunity to meet and know pioneers like Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, Barbara Smith and Monica Roberts, and knowing more radical activists in groups like Queer Nation and ACT-UP and everything in between informs how I do my work every day. As I look back on three decades of activism, my role models are an incredibly diverse lot. Some folks have been critical to my learning how to navigate the media and political landscape to the individuals who were thrust into the public eye for many reasons. These include Judy and Dennis Shepard, the parents of Matthew Shepard to the young trans and non-binary activists I work with today who are standing up for themselves and our community.
You mentioned online and social media and how it has changed the way we interact and communicate. How do you think technology changed activism beyond that?
We all have the ability to raise our voice, have a platform, and, importantly, create community even if we are isolated physically. And of course, there are so many more ways to be visible with online media, social media, etc.
We really never get to see people in totality and, as a result, don’t know who they are inside. What would people be surprised to know about you?
While I am fearless and willing to be visible and fight with all I have for our community, I am also a person who appreciates and values time spent on self-care and self-growth. That my work is driven not only by passion but by hope — not anger — and that being a lifelong activist working with media and being in the public eye would have been unimaginable to this pretty shy teenager, but feels like a miracle every day.
You worked for GLAAD in the 1990s. How did that prepare you for what you are doing today?
You can take the girl out of GLAAD but not the GLAAD out of the girl. GLAAD is where I grew up as an activist, and my mission is the same — fair, accurate, inclusive media representations of our diverse LGBTQ+ community. I did it all at GLAAD, from local to national level media work, organizing on the ground in places like Birmingham, meeting with the most prominent journalists in the nation, acting as a spokesperson, and speaking publicly and regularly on LGBTQ issues. I saw how media and representation are key to cultural change; it is only then that we can move policy forward when public opinion changes and grows.
The prior President and his administration put a lot of effort into stripping us of our rights and reversing the progress we had made. Do you think those advances made us complacent?
Not at all. If anything, it energized us to fight more and work harder to remove the obstacles put in place and then for more progress under an administration that is more inclusive, engaged, and understanding of our community and our issues. At every level, understanding that this is about more than siloed LGBTQ issues but all issues, as our diverse community is part of so many communities as we hold multiple identities.
There are many local and national advocacy agencies. What was and is it about the work the Task Force does that made you decide it was the right one for you?
The Task Force is an organization I have worked with for years. The first real media training I ever attended was, in fact, at Creating Change in the early ’90s, a new activist finding my way as a volunteer at the then GLAAD chapter in Washington, D.C. I have stayed close to the Task Force ever since. The organization’s commitment to diversity, progressive and intersectional work, and radical accessibility for all aligns with my values. It is a political and personal home for me.
What does the role of Communications Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force entail?
In my role, I oversee our internal and external communications, supervise our comms team and work to make visible the extraordinary activism of the staff and programs, from our policy and fieldwork to our Creating Change conference. I also have the privilege of amplifying the voices of our leadership, in particular our executive director, Kierra Johnson.
How does the Task Force advocate for our community? The National LGBTQ Task Force advances full freedom, justice, and equality for LGBTQ people. We are building a future where everyone can be free to be their entire selves in every aspect of their lives. Today, despite all the progress we’ve made to end discrimination, millions of LGBTQ people face barriers in every aspect of their lives: in housing, employment, healthcare, retirement, and basic human rights. These barriers must go. That’s why the Task Force trains and mobilizes millions of activists across our nation to deliver a world where you can be you. We also work on all policy levels, state and Federal, for progressive legislation that will move us towards a more equitable future for all.