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Big Think Interview With Glennda Testone
Glennda Testone is a women's rights and gay rights activist and the current executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of New York City. The 34-year-old was selected to lead the LGBT Center in 2009 after a nationwide search, becoming the first woman to run this center and one of the youngest leaders of a major LGBT organization. Founded in 1983, the center is the second-largest LGBT community center in the world after the center in Los Angeles. Previously Testone severed as vice president of the Woman's Media Center for three years and the senior director of media programs at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation before that.
Glennda Testone: I’m Glennda Testone. I’m the Executive Director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center here in New York City
Question: What was the first time you realized you were attracted to a woman?
Glennda Testone: You’re gonna make me blush. I do. I was working for a gay organization. I was in a lesbian bar in Texas – Dallas. And I was up until that point, had a boyfriend and thought I was completely straight and she hit on me. And I remember feeling very flattered and surprisingly interested. She was confident. I think it was the confidence that really pulled me in.
Question How did you respond to these feelings?
Glennda Testone: They surprised me because I have a Masters Degree in Women’s Studies. When I was in graduate school, I lived with a troupe of drag kings and I had been around the lesbian community for years and was never interested in anyone in the community, so when this happened, I thought the question had already been settled for me, that I was a straight ally working for a gay organization, was working for GLAD at the time, and so it surprised me. And I went home and I called my sister and I said, “This woman hit on me, and I don’t know. I think I kinda liked it.” And she was like, “Oh, it’s no big deal. I kiss lots of girls, who cares.” So, and she was straight also, so that was surprising too. I didn’t know about her. And you know, I remember at the time, it was a little – it was probably a little scary and nothing happened that evening. But it got me thinking. And it got me thinking in a very different way. And it sounds cheesy, but I really started – I can remember driving down the street and envisioning my life completely differently; envisioning getting married to a woman and envisioning having a life, but with a woman, and coming home to a woman. And I really, you know, I don’t know. It’s like this door opened that hadn’t been opened before and I thought, “Huh, that could be my life.” And it seemed really exciting and really right. It just made sense.
Questions: How did you come out?
Glennda Testone: I had different experiences I think than most people because I was working at a gay organization and they, for a couple of years, have gotten used to me being you know, the straight ally working for a gay organization. So I had to go there and sort of come out in a reverse sense and say to everybody, “Look I thought I was straight too, but I’m now. I’m actually gay.” And it was surprising. A lot of people were really – I remember being very nervous and very – I felt a lot of, you know, I was proud to be a straight ally and working for a gay organization. And I felt really – I carried a lot of responsibility to sort of educate other straight people and bring people in, and so I felt – I think there was some part of me that felt like I was maybe letting people down and then I got over that pretty quickly and felt, well this is the whole point. This is what we’re fighting for. This is who I am and it’s okay.
There were some people at work that were sort of like, that’s fine, you’re experimenting. Just you know, test it out. Which sort of irked me a little bit because I thought, “No, this isn’t just you know, a fling. It’s like; I really think this is who I am.” So, it just feels that we all have our own biases and assumptions that we carry around.
And then when I came out to my parents. I was very naive and my parents are very liberal. My dad was a retired as a school superintendent, and my mom was a social worker and worked at a black community center up in Syracuse and they were very liberal compared to every other, you know, all of their friends, all of our neighbors. So I thought this would be a non-issue. And they had gay friends. You know, my mom was the person at work who would stand up for the gay guy. And I’ve never heard my dad tell an anti-gay joke or anything like that. And when I came out, you know, I was very surprised because my mother had such a traditional like reaction, and she is not a traditional person. And it was like, “Oh my God, you’re never going to have kids. You’re never going to have a husband and have this life.” And you know, I was like, “Who are you? This is not—I’ve never heard you say thinks like this.” And it took many years for here to eventually become okay with that. So, it was a process and I didn’t expect it to be. So that was surprising.
Question: Do you come out to everyone you meet or let them assume whatever they want?
Glennda Testone: Yeah. I traditionally do come out to everyone. And there is so many ways I can come out. You know, professionally gay, I’m personally gay, I’m pretty gay. And I actually enjoy that because I think a lot of people look at me and you know, if they don’t know me at all, may assume that I am straight and I sort of like challenging their assumptions and say, actually I’m not. And I have a girlfriend and I run an LGTB organization and you know, I’m an activist for other LGTB people. So, I either talk about my job, talk about my girlfriend, talk about being a big lesbian, you know, all of those. And I really you know, it’s usually not even something that I think about.
But when I was first coming out, it took me a long time to tell my girlfriends from high school, like my friends who were girls. And I think it was exactly what you were talking about, it was about really letting go of the stories that we create for ourselves. And I was the Homecoming Queen, I was the Prom Queen, and you know, Student Council, and Class Secretary, and all of these things. And I didn’t realize that narrative was sort of influencing me and created my image of myself. And I think telling them was – it felt really scary because it felt like shattering everything they thought about me and saying that I was something different. And I worried that they wouldn’t accept me, and I had a generally, you know, I didn’t have an experience where people weren’t you know, “Stop talking to me,” or anything. And I was worried that they might.
And I think I was more worried about you know, I think it was my own internal homophobia and hesitation sort of projected on them, that I was worried that they would look down on me. And when I did come out to them, it was, you know, as soon as it stopped being an issue for me; it wasn’t an issue for them. Like as soon as I got comfortable really being who I was, I noticed that all of them are fine and accepting and embracing and it’s not an issue. So that’s been really great.
Question: Is there significant overlap between the women’s movement and the LGBT movement?
Glennda Testone: I certainly think that, you know, this is probably the toughest question for me. There are certainly – there is certainly an overlap in terms of issues. Women face a lot of pressure around gender expression and certainly get punished if they step out of line, whether they’re straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender normative, there’s a certain pressure on women to really fit certain molds and be very clear about our gender and our sexuality. And so I see a lot of overlapping issues. I wish there was more overlap between the movements themselves. Sadly, I think it’s pretty siloed. There might be some gay or bisexual or queer women working in the women’s movement, not necessarily on those issues. There might be, and there are, straight women who work in the LGBT movement and I don’t see the feminism brought into that as much.
So, at the center, we actually had a program called Causes in Common which built bridges between the Reproductive Justice Movement and the LGTB Rights Movement. And it was really exciting and it was a rare moment where there was an overlap and there was a conversation about we’ve got common enemies. The legislation and issues, they impact us both. When we’re talking about health care and reproductive rights and access, this really impacts LGBT people if they’re trying to build a family. And so I wish there was more collaboration.
Question: How has the situation for LGTB youth changed in recent years?
Glennda Testone: There’s a lot more visibility. You know, I was thinking about, prompted by this question, well what was it like for gay folks when I was growing up? There were no gay folks. There was no one that was out at my high school. I think there was one woman at college. And this was not that long ago. I mean, we’re talking about the ‘90’s. And it just wasn’t talked about. You just didn’t see it. People made gay jokes, anti-gay jokes in high school. And I remember, you know, my boyfriend and I at the time were both really pretty progressive compared to other folks we went to high school with. And so we would sort of stand up to people and it was, you know, we were in the minority, definitely. But no one was out.
And I... the young people that I see at the center and the kids that I see that come to the center, they run the gamut. You know, what I see really surprises and inspires me is the kids who are so confident and so secure and so like, “Yep. I’m gay. I know it. Here I am. Love me.” You know. And whether it’s a front or it’s real, the fact that it even exists is fabulous and something to be nurtured.
And then there are other kids, you know, I do sit on the Mayor’s Commission, which ended recently for LGTB runaway and homeless youth, and it’s a big problem. You’re an LGTB young person, not living in New York City and you’re not accepted by your family and you don’t have a supportive environment, a lot of those kids come to New York. And it’s expensive here, it’s challenging, it’s isolating. We see a lot of them at the center. We serve a lot of them at the center. And they really need our support and our, you know, they need resources. They need a place to sleep. They need someone who tells them that they’re okay. That it’s okay to be who they are. So, I really see the entire spectrum when it comes to young people.
And you know, I met recently for Pride Week, one of the Grand Marshals was Constance McMillan, who is the lesbian woman who wanted to bring another woman to her prom and wear a tux and the school said, “no.” And they cancelled the prom, and then they faked a prom so she would not be able to go to it, and just this horrific story. And she is so confident and so inspirational. Every step of the way and wants to go to college and get her PhD. and counsel other gay kids and support them, and that’s just amazing.
It’s terrible that we still have to deal with that kind of blatant, almost proud bigotry from her school and her classmates, but it’s amazing that she is standing up and not backing down and saying she deserves to be treated equally. So, I think the young people today, the young LGBT people are really an inspiration and a reason why we all need to engage in the fight to achieve basic rights and protections and treatment.
So, no, I appreciate that. So, in the media, there is such pressure for everybody to conform, gays, straight, you know, you should be beautiful, you should be thin, you should be rich and you should be endlessly interesting. I mean that’s what reality television and some of the media in general is telling us. So, I think it’s up to all of us to be who we are and present a different picture and show the world in all of it’s many facets and support that and find ways to really support that because things do get very homogenous and very anesticized through the media. Everything does. And it’s why I think we need to look outside and build our – outside of the media, build our own communities, talk to real people and just create a world where we can all be who we want to be.
Recorded on July 16, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the director of the LGBT Center in New York.
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