Metro Weekly

Agent of Change: Rea Carey is leading the fight for LGBTQ equality

Facing the hostile realities of a Trump presidency, the National LGBTQ Task Force's Rea Carey believes fighting back matters now more than ever

Rea Carey — Photo: Julian Vankim

Rea Carey is often called upon to play the role of happy warrior.

A leader in the fight against attempts to deny the existence of LGBTQ people — or reverse our equal standing in the eyes of the law — she is always ready to dive into the breach once again. And the urgency of that fight has never been more acute under the Trump administration, which Carey sees as a direct threat to the LGBTQ community’s way of life.

“Living in the D.C. metropolitan area, there is protest after protest after protest,” she says. “We have to keep those up. And believe me, I know people are getting tired. There are days when my alarm goes off and I think, ‘How can I get up and do this again?’ But we all have to. Because if we don’t, the trajectory that this administration is on will not be stopped.”

As the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, Carey finds herself at the forefront of countless battles on behalf of the LGBTQ community and its progressive allies, including racial justice groups, organized labor, and immigrant advocates. Much like LGBTQ people, those groups frequently find themselves under siege from right-wing lawmakers across the country.

Born and raised in Colorado by politically engaged parents, Carey became active at an early age, knocking on doors and handing out fliers supporting various candidates for office. As an adult, she joined the HIV prevention movement, before moving on to LGBTQ youth issues as the executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition. Years later, she served as a consultant for a number of LGBTQ-focused clients before eventually landing at the National LGBTQ Task Force in 2004 as its deputy executive director.

Even though Carey is keenly aware of the uphill battles that the LGBTQ community and its allies face, she couldn’t be any less hopeful that we will rise to the challenge.

“I do not buy into [the idea] that people are born leaders. I believe people can express leadership in extraordinary ways if given the opportunity,” she says. “When there is an utter vacuum not only of leadership, but of moral leadership, I believe that the LGBTQ community is in a unique position to step up and show leadership in thousands of ways across the country.”

Some of those future leaders will travel to Washington this weekend to take part in Creating Change, an annual five-day conference, produced by the Task Force, that seeks to connect LGBTQ activists with one another and serve as a sounding board for ideas on how to achieve major goals related to equality.

Carey notes that each individual activist at Creating Change will have their own interests, special skills, or areas of expertise, creating a breadth and depth of experience on which the equality movement can rely. By employing different strategies, each person can make their own contributions, whether it’s passing comprehensive nondiscrimination laws, or defeating bills that would legalize various forms of discrimination.

“I think for our community to be able to assert who we are, to be able to stand up and say, ‘Yes, this is who I am, this is what I deserve, this is my family, this is who I wanna be,’ takes tremendous strength given the odds, and given what we are sometimes up against,” says Carey. “Creating Change provides an opportunity for people to come together to be all of who they are, to learn, and to go home and get to work.”

Rea Carey — Photo: Julian Vankim

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your childhood and upbringing.

REA CAREY: I was born in Boulder, and grew up in Denver, Colorado. I have one brother, with whom I’m very close. And my family, they were grassroots politically active. I was a little, itty bitty kid, and what we did on weekends was to go knock on doors, hand out fliers, and talk to people. I later realized not every family did that.

My mom was, at the time, very involved in juvenile justice, criminal justice issues, women’s issues. Both of my parents were involved in political work. And what it taught me, or maybe what I just absorbed, is that people can get involved and work together, because we worked with groups of people you’d meet in the morning and then you’d start knocking on doors and everything.

MW: What was your personality like when you were a child?

CAREY: I was a baby lesbian jock all the way. And a wonk, I would say. I went to public schools all the way through. And, interestingly, during the ’70s, with what was happening in the country in terms of segregation and desegregation of schools, our neighborhood was very racially diverse. I was a jock, I played soccer, I played volleyball, I skied — I’m a Coloradan, of course — and was very involved in my school in a variety of ways.

MW: When did you realize that you were a lesbian?

CAREY: I knew from a very young age. When I went to elementary school, I didn’t know I was a “lesbian,” because the words that were used for being a lesbian were very derogatory, and what I felt didn’t feel bad. I had crushes on all my girl classmates. But I knew that I was different, and I knew that it had something to do with being attracted to other girls.

Eventually, I learned that they weren’t all derogatory words, and I could be proud of who I was. Now, it’s incredible: There are so many people coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer in elementary school and junior high school and high school. But at that time, that wasn’t really the case. I came out at 16 and there were other people who were identifying at least as lesbian and gay and bisexual in our high school. So we had our own group of folks that we knew we’d be safe with.

MW: What was your parents’ reaction when you came out?

CAREY: Well, it’s funny, because actually when I say I “came out,” I came out to some people, and I didn’t have to come out to others. I actually don’t remember coming out to my mom, because she already knew. In fact, when I look back on coming out, I think the very first person I came out to was my brother, and told him who I was, what my experience was, who I am in the world. And he was — and is — incredibly supportive, as were my parents.

My dad, in particular, was concerned about my safety. I think he worried quite a bit and had to deal with his own feelings around that. But my parents were very supportive. And I think, in large part, because growing up they had friends who were gay, people I continue to call my uncles.

I am incredibly fortunate, because I didn’t have to face as much of the discrimination as so many other people do. I am forever grateful for that, because I think it’s allowed me to move into this work over the years from a place of wholeness and pride, and pride in our community. There were odds and ends of homophobic things that happened to me, but certainly nothing on the scale that so many people unfortunately experience.

MW: Where did you go to college?

CAREY: First, I went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a big culture shock for me. I was coming from Colorado to Connecticut, I hadn’t spent a lot of time on the East Coast. I also went to a high school that was majority people of color. And then I went to a college where I think in my entering a class of seven hundred or so, there were seven people of color. Given my experience growing up and my life, that was a big cultural difference.

One of the things that was happening in my life, starting in high school, is that my friends, and other people who I heard about, were getting infected with HIV. I remember the first newspaper articles that came out about this unusual illness that a few gay men were getting. I lost my uncle’s partner to what was then called GRID — Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome. So, even before it was AIDS, even before they had identified it, people in my life were getting sick.

When I went to college, as someone who is out and someone who was very aware that this was going to have an impact on our generation, I started a speakers’ bureau. It was a handful of us who were out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, going to different dorms and houses, answering questions and talking about our lives. We’d have a little forum or something, or a little coffee thing, and people could come and just ask questions.

I ended up transferring to Smith College, where I graduated. I became a member of, and then eventually was the chair of, the Lesbian Alliance. We eventually changed the name to the Lesbian Bisexual Alliance. At the time, we thought it might be so controversial, but we decided to change the name when we applied for our budget. And then the next year, it was just in the system. I tell that story to highlight the biphobia at the time, and that continues, unfortunately, to exist in our community. But also because it taught me a lesson about how to use a system for change — if you write it down on a piece of paper, and that piece of paper gets taken by the administration to list the clubs the next year, it is so. Looking back on it, I try to think about what we can get changed that could have a longer-term impact.

METRO WEEKLY: How did you end up in D.C.?

CAREY: I moved back to Denver, hoping to live there, work there, maybe even eventually run for office. But Denver was going through a big recession, and it was just really hard to find a job. So I came to D.C. in 1989 for what I planned on being two years, and then I’d go back to grad school or something. My very first job in D.C. was as an administrative aide for an organization that, at the time, was called The National Network of Runaway and Youth Services.

Think about this. In 1989, they had not come up with any of the HIV drugs that we have now. No one wanted to talk about kids having sex, no one wanted to talk about queer kids, and there were a set of organizations that did. And I was very fortunate to be a part of that work. It was called the Safe Choices Project and was funded by the CDC. Over a period of a couple of years, I got to be a trainer with that project and travel around the country and work with people in runaway and homeless youth shelters and young people themselves to train them how to do HIV prevention.

When I came to D.C., I was doing that work, and started lobbying on The Hill, trying to get funding and attention for HIV prevention. I was also an ACT UP here in D.C., and another direct action and activist group, OUT. And I was not unusual in doing so.

When I look back at that time and what we were up against, and our friends were dying daily, we were all doing everything we possibly could. And sometimes we tried to play off each other, “Well, you can deal with those activists in the street, or you can have this conversation with me in your congressional office.” And then the next day we’d switch.

We all came together, and created an organization that eventually became known as the National Youth Advocacy Coalition. We were focused on youth leadership. We had these national and regional summits where we’d bring youth together to learn skills, share experiences so they didn’t feel so alone, and be able to go back to their communities and organize. I became the first executive director of that organization.

In this country we have never won a civil right for any community based on one strategy or one tactic. It takes lobbying, it takes talking to our friends and neighbors, sometimes it takes civil disobedience, it takes doing the hard work of sometimes working with governments. But it takes a lot of different strategies. As I’ve moved on in my career, like the lessons that I had learned before, knocking on the doors counts, talking to your neighbors counts, what gets written down on the form counts, and so do many different strategies to move us forward as a people.

Rea Carey — Photo: Julian Vankim

MW: How long did you work at NYAC?

CAREY: I was there for a little over six years. We did advocacy, we worked on Capitol Hill, we worked with the administration at that time to make sure that we were trying to get data, trying to get lesbian and gay youth included in surveys. It was very important to us to get questions on something called the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which happens in every state. And then, nationally, we wanted to have questions around sexual orientation, and eventually gender identity, so we could advocate for money and programs to serve LGBTQ youth, and we were very successful.

MW: Where did you go from there?

CAREY: I wrapped up my work at NYAC, and I decided to go back to grad school. In some ways I think it was to recuperate from coming here, from being an executive director, and to get some reflection on, “Okay, what has gone on the last decade of my life?”

I got a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. I focused in particular on leadership, studying and working on leadership development in the nonprofit sector. When I finished, I wanted to consult with a number of nonprofits. I worked with a group here called the Management Assistance Group. And then also went out on my own to work with nonprofits particularly around strategic planning and leadership development. I was doing consulting and worked with a number of clients, one of whom was what was then called the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. And I worked on their strategic plan in 2003. I met their incoming executive director, Matt Foreman. And Matt hired me to come onto staff, first as a senior strategist, and then, shortly after, as his deputy executive director in 2004.

The rest is history, as they say. I was deputy executive director for four and a half years under Matt’s leadership. When he left, I wasn’t interested in becoming the executive director. I loved my job, and was excited to see who we might be able to bring on, and there were many exciting people, I think, who absolutely could have been executive director. But long story short, the board approached me and asked me if I would consider it, and I did, and I’ve been executive director since 2008.

MW: What is the difference between the National LGBTQ Task Force and other LGBTQ groups?

CAREY: One of the things that drew me to the Task Force, long before I was on staff, are its values. We now describe ourselves as a racial, economic, and social justice organization that serves the LGBT community.

What our values stem from is an understanding that each of us is a whole person. We can’t ask someone to be a lesbian one day, Latinx the next, and a parent the third day. We are all of who we are every day. So when I think about the Task Force’s work, it stems from recognizing that there are a broad range of issues that affect the lives of LGBTQ people.

We are often the organization, over the years, that has put forth that voting rights is an LGBTQ issue, that immigration is an LGBTQ issue, that criminal justice is an LGBTQ issue. And even when we look at some of the other issues that the community has worked, like marriage equality, or even “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Task Force’s take on those tends to be through the racial, economic and social justice lens.

I’ll give you an example. We started the first project to work against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The Task Force has long believed that if there is a military and people get to choose to be in it, then LGBTQ people absolutely should have the right to choose. Everyone should have access. We also know that for some people in society, and some people in this country, there are very few opportunities for an affordable education or job training or skills. And one of the few places they can get that is the military. So, as an economic justice matter, if we are denying access to the military, we’re denying access to people from education, from healthcare, and from job skills.

MW: What are some of your biggest concerns with the current administration?

CAREY: I would say, among the many, many things that give me pause, there are a few that are a threat. One is the threat to democracy. And those who know me know I am not prone to hyperbole. But I think we are seeing threats to democracy and an undermining of not only the administration, but Congress and the courts. Number two, the ascension of a racist white supremacist and religiously conservative point of view. And three, to emphasize a piece of that, the use of institutions in the government to systematically allow for religion to be used as an excuse to discriminate against not just the LGBTQ community, but others as well.

We, as an organization, are literally trying to track the dozens and dozens of harmful, outrageous things this government, this administration has done to harm LGBTQ people. And that includes LGBTQ immigrants, it includes LGBTQ Muslims, it includes LGBTQ young people, and, in some ways, they are countless. But we are seeing some trends. I think we have seen some trends in anti-trans actions taken by this government, anti-immigrant actions taken by this government, and the executive order put out last spring where Trump asked his agencies to come up with how they were going to allow people to use their religious beliefs to discriminate against others. And it is one of the most terrifying things for our community that’s come down the pike in a long time.

MW: How should the LGBTQ community fight back?

CAREY: There are short-term and long-term actions we have to take. First and foremost, we have to call out what’s going on with this government. The other thing I would say is that democracy is not a passive endeavor. We have to vote, even when the odds are against us. People have to get involved.

I was so heartened by what happened on election day in 2017. And I think a lot of people around this country were given hope, particularly in our community, to see the number of transgender candidates get elected, to see a Sikh mayor being elected, to see people of color around this country being elected. It gave me energy. And I know, having talked to many other people around the country, it’s giving other people energy.

We have to take that energy and focus and move forward. There are primary elections coming up, there are ballot measures coming up, most states are in legislative sessions now, and we have to be awake and pay attention, fight against not only explicitly anti-LGBTQ legislation or ballot measures, but the anti-immigrant bills. We’re seeing a lot of anti-labor work going on in terms of minimum wage.

In the long-term, I think about how do we get our community to focus on redistricting? How do we get our community to focus on voting? I think we saw just in Virginia, literally every vote counts. Control of the legislature just turned by one vote and a drawing from a ceramic bowl. Every vote counts. If we ever doubted that, we know that now.

But also, I think community engagement. This is always true for me as an activist, but it is particularly true with this administration. And it’s not just getting elected to office or voting, it’s if there is a discussion in your school classroom, what can you bring to the discussion that brings a different perspective? If you’re at work and someone says something that you disagree with, figure out how to have a conversation about it and give your perspective. And organize, organize, organize.

And I say that not only as someone who’s been an organizer for my whole career, but we’re about to have over 3,500 people here in Washington, D.C. from all across the country who are coming together to teach each other, to learn from each other, and to go home and organize.

MW: Since you just referenced Creating Change, what has the conference done to benefit the larger LGBTQ community?

CAREY: The power of Creating Change over three decades is that, now, probably four generations of LGBTQ people and our allies have come together to learn from each other, to make connections with each other.

In the early years of our movement, before the Internet, there were a lot of people who really were alone. They felt alone, they couldn’t connect with other people, there were very few places they could learn how to be an activist, how to make a difference in their community, and Creating Change has been that place.

We have been very intentional over the last number of years to have Creating Change really be about the broader progressive movement. We have people come to Creating Change from the reproductive rights movement, from voting rights, from immigrant rights, from so many different movements, coming together to share strategies. And I think that’s a big shift in the country, it’s a big shift in the progressive movement, it’s certainly a big shift in the LGBTQ movement, that the Task Force and the Creating Change Conference has helped to make happen, which is seeing the connections between issues. It’s not just Muslims who are being attacked, it’s not just immigrants, it’s not just LGBTQ people, it’s not just women, it’s all of us.

I would also add that over the years Creating Change has helped to incubate dozens and dozens of organizations. We have an extraordinary program of workshops and plenaries and caucuses. And a lot of the work happens in the hallways, or people grabbing a coffee together, or late night saying, “Hey, I have this idea to create this thing at my school. Has anyone else done this?” And, sure enough, someone will say, “Yeah, here’s how I did it. Let me tell you that story.” And then they help that person go home and create something at their school. Or they found a new organization where one didn’t exist. I think that shows how powerful it is when people come together and actually recognize that we are the experts — that we all, as activists across the country, are the experts. And we can teach each other how to create change.

Rea Carey — Photo: Julian Vankim

MW: How do you train people at Creating Change to take their message to a larger, non-LGBTQ audience?

CAREY: There are probably some folks that, no matter what we do, are simply not going to be supportive of LGBTQ people in their lives. However, there are many people in this country, and I think that we saw this during the marriage [fight], who, even as an entry point, would say, “Well, I really don’t believe that LGBTQ people should have rights or that you should be able to get married, but you’re my cousin and I love you.”

Now, many of those people, thousands of those people, with a lot of work and a lot of conversation and a lot of education, and, frankly, a lot of risky conversations that people had with their own family members or coworkers, moved in terms of how they felt about marriage.

There are many other issues that are far more challenging than marriage that we’re dealing with. But I do believe that we can’t give up on asserting who we are, and in talking to other people about our lives. Some of those people will change their minds and some of them won’t. I would give as an example something that the Task Force has done over the last decade, which is we have long been known as the organization that trains people in grassroots organizing. We’ve done it, as far as I know, since we were founded.

And we realized, through the ’90s and into the 2000s, that we were being challenged to make progress because of the religious right. Faith has long been used as a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and not just in marriage. Recognizing this and learning from the last many years, the Task Force has adapted. The majority of our grassroots organizing work [is] with progressive people of faith. It is, in fact, our largest program at the Task Force, which some people don’t know. We work with people, we partner with faith leaders, we train progressive people of faith, we engage people of faith across the country in campaigns.

And it’s making a difference. What we know is that there are many people of faith who believe it is immoral to discriminate against LGBTQ people. You would not know that paying attention to the public dialogue on marriage in the early part of this century. But we have seen such power across the country when progressive people of faith give voice to what they believe. And they are talking to other people of faith, including conservative people in faith.

We had an extraordinary experience after the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando where one of our organizers who is a person of faith reached out to an Evangelical pastor. And that pastor eventually apologized for the role they played in Florida that created a climate where anyone would think it is okay to discriminate or cause violence or murder an LGBTQ person. And she ended up preaching to his church. That’s change.

MW: How do you feel about the future of the LGBTQ movement?

CAREY: If there is one thing I know about our community, it is that we are resilient and we are hellbent on survival. We have seen that for decades. We have seen it through institutionalization and shock therapy decades and decades ago, through conversion therapy now, through the AIDS crisis, through violent attacks on trans women of color, through police raids on our community institutions. We are a community that is resilient and survives, and that gives me hope.

Creating Change runs through Jan. 28 at the Marriott Wardman Park, 2600 Woodley Rd. NW. For more information, visit creatingchange.org.

For more information on the National LGBTQ Task Force, visit thetaskforce.org.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com